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I've got a problem; I forget many things I learned in the past. I study at university, it's my 4th year. I am almost done, but I guess I'm in big trouble. Many tasks I got I just can't solve and it seems like I am close to explosion.

At school I was rather good at math and decided to go to CS. At my 1st year I was studying linear algebra, mathematical analysis, basic algorithms. In my 2nd year I continued to study mathematical analysis, started studying differential equations, discrete math. In my 3rd year there were numerical methods, mathematical physics, functional analysis.

Now I study the same things as in my 3rd year but at a deeper level and I really don't understand. When I ask teachers about some things I don't understand they go like "actually, you are supposed to know it from previous courses, young man"

Well, in the first 2 years somehow I was passing exams and doing some homework. But after that I started to realize that I don't remember some parts of what I've studied before! Like rings, even simple trigonometric things which I learned in school! I think I can say that my knowledge looks like cheese with big holes and I don't know how to help myself. Maybe somebody has been in such a situation like mine and could give me some advice?

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I'd say the best approach is to really understand it. Let it become your intuition, then you'll never forget it.Just like you never forget how to ride a bike once you know how to. –  chaohuang Dec 18 '13 at 20:13

3 Answers 3

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How Memory Works

The problem is generally not that the concepts have been deleted from your brain, but rather that you are having trouble recalling them. Imagine an enormous room full of filing cabinets full of index cards. All the information you ever learned is on those cards somewhere. The problem is finding it.

Now, our memories are designed so that we remember the things that are most 'useful' for us to remember. Unfortunately, what our brain defines as 'useful' aren't necessarily the ones that help us pass exams. Rather, they tend to be the ones that our ancestors found valuable for survival. Going back to the room full of index cards - it's like you've got a quick reference book to help you find important cards, and your brain is constantly updating that reference book. Unfortunately, however, the part of your brain that does these updates is "stupid" in the same way that computers are stupid - it has no real understanding of the information on the cards. The best it can do, then, is follow an algorithm (albeit a clever one) that was designed to provide rapid access to the information that helped our ancestors survive.

What We Remember

As a result of this algorithm, then, our memories tend to work best for things that:

  • Are useful to solve practical problems
  • Are concrete examples of ideas
  • Are Surprising or otherwise emotionally charged
  • Relate to other things you know
  • Were learned recently
  • Are simple
  • Have been experienced personally
  • Have been encountered by a variety of senses
  • Were learned in a similar context to the one in which you're trying to recall them

Embrace Good Teaching

Many of the tasks that are set by teachers are designed (at least in part) to get information to stick. By practising these tasks, we typically improve our ability to recall the things we're being taught. One of the main things to do when studying is to engage in these activities as fully and enthusiastically as possible.

For example, writing essays helps us structure our memories, gives us opportunities to build connections between ideas, helps us rehearse concrete examples of ideas, provides repetition, and so on. Similarly, practical exercises give us concrete experience, help us build mental pictures and provide multi-sensory experiences.

One of the benefits of your 4th year studies is that they will force you to go back and find the holes in your recall process, and help you to patch them. You should be able to use your notes and text books from previous courses to revise old concepts and get up to speed on them again. Of course, you may no longer have access to these resources, in which case you may need to insist that your tutors point you in the direction of some basic texts etc. from which you can re-learn the required concepts. You're more likely to get support in this if you (1) demonstrate that you're making an effort yourself, (2) ask very specific questions, and (3) show appropriate respect and appreciation.

Use Specific Techniques

There are also a variety of specific techniques that tap in to your recall mechanism to enable you to remember facts and lists etc. Things like mnemonics, word-association and so on. I'm not going in to detail here as I'm sure you can Google them for yourself.

Remove Impediments

Finally, there are a variety of factors that can recall. By eliminating these you're more likely to remember things that you need to remember:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Fear
  • Alcohol and drugs (but don't stop taking prescription medicines without consulting your GP first)
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor nutrition or hydration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Distraction

See the Big Picture

Don't be overly concerned with forgetting things.

Learning specific facts and concepts is only one of the benefits of study. Whilst this is immensely valuable, there are other, even greater benefits: thinking skills, the ability to apply our learning, the chance to develop our own way of looking at the world, the opportunity to discuss ideas with other people, life-long study habits... let alone the whole social and life-experience side of things.

Consider this: many of the things you learn today will be of little use in your future career. That isn't to say that they aren't worth learning. Indeed, the learning process itself is invaluable, and many of the concepts behind what you're learning now will be transferable to other situations in your future. At the same time, however, you needn't be too concerned if some of the ideas slip away, as long as you can keep up with the rest of your studies and as long as you can pass your exams and assessments.

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That's completely normal. I might be wrong but to attain a degree, the volume of information that you cover is far more than you can hope to remember. The aim behind covering a lot of courses is to develop an understanding of the tools you have available as you move ahead in your field, not to memorize every esoteric technique covered.

In a typical CS course, other than the core subjects of data structures, algorithms, databases and operating systems, you tend to forget most of the other stuff you learned. However, a few days of revision is generally enough to get back at least a working knowledge of the subject quickly.

I am not sure if this would extend to a purely math based course, but its worth a shot.

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Remembering things can be challenging. An effective counter is to keep notes, and review and revise periodically. Notes could be kept in most any format or system, but I've lately been using Evernote. With notebooks, tags, and searchability, notes can easily be organized and classified, and sought out again as needed. If I realize the need for a new topic, I add a note (or notebook). If I find new information, I can add to existing notes. I find it a much more effective way than trying to internalize everything. A well-organized reference system will help you retrieve information when you need it.

This applies outside of school as well. If you are learning, say, history on your own initiative, keep notes!

Source: I'm in university too

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