Project Description

Overall Thoughts

Seminal book on learning and memory that condenses a lifetime’s work of two cognitive scientists who have built deep expertise in translating cognitive science into educational science. The book is replete with important insights for parents, teachers and students – a must read, given that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort. 

Key Highlights


  1. Learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.
  2. The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your “preferred learning style”, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research. [This runs counter to widely circulated ideas on the necessity of delivering education to students in ways that align with their natural “learning styles”]
  3. You learn better when you “go wide,” drawing on all of your aptitudes – than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.
  4. If memorization is irrelevant to complex problem solving, don’t tell your neurosurgeon.”
  5. Rereading has three strikes against it.
    1. It is time consuming.
    2. It doesn’t result in durable memory.
    3. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery.

On Elaboration

  1. If you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn.
  2. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later. 
  3. A powerful form of elaboration is to discover a metaphor or visual image for the new material. 
  4. Elaboration improves your mastery of new material and multiplies the mental cues available to you for later recall and application of it.

On Active Retrieval

  1. In very short order we lose something like 70 percent of what we’ve just heard or read. After that, forgetting begins to slow, and the last 30 percent or so falls away more slowly, but the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.
  2. One of the most striking research findings is the power of active retrieval—testing—to strengthen memory, and that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit. 
  3. Testing typically has been used as simply a dipstick to measure learning (timed examinations are the most ubiquitous forms of ‘tests’) — but when used constructively and consciously, testing is actually a very powerful tool for anyone wanting to learn new things.
  4. One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.
  5. Practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material does.
  6. To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall requires some cognitive effort.

Generating Questions for yourself

  1. When you read a new book or text, pause periodically to ask yourself questions like: (without looking back at the text, of course):
    • What are the key ideas?
    • What terms or ideas are new to me?
    • How would I define them?
    • How do the ideas relate to what I already know?
  2. Generating questions for yourself and writing down (your own) answers is also a good way to study. 
  3. Let’s say an article you read takes eight pages when printed, and comprises of twenty paragraphs. For each of the paragraphs you read, would you be able to convert the main point of these into a series of questions and later try to answer them? Have you at least rephrased the main ideas in your own words? Have you tried to relate them to to what you already know? Did you spend a minute or two looking for examples outside the article?

On Retrieval Practice

  1. Quizzing provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you haven’t yet mastered. Moreover, quizzing arrests forgetting. Forgetting is human nature, but practice at recalling new learning secures it in memory and helps you recall it in the future. 
  2. “Retrieval practice” means self-quizzing. Retrieving knowledge and skill from memory should become your primary study strategy in place of rereading.
  3. Set aside a little time every week throughout the year to quiz yourself on the material in a course, both the current week’s work and material covered in prior weeks. 
  4. Use quizzing to identify areas of weak mastery, and focus your studying to make them strong. 
  5. When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed (i.e, all at once / bunched-up). 
  6. The way you probe your memory matters: Tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short-answer test, or simply practice with flashcards, appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false tests. 
  7. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. 
  8. The harder it is for you to recall new learning from memory, the greater the benefit of doing so. 
  9. Every time you work hard to recall a memory, you actually strengthen it. If you restudy something after failing to recall it, you actually learn it better than if you had not tried to recall it
  10. Establish a schedule of self-quizzing that allows time to elapse between study sessions. For example, you could allow a week to pass, or three, or even five. 
  11. Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory.
  12. Another way of spacing retrieval practice is to interleave the study of two or more topics, so that alternating between them requires that you continually refresh your mind on each topic as you return to it.
  13. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.
  14. When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.

For Teachers

  1. Create Desirable Difficulties in the Classroom;Where practical, use frequent quizzing to help students consolidate learning and interrupt the process of forgetting. 
  2. Create study tools that incorporate retrieval practice, generation, and elaboration.
  3. Design quizzing and exercises to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term, so that retrieval practice continues and the learning is cumulative, helping students to construct more complex mental models, strengthen conceptual learning, and develop deeper understanding of the relationships between ideas or systems. 
  4. Space, interleave, and vary topics and problems covered in class so that students are frequently shifting gears as they have to “reload” what they already know about each topic in order to figure out how the new material relates or differs.
  5. Clear learning objectives prior to each class, coupled with daily quizzing and active problem solving with feedback, keep students focused, awake, and working hard. 

Three Notes to Students

  1. Embrace the fact that significant learning is often, or even usually, somewhat difficult. You will experience setbacks. These are signs of effort, not of failure. Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise. Effortful learning changes your brain, making new connections, building mental models, increasing your capability.
  2. Your grasp of unfamiliar material often starts out feeling clumsy and approximate. But once you engage the mind in trying to make sense of something new, the mind begins to “knit” at the problem on its own. You don’t engage the mind by reading a text over and over again or by passively watching PowerPoint slides. You engage it by making the effort to explain the material yourself, in your own words—connecting the facts, making it vivid, relating it to what you already know.
  3. Learning, like writing, is an act of engagement. Struggling with the puzzle stirs your creative juices, sets the mind to looking for parallels and metaphors from elsewhere in your experience, knowledge that can be transferred and applied here. It makes you hungry for the solution. And the solution, when you arrive at it, becomes more deeply embedded with your prior knowledge and abilities than anything pasted onto the surface of your brain by PowerPoint.