Memory Articles


By Annie Murphy Paul – Jan. 09, 2013

In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us — from schoolchildren to college students to working adults — needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests Learning Techniques #1that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have now done the job for us. In a comprehensive reportreleased on Jan. 9 by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely examine 10 learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed. Here is a quick guide to the report’s conclusions:

The Worst 

Learning Techniques #2Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common  exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

The Best

In contrast to familiar practices like highlighting and rereading, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outsideLearning Techniques #3 the psych lab. Take distributed practice, for example. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions, rather than engaging in one marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. Yes, more tests — but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy — despite the robust evidence supporting it — there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards. And now flash cards can be presented in digital form, via apps like “Quizlet,” StudyBlue” and “Flashcard Machine.” Both spaced-out learning, or distributed practice, and practice tests were rated as having “high utility” by the authors.

The Rest

The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground — not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up Learning Techniques #4with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over  (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar — so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word).

All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards.



By Annie Murphy Paul – Aug. 01, 2012

It’s rare that a computer science lab brings us a scenario worthy of a spy novel, but that’s what happened earlier this month when Hristo Bojinov, a researcher at Stanford University, divulged hisLearning Techniques #5 latest project. Here’s the setup: Imagine an operative has been entrusted with top-secret computer files. He needs a password to enable him to access the information — but what if he falls into the hands of the enemy, and they force him to reveal the code? Bojinov and his colleagues concocted the perfect solution: a password that the spy could use any time he needed it, but which was not available to his conscious mind. He couldn’t give up the code to his captors even if he wanted to. In effect, the scientists would be hiding the password in the brain of the spy.

As cloak-and-dagger as it sounds, the technique the Stanford scientists have developed takes advantage of a common phenomenon known as implicit learning. This is the absorption of information without conscious intent or awareness, and all of us are doing it all of the time. It’s how a young child can put together a coherent sentence without knowing the rules of English grammar; it’s how a longtime fisherman knows that the weather will be good and the fish will be biting, based on shades of the sea and sky that others wouldn’t notice and he couldn’t explain. Still not persuaded? If you’re reading this at a computer, try reciting the letters that make up the middle row of keys on your keyboard. (No peeking!) Likely you couldn’t reel off “A-S-D-F-G-H-J-K-L” — and  yet you’ve implicitly learned the location of those letters (unless you type hunt-and-peck style). Bojinov’s study, which he will present next month at a gathering of computer security experts, showed that volunteers in the lab could be trained to learn a 30-digit password by playing a computer game in which the password was embedded.

Learning Techniques #6Although the rest of us don’t have access to Bojinov’s technology, there are ways to improve our implicit learning. First: give your mind plenty of material to work with. Research suggests that we acquire a complex skill, such as speaking a foreign language, more readily when we’re exposed to many different examples of that skill in action. In a study published earlier this year, for example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago reported that people learning a new language showed “native-like language processing” on brain scans when they received implicit training (immersion in the speech of a variety of different speakers, but not when they received explicit training (instruction focused on the grammar of the language).

Second, we all know we have to practice a skill to get better at it, but the improvement we’re aware of making is only part of what’s going on. Well past the point when we think we’ve “got it,” continued practice allows our brain and our muscles to become more accurate and efficient in carrying out the task, even using less energy to do so. In an experiment published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year, study subjects who learned to manipulate a robotic arm needed to use progressively less effort to make the same movement, offering evidence that repeated practice allows the nervous system to continue refining the current skill, even as we may be itching to tackle the next one.Learning Techniques #7

And lastly, the easiest way of all to improve implicit learning: sleep. Research has shown that during sleep, the brain identifies meaningful patterns in our memories from the preceding day and “consolidates” them, or makes them stronger and more permanent. In a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2007, for example, researchers asked adult subjects to engage in a training session in which they implicitly learned the  rules of a task performed on the computer (researchers knew the subjects were learning the rules because they could complete the task faster, though they couldn’t say why or how). After a night of sleep, the subjects were tested again, and shaved nearly ten more seconds off their reaction time. The “off-line learning process that continues after practice has ended,” the researcher concluded “is crucially enhanced by sleep.” Follow these tips, and you’ll get better before you know it.