Quartz #69—>The Most Effective Memory Methods are Difficult—and That's Why They Work

Here is the full text of my 69th Quartz column, "The most effective memory methods are difficult—and that's why they work," now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. It was first published on August 8, 2018. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

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© August 8, 2018: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2020. All rights reserved.

The column itself is between divider lines. Below the text of the column itself are some passages that were cut to keep the column tight, plus suggested reading.

In the 2014 book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learningauthors Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel describe which learning techniques work, and which ones don’t. I can distill their message into one sentence:

If it isn’t making you feel stupid, it isn’t helping you learn.

Since most people like to feel smart, they run away in terror from learning techniques that make them feel dumb. Instead, they mistakenly focus on methods that give them the satisfaction of feeling like they’re improving in real time. Some of the most common ones are:

  • rereading a textbook

  • underlining and highlighting key themes

  • burning an idea into your memory by going over it again and again and again in a single intense session

  • waiting until you fully understand an idea to try to apply it or explain it

But unfortunately, any improvements made evaporate quickly with these methods.

What makes knowledge and understanding stick in the long run is studying in a way that guarantees that you fail and fail and fail. Testing your knowledge and understanding in ways that make you realize what you don’t know is the rocky path to genuine learning. The details are in a battalion of studies the authors cite—many in which they participated. These studies make the key points: testing your memory, mixing things up with different kinds of conceptsestablishing memory cues, and generally making things hard on yourself are crucial.

It’s a no pain, no gain philosophy. After all, real life is hard—it taxes your memory, mixes things up, and rarely gives you multiple choice options. Any approach to learning that isn’t hard won’t match what you experience in real life.

There are three key activities that effectively sear what you want to learn into your long-term memory:

  1. Doing things in real life, or in a simulation as close to the real thing as possible.

  2. Flashcards done right.

  3. Building your own picture and story of the ideas.

Let’s dig into each of these in turn.

“Practice like you play, and you’ll play like you practice.”

This is a key bit of folk wisdom endorsed by the authors of Make It Stick. The military conducts war games. Pilots train on simulators. Footballers practice scrimmages against second-string “scout teams” who mimic the strategies of their next opponents. If you only run the drills in optimal, predictable conditions, you’re never going to be prepared for a curveball. (Quite literally in the case of baseball—practicing hitting unpredictable pitches has been shown to do a lot more good than concentrating on hitting one type of pitch at a time.)

If you are a student, you need to do practice exams under conditions that are as close as possible to the real ones. If you aren’t allowed notes on the real exam, don’t allow yourself any notes when you do a practice exam. If you have to write an essay on the real exam, force yourself to really write an essay for the practice exam. Most importantly, do the practice exam under exactly the same time limits as the real exam. That way you can learn whether you get flustered by time limits and if there are things you get right but can’t do fast enough yet.

In non-academic settings, you can’t expect to learn much by just watching. For example, you can drive to the store 20 times while relaxing in the passenger seat and still not know the route yourself. But once or twice driving there yourself—making your own mistakes along the way and correcting them—and you’ll have the route nailed.

In the modern era, we’re often in the driver’s seat physically, turning the steering wheel, but rely so heavily on directions from our smartphones that we still don’t learn how to get from point A to point B. If you are sure a crutch will always be there for you, then using it counts as “practicing like you play.” But practicing with a crutch doesn’t prepare you well for a time when the crutch isn’t there.

The work counterpart to having someone else drive is letting the IT department just fix your computer problem rather than first trying fix it yourself. It is awfully hard to learn how to do something without doing it, however messy or unsuccessful your attempt.

Recall a piece of information repeatedly

Most of the information we absorb in a typical day is not only forgettable: It should be quickly forgotten. Do you really want to remember forever all the menu items you didn’t choose for lunch or what all the strangers you passed today on the sidewalk were wearing?

So how does your brain know whether something should be put into your long-term memory or not? Research finds that that attempting to remember an item repeatedly over an extended period of time is what puts it into long-term memory.

This means you need to intentionally try to retrieve items from your memory repeatedly to make them stick. The catch is that you can’t wait too long, nor try to solidify it too fast. If you try to remember too late after the fact, the original memory will be nowhere to be found; but if you wait only a few minutes to try to remember something, it’s too quick for you to signal your brain to put it into long-term memory. The key is to space out the attempts to remember in just the right way. The extensive references in Make It Stick include quite a bit of detail, but those results aren’t likely to be as useful as experimenting with the frequency and spacing that works best for yourself.

Done right, flashcards, whether they’re physical or virtual, are a great way to do memory retrieval practice. This is because they help space out attempts to remember an item, and you can come back to them easily periodically. But flashcards require some discipline in order to help. The number one principle is that you need to guess the answer before looking at the back of the card. Even if you think it is hopeless for you to remember, try. Sometimes you will surprise yourself. But even when you guess hilariously wrong, that effort of guessing carves out a space in your mind for the real answer to go—and you’ll definitely remember that’s not the right result next time.

The second principle is that you need to make it hard. Wait long enough between practice sessions—or put enough flashcards in the deck—that by the time a card comes around, you have to struggle to remember it. Third, cards you think you have down can be put in a slower rotation—but they shouldn’t go out of the rotation entirely. (Cards you make a mistake on can be put in a faster rotation.)

Another way to make memory-retrieval practice harder and really get your brain working is to shuffle in different kinds of tasks. The benefit of “interleaving” is one of the most surprising results from the research on learning, but it has been verified over and over again, such as in the batting practice study.

For example, if you are studying German vocabulary, have half the cards with German on top so you have to try to remember the English equivalent, and half the cards with English on top so you have to try to remember the German.  If you are using an app, choose one that switches between different types of challenges—like Duolingo, which tests you on verbal, aural, and text-based examples simultaneously—or go back and forth between apps on different subjects.

Teach what you are learning—if only to yourself

If you want to learn something you were taught or heard about, write about it in your own words, from memory, after the fact. It is great if you can find someone else to teach what you are learning to, but this principle works even if you just pretend to teach it.

If you had to explain things without notes, based only on your memory, what would you say? What are the most important ideas? How do they hook together? Why should your listener care about the ideas? Trying to figure out how to teach something not only involves a lot of retrieving things from memory—it also involves putting things together in a structure that creates a lot of memory cues. This creates hooks to hang the memories on and drag them out of hiding when you need them.

Another great way to teach yourself this structure-building skill is to try to guess where a teacher or manager is going next when they’re explaining a concept. Here you are harnessing the power of surprise and your competitive spirit to imprint things on your memory. If you made the right guess, you won; if not, it was a surprise. Either way, it will be more memorable.

The same technique will help you understand someone else’s point of view. In conversation, instead of trying to think of what you are going to say next or interrupting when you think you already know where things are going, say silently to yourself exactly what you think the other person will say next—then notice where you guessed wrong. Not only will you perhaps learn something you didn’t know—you’ll also be a better conversation partner.

Here are some passages that were cut, plus some further reading if you want to dig into this issue.

When people think of technological progress, they usually think of technological progress in the natural sciences and their applied wings: physics, biology, engineering and medicine, for example. Bu at least one area of the social sciences where technological progress has the potential to make a major difference to conventionally-measured GDP: the science of learning and teaching. Between learning and teaching, the science of learning comes first, since teaching is nothing more than helping someone to learn.

Some of the most exciting science about learning comes from psychologists rather than education school professors. ...

Implications for teaching. For teachers, this research on learning points to the value of anything that gets students to work hard during class. For example it helps to get students up to the board, to give them mini-quizzes or questions they answer with clickers, or to have students write a few sentences about what they learned at the end of class. But what really works for lasting learning is so individualized that classroom techniques only go so far.

In an extensive 2017 survey of randomized field experiments of schooling, Harvard economist Roland Fryer finds that tutoring is one of the few educational interventions with big effects. One likely reason for this is that tutors quite naturally challenge students in the way the ideal flashcard app would, as well as challenging students to explain concepts in their own words. The effectiveness of tutoring is not lost on college students. During the time I worked at the University of Michigan, so many students from relatively well-off families were hiring tutors as a boost to their coursework that many of our economics graduate students could make just as much money being a tutor as they could as official teaching assistants.

The trouble with human tutors is that they are expensive. Fortunately, there is hope that computers can become better and better tutors. Typical classes are so ineffectively taught that learning software designed to go along with the regular curriculum typically doesn’t do much good, but experimental evidence already indicates the value of learning software designed to act as a tutor.

But you don’t need a tutor or tutoring software to be an ace learner. All you need is the courage and determination to brave the hard knocks of techniques that constantly make you feel stupid by showing you what you don’t know yet.

Conclusion. There are some other things to learn about learning. For example, there are excellent tricks to get good memory cues: The alphabet song has helped millions of kids master the alphabet, the acronym OCEAN has helped psyche students remember the Big Five personality traits and memory champions use more elaborate “memory palace” techniques (described here) that also work like a charm. But the basic principle is the one above:

If it isn’t making you feel stupid, it isn’t helping you learn.

Or less bluntly, in the words of Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel in Make It Stick:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.

Related Columns:

Link to the Amazon page for Make It Stick

Suggested Further Reading by Make It Stick (quotation, bulleting added, bold changed to italics)

Scholarly Articles

  • Crouch, C. H., Fagen, A. P., Callan, J. P., & Mazur, E. (2004). Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment? American Journal of Physics, 72, 835–838. An interesting use of generation to enhance learning from classroom demonstrations.

  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14, 4–58. Describes techniques that research has shown to work in improving educational practice in both laboratory and field (educational) settings, as well as other techniques that do not work. Provides a thorough discussion of the research literature supporting (or not) each technique.

  • McDaniel, M. A. (2012). Put the SPRINT in knowledge training: Training with SPacing, Retrieval, and INTerleaving. In A. F. Healy & L. E. Bourne Jr. (eds.), Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability (pp. 267–286). New York: Psychology Press. This chapter points out that many training situations, from business to medicine to continuing education, tend to cram training into an intensive several day “course.” Evidence that spacing and interleaving would be more effective for promoting learning and retention is summarized and some ideas are provided for how to incorporate these techniques into training.

  • McDaniel, M. A., & Donnelly, C. M. (1996). Learning with analogy and elaborative interrogation. Journal of Educational Psychology 88, 508–519. These experiments illustrate the use of several elaborative techniques for learning technical material, including visual imagery and self-questioning techniques. This article is more technical than the others in this list.

  • Richland, L. E., Linn, M. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). Instruction. In F. Durso, R. Nickerson, S. Dumais, S. Lewandowsky, & T. Perfect (eds.), Handbook of Applied Cognition (2nd ed., pp. 553–583). Chichester: Wiley. Provides examples of how desirable difficulties, including generation, might be implemented in instructional settings.

  • Roediger, H. L., Smith, M. A., & Putnam, A. L. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In B. H. Ross (ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press. Provides a summary of the host of potential benefits of practicing retrieving as a learning technique.


  • Brooks, D. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011.

  • Coyle, D. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Bantam Dell, 2009.

  • Doidge, N. The Brain the Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

  • Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.

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  • Dunning, D. Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2005.

  • Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

  • Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011.

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  • Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2005. _______. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2008.

  • Healy, A. F. & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (Eds.). Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability. New York: Psychology Press, 2012.

  • Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Mayer, R. E. Applying the Science of Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2010.

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  • Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. Dynamic Testing: The Nature and Measurement of Learning Potential. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2002.

  • Tough, P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

  • Willingham, D. T. When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

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