You Can Learn Dramatically More in the Same Amount of Time. Here’s How.

Here is a link to my 69th Quartz column, "The most effective memory methods are difficult—and that's why they work."  

Note: You can see all of my previous Quartz columns listed in order of popularity here.

Below are some passages that were cut to keep the column tight, plus suggested reading:

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.
  • Dunlosky, J., & Metcalfe, J. Metacognition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2009.
  • 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.
  • Gilovich, T. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.
  • 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.
  • Nisbett, R. E. Intelligence and How to Get It. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
  • 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.
  • Worthen, J. B., & Hunt, R. R. Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st Century (Essays in Cognitive Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2011.