Tag Archives: memory

Why I regularly test my students even if it’s not popular (and the takeaway for peak learners)

testing students

This may surprise you, but I get criticized for my way of teaching. More precisely, some of my colleagues think I give too many evaluations. I confess I love my quizzes, and I typically assess my students’ progress every week.

But “teachers should spend less time testing and more time teaching” as the Badass Teachers Association often reminds me on Facebook. Similarly, for some of my colleagues, my strategy just reeks of old-school thinking. They say frequent quizzes undermine learners’ sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation.

But, to me, regular testing has always felt intuitively right, and a few years ago, this intuition was confirmed by the largest evidence-based research about what works best in education. John Hattie’s mega-study Visible Learning is a synthesis of 50,000 studies involving more than 80 million students; there’s a reason why it’s been called the holy grail of education.

Hattie has identified 138 influences on student achievement and ranked them by degree of effectiveness. Here’s his top ten.


As you clearly see, providing formative evaluation ranks third (formative means low or no point value). Let me repeat this: testing has the third most powerful effect on learning among hundreds of investigated variables.

The thing is, formative assessments do two main things.

  1. They measure learning
  2. They strengthen learning

First, progress monitoring provides a great window into where you’re at as well as what works and what doesn’t, which allows both the teacher and the student to adjust accordingly. And the more often they get this feedback, the faster they can course correct.

Second, many recent studies (most likely included in Hattie’s mega-study) have established that taking tests is one of the best ways to reinforce learning, and that it should be done sooner rather than later (even if you haven’t finished learning).

For example, one of the studies shows that giving short quizzes on a regular basis like I do increases performance by about half a letter grade as opposed to relying on four major exams. The most famous research has been done by Roediger, who has listed ten benefits of testing.

This is the takeaway for peak learners. You really have to stop seeing studying and testing as two different things.

Testing / self-testing is learning at its best.

4 Basic Strategies To Boost Learning Performance

how to be a top learner

Recently, one of my colleagues wanted to test my budding expertise and asked me to give him learning strategies you can’t live without, be it for improving dance moves, public speaking or language acquisition.

So here are four basic tricks given by Professor Monisha Pasupathi in How We Learn.

  1. Spread out your rehearsals
  2. Mix them up
  3. Draw the connections
  4. Sleep on it

Spacing out your rehearsals is the essential first step for anyone serious about learning. Leaving enough time between your practices or studying is like changing your Pentium computer for the latest iMac (sorry if you’re not into Macs). It just turbo-charges your performance. To know how much time is enough time, check my post on the topic.

Varying the way you learn is your second performance booster. Remember the old advice of sticking to a strict practice routine? Throw that out the window. You want to often change where, when and how you practice and study. For example, instead of always reviewing your Spanish with flashcards at the kitchen table, try finding the words in texts or talking about it to friends. Each change in your routine reinforces your learning by making it more independent from the context.

Using elaborative encoding in the third strategy applicable everywhere. This big word simply means that you need to connect your new material to what you already know, either deliberately by organizing it around past info and experience, or implicitly by using past movements to generate new ones. For more details, check my post on the topic.

Getting a good night’s sleep is your fourth power. Sleeping consolidates learning by helping the brain complete new neural connections forged through practice and study. Brain images show that the patterns of activities occurring while learning are reproduced during REM sleep (and it’s a good thing your body is paralyzed during that phase). Sleep is like an extra rehearsal at the brain level.

So that’s what I told my colleague. You want to reach peak learner status in your field? Start by making these habits part of your daily routine.

Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.

Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.

Why The Most Depressing Fact in Education Isn’t That Depressing

how to prevent forgetting

I’ll always remember what our stats professor told us at the beginning of the semester years ago: “You’ll only remember 5% of what you’re currently learning at university.”

As a teacher now, I must bow to the evidence. The battle against forgetting has no end.

And Ebbinghaus’ famous forgetting curve confirms that. Students typically forget 90% of what they learn in class within 30 days, and most of that forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.

This has got to be the most depressing fact in education, don’t you think?

Actually, not quite. For two reasons. There are two types of forgetting, and each plays an essential role in learning.

The first type of forgetting is active, and acts as a spam filter. It enables you to prioritize information and focus on what your brain thinks is important.

But what exactly does your brain deem important?

Our brain has evolved to retain info and skills that we need to use over a long period of time. Basically, we’re evolved not to waste a lot of energy learning what’s going to be used only one time. What is considered useless gets filtered out.

So for the brain, repetition means usefulness. Rehearsing and repeating tell your brain not to lose track of that info or skill because you’re going to keep needing it in the future.

This leads to the second type of forgetting, which is passive and referred to as decay. Memory fades with time, and that’s a pain, isn’t it?

But here’s the good news. Dr. Robert Bjork’s New Theory of Disuse shows that forgetting actually increases learning. Memory seems to have a muscle-like property; breaking down promotes rebuilding. This means that without some forgetting, you may get no benefit from further study.

As a peak learner, you should see forgetting as what it really is. It is a filter that blocks the background noise so the right signal can stand out.

You should also make the most of it. You want to remember something for a long time? Space your learning periods. This will enable forgetting to strengthen your learning.

Why I Send My Kids to A Traditional School (Old vs New School)

old school teaching

My two daughters attend a good old traditional school. They wear a uniform, learn respect, and have to memorize things. A lot of things. Sentences, formulas, dates, and many other facts.

Is this focus on raw knowledge justified? Is there a case to be made for rote learning? The answer is yes. If you want to become a peak learner, you first need to prioritize memory over thinking.

The supporters of the modern curriculum like to quote Montaigne, who famously preferred a well-made rather than well-filled head. They also argue that facts quickly become obsolete, are easily forgotten, and memorizing them is often a waste of time since so much info now lies at our fingertips. So learners should instead hone their reasoning, creativity and critical thinking.

No doubt, such skills lie at the core of what peak learning is. Relying on rote learning alone would restrict you to solving past problems.

But developing your thinking without a solid mental database is like starting a building without having all the necessary material. It’s counterproductive, and the best planning and building skills can’t make up for the lack of material.

As Hirsch notes in his famous essay “You Can Always Look It Up”, a simple definition can only be understood if you already know a large part of what you read. Ironically, you learn what you already know. That’s why experts are peak learners. They learn more, better and faster, precisely because they have access to a rich repertoire of knowledge.

Like in all things, balance is key. Learning without thinking leads nowhere, but reasoning and analyzing without having a good grasp of the facts will often prove as sterile.

Do you want to be a peak learner? Do like my kids. First master the fundamentals; then the higher levels of thinking will come naturally.

3 Reasons Why You Should Stop Reading And Start Writing

why write

I love the fields of learning and cognitive science, and I’ve read plenty of books on these topics. But now I need to stop the information input and start producing some output.

Here’s why.

First, Tim Ferris is right. Reading too much and using your brain too little make you fall into lazy habits of thinking. As a knowledge worker, your first job is to think and create new knowledge. Integrating information is only the first part of the equation. At some point, you need to achieve your full potential.

Second, as Cal Newport points out, when it comes to learning, nothing beats active recall. Do you want to make new information stick in your long-term memory? Describe and organize that information in your own words. And, as any creator knows, this strategy is best achieved when you decide to put digital pen to paper.

Finally, what defines an expert isn’t the size of his/her knowledge, but rather the way it’s organized. Here again, writing is key, because it forces you to structure your thoughts. Eventually, you’ll find the core concepts or big ideas to base your expertise on.

As a knowledge worker, you need to invest in your main capital, that is knowledge. Writing will enable you to reach a level of thinking where new knowledge is created.

So even if nobody reads your blog, feed it regularly; it’s the surest road to becoming a peak learner.