“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
— Albert Einstein

Learning and Memory


Implicit in all aspects of Partners in Thought® support is the premise that you want to grow.  Growth often includes learning (and retaining) new concepts and information. Not only high school and college students would benefit daily and tremendously by developing more effective learning and memory techniques and habits, but we all could make our lives more productive, efficient, and fulfilling if we enhanced our learning and memory processes.   

Surprisingly under-utilized scientific discoveries about how we best learn and remember have yielded simple, efficient, effective, and often counter-intuitive tools and techniques.  Ideally, these techniques should replace our customary ways of learning.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
— Louis Pasteur

The following are counter-intuitive examples established by scientific studies on learning and memory (most of which are explored in the Partners in Thought® interactive workshop, Learning and Memory):

  • We learn and remember better when we continually alter our study/learning routines and abandon a “dedicated space” in favor of varied environments.

  • Devoting blocks of time to learning particular skills or information is NOT the most effective way to learn.  Instead:

    1. Our brains learn better by interleaving and mixing up various tasks and learning goals.

    2. Our brains also learn better from distributing our learning and studying across multiple days and times, with sleep helping to consolidate each learning experience or study period.  For example, studying material once per day over 10 days is far more effective than studying twice per day over five days. For any given material to be learned and remembered, you can increase the study intervals over time, such as starting at daily then weekly then monthly and then even longer.  (One study found that those who studied material every two weeks for 26 sessions recalled much less than those who studied the same material every two months for 26 sessions.)

  • Brief distractions from a learning task allow our brain to consolidate and reset, often breaking open what seemed to be an intractable problem.

  • Being interrupted when most engrossed in a learning activity can extend memory of the interrupted activity.

  • We learn more effectively through struggle and discovery rather than through reading, watching, or listening.

  • Testing leads to the most effective learning, whether reciting, rehearsing, self-testing, or formal testing.  “Retrieval practice” is perhaps a more comfortable term for testing, which simply could include explaining the material to another person.

  • Pre-tests, especially with prompt feedback, promote more effective studying by priming the learner’s brain to notice important concepts later on.

  • We memorize better by spending only the first third of the initial study period actively memorizing and then the remaining time practicing reciting the material from memory.  

  • Sleep is a critical necessity for consolidating and retaining the day’s learning.  (A night’s sleep is best, but research has found that a 1.5-hour nap can consolidate memory as well as a full night’s sleep.)

  • Because replaying an event or learning activity in one’s mind is essentially the same to the brain as the original activity, practicing mentally can be as effective as practicing physically.

  • Learning something new requires a connection or association with something we already know.  Learning and memory are therefore optimized through mental association.

  • Exercise improves learning and memory by actually increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for encoding memory (and the only major part of the brain that can grow new brain cells in adulthood).

  • Because some memories are conscious (like learning a formula) and others are subconscious (like learning to drive a golf ball), learning different skills requires different techniques.

  • Memories are altered every time they are recalled, often with more connections and associations that make the memory more powerful.  (The reality of your high school prom is likely much different than your current memory of it because, over the years, the memory has been altered by repeated recollections.)

  • Our brain is amazingly robust in storing information.  The challenge is in retrieving the relevant information from our huge store of memories.  Retrieval strength is derived by repeated retrieval.  The more difficult the retrieval, the better the subsequent retrieval and storage strength.  To learn best, then, one should practice actively retrieving the information (e.g., by self-tests), especially after an opportunity to “forget” it, instead of focusing on storing information (e.g., re-reading the information).

  • Memory of experience is correlated with intensity of the experience.

  • Recollection of information associated with images is much stronger than recollection of theoretical data in a vacuum.  Based on this fact, memory techniques that associate data with images will be better stored and retrieved.  

  • Recalling information or a skill is enhanced if the environment of the original learning is reinstated at the time the recollection is tested.  This means, for example, that when taking a test, you are more able to recall the information you learned if your mental state or the testing environment is similar to that of the state you were in when learning the information.  If you were listening to Pink Floyd while learning the data, you will recall the data more effectively when tested with Pink Floyd music playing in the background than if tested in silence.  By varying studying locations, methods of studying, and states of mind, we both improve recall independent of learning environment and increase the odds of there being an overlapping environment or state of mind at the time recollection is required.

  • By reorganizing data, we better embed the information than by repeatedly studying from the same outline.

  • Feeling lost, confused, or disoriented creates a distress that activates the brain networks responsible for finding patterns and making meaning and then storing the solutions to avoid future distress.  Evolutionarily, this is how we learned.  Techniques that induce disorientation can therefore help enhance learning and memory.

  • Learners with growth mindsets (who believe we can change and grow) learn and perform better than those with fixed mindsets (who believe we generally are born to be who we are).  Remember what science has established: innate does not mean immutable.

“If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.” 
— Zig Ziglar