The single most important thing for students to know – Cognitive load

Back in 2017 Dylan Williams, Professor of Educational Assessment at UCL described cognitive load theory (CLT) as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. His reasoning was simple, if learning is an alteration in long term memory (OFSTED’s definition) then it is essential for teachers to know the best ways of helping students achieve this. At this stage you might find it helpful to revisit my previous blog, Never forget, improving memory, which explains more about the relationship between long and short-term memory but to help reduce your cognitive load…. I have provided a short summary below.

But here is the point, if CLT is so important for teachers it must also be of benefit to students.

Cognitive load theory
The term cognitive load was coined by John Sweller in a paper published in the journal of Cognitive Science in 1988. Cognitive load is the amount of information that working/short term memory can process at any one time, and that when the load becomes too great, processing information slows down and so does learning. The implication is that because we can’t do anything about the short-term nature of short-term memory, we can only retain 4 + or – 2 chunks of information before it’s lost, learning should be designed or studying methods changed accordingly. The purpose of which is to reduce the ‘load’ so that it can more easily pass into long term memory where the storage capacity is infinite.

CLT can be broken down into three categories:

Intrinsic cognitive load – this relates to the inherent difficulty of the material or complexity of the task. Some content will always have a high level of difficulty, for example, solving a complex equation is more difficult than adding two numbers together. However, the cognitive load arising from a complex task can be reduced by breaking it down into smaller and simpler steps. There is also evidence to show that prior knowledge makes the processing of complex tasks easier. In fact, it is one of the main differences between an expert and a novice, the expert requires less short-term memory capacity because they already have knowledge stored in long term memory that they can draw upon. The new knowledge is simply adding to what they already know. Bottom line – some stuff is just harder.

Extraneous cognitive load – this is the unnecessary mental effort required to process information for the task in hand, in effect the learning has been made overly difficult or confusing. For example, if you needed to learn about a square, it would be far easier to draw a picture and point to it, than use words to describe it. A more common example of extraneous load is when a presenter puts too much information on a PowerPoint slide, most of which adds little to what needs to be learned. Bottom line – don’t make learning harder by including unimportant stuff.

Germane cognitive load – increasing the load is not always bad, for example if you ask someone to think of a house, that will increase the load but when they have created that ‘schema’ or plan in their mind adding new information becomes easier. Following on with the house example, if you have a picture of a house in your mind, asking questions about what you might find in the kitchen is relatively simple. The argument is that learning can be enhanced when content is arranged or presented in a way that helps the learner construct new knowledge. Bottom line – increasing germane load is good because it makes learning new stuff easier.

In summary, both student and teacher should reduce intrinsic and extraneous load but increase germane.

Implications for learning
The three categories of cognitive load shown above provide some insight as to what you should and shouldn’t do if you want to learn more effectively. For example, break complex tasks down into simpler ones, focus on what’s important and avoid unnecessary information and use schemas (models) where possible to help deal with complexity. There are however a few specifics that relate to the categories worthy of mention.

The worked example effect – If you are trying to understand something and continual reading of the text is having little impact, it’s possible your short-term memory has reached capacity. Finding an example of what you need to understand will help free up some of that memory. For example…….…if I wanted to explain that short term memory is limited I might ask you to memorise these 12 letters, SHNCCMTAVYID. But because this will exceed the 4+ or – 2 rule it will be difficult and hopefully as a result prove the point. In this situation the example is a far more effective way of transferring knowledge than pages of text.

The redundancy effect – This is most commonly found where there is simply too much unnecessary or redundant information. It might be irrelevant or not essential to what you’re trying to learn. In addition, it could be the same information but presented in multiple forms, for example an explanation and diagram on the same page. The secret here is to be relatively ruthless in pursuing what you want to know, look for the answer to your question rather than getting distracted by adjacent information. You may also come across this online where a PowerPoint presentation has far too much content and the presenter simply reads out loud what’s on the slides. In these circumstances, it’s a good idea to turn down the sound and simply read the slides for yourself. People can’t focus when they hear and see the same verbal message during a presentation (Hoffman, 2006).

The split attention effect – This occurs when you have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning. Often in written texts and blogs as I have done in this one, you will find a reference to something further to read or listen to, ignore it and stick to the task in hand, grasp the principle and only afterwards follow up on the link. Another way of reducing the impact of split attention is to produce notes that reduce the conflict that arises when trying to listen to the teacher and make notes at the same time. You might want to use the Cornel note taking method, click here to find out more.

But is it the single most important thing a student should know?
Well maybe, maybe not but its certainly in the top three. The theory on its own will not make you a better learner but it goes a long way in explaining why you can’t understand something despite spending hours studying, it provides guidance as to what you can do to make learning more effective but most importantly it can change your mindset from – “I’m not clever enough” to, “I just need to reduce the amount of information, and then I’ll get it”.

And believing that is priceless, not only for studying towards your next exam but in helping with all your learning in the years to come.

Learning is emotional

We are all emotional, it’s part of what it means to be human, your emotions help navigate uncertainty and experience the world. For some it’s even considered an intelligence, requiring the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others.

For many years’ emotions were considered something that “got in the way” of learning, effectively disrupting the efficiency, but it is now believed that emotion has a substantial influence on cognitive processes, including perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

Emotions, feelings and mood

In last month’s blog I outlined how sensory input impact memory and the story continues because memories are a key part of emotion and both are found in something called the limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system plays an important part in controlling emotional responses (Hypothalamus), coordinating those responses (Amygdala), and laying down memories (Hippocampus).

There is no single definition of emotion that everyone agrees upon, what we know is, it relies upon the release of chemicals in response to a trigger which in turn leads to three distinct phases. Firstly, a subjective experience, perhaps a feeling of anger, although not everyone would necessarily respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Secondly, a physiological response for example, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and lastly a behavioural or expressive response, a furrowing of the brow, showing of teeth etc.  

Although emotions are not believed to be hard-wired, in the 1970s Paul Eckman identified six emotions that were universally experienced in all human cultures. They are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. This list has however been expanded to include others for example shame, embarrassment, excitement etc.

Feelings on the other hand arise from emotions, they are a conscious interpretation of the stimulus, asking questions as to what it might mean, some refer to feelings as the human response to emotions.  And finally, moods which are more general and longer term, an emotion might exist for a fraction of a second but moods can last for hours, even days and are sometimes a symptom of more worrying mental health issues.   In addition, moods are not necessarily linked to a single event but shaped by different events over time.

Impact on learning

Understanding what this means for students and educators is complex and in a short blog it’s only possible to introduce the subject. But there are a few lessons we can learn.

  • Emotions direct attention – if students can make an emotional connection with what they are learning it will improve levels of concentration and enjoyment.
  • Consider the emotional environment – the emotional context in which information is delivered can help students experience more positive emotions such as happiness and one of the most powerful emotions in learning, curiosity.
  • Avoid negative emotions – students who are in a continual state of anxiety or fearing failure whilst learning will find concentrating and retaining information difficult. This is partly the result of the brain going into its fight or flight mode which effectively narrows its focus to the task in hand.
  • Emotional state is contagious – the emotional state of the teacher can have a significant impact on students.
  • Memory and emotions are bound together – emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally charged events such as September 11 or the London bridge attack in 2017.

And if you would like to find out moreHow do emotions impact learning.

Dedication – in a lifetime we will all experience many emotions some good, some bad, but none are as powerful or more gratefully received than a mother’s love, for my mom.

Never forget – improving memory

When I first started lecturing, I asked myself a question, what’s the point in saying something if no one can remember what’s said? Didn’t I have a responsibility to present the knowledge in such a way that it was more memorable? If not, then all I was doing was putting it out there for each student to figure out the best way of getting it into their head.

What followed has been a lifelong interest in learning and memory.

How memory works
Although there is a strong link between working memory and intelligence, they are not the same. Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information, it’s the recalling of information to solve a problem that makes memory so useful in terms of intelligence.

A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.
John Henry Newman

The brain takes information in by way of the five main senses, what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, this is known as sensory input. But we are bombarded with sensory information potentially at the rate of 11 million bits per second making it impossible to consciously capture everything, that is if we should want to.

The result is that much of this information is lost, however if you turn your attention towards a piece of information, effectively concentrating on a sound or image whilst ignoring the rest, it will move to short term memory where it can be stored, but not for long. Although short term memory is only part of working memory in this context they can be thought of as the same.

The true art of memory is the art of attention.
Samuel Johnson

As you might imagine short term memory is by definition short, around 15 to 30 seconds, its also limited in terms of capacity. In 1956 George Miller* famously defined the capacity as being 7 plus or minus 2, although recent research suggests the 7 might more accurately be 4. The implication being that you can only hold around 7 pieces of information in short term memory at any one time. You can test this by looking at the letters below for about 20 seconds and trying to memorise them.


Then take a 5-minute break and on a blank piece of paper write down as many as you can remember.

There are 12 characters and you would be in good company if you remembered around 6 or 7, with those at the start and end being the easiest. This is known as the primacy (start) and recency effect (end). But more importantly how did you memorise the information, perhaps by repeating the letters over an over in your head or looking at the shapes each one made, picturing them in your minds eye? These are examples of techniques you have learned to help transfer information from short to long term memory, they may not be the best but they work.

Long term memory – it’s all about the input
The repeating of a word is a type of encoding, effectively labelling the information as a means of moving it from short to long term memory. Think of it as a type of filing system, if you don’t file it correctly, when you come to look for it at a later date it might be there but you won’t be able to find it. If you would like to learn more about what’s happening in the brain when you create these connections read this previous blog – The learning brain.

There are many ways in which you can encode information, they form the basis for the most common memory techniques. I have written about some of these before although it was over 10 years ago and they are sufficiently important to cover again.

1 Association and organisation – the brain needs structure and works well when information is added with an association or link to something that came before. This is why acronyms are so effective, if you already know the word SMART, then it is easier to remember Specific Measurable Realistic and Timely because your simply adding new words to something already in long term memory.
Association also works with dates, ask yourself what day the 15th of February fell on this year? Chances are you will remember that the 14th was Valentine’s day which was a Friday, you will then be able to figure out that the 15th must have been the Saturday.

2 Repetition – continually repeating something fires neurons in the brain until they form a long-term connection. This is the reason you can remember your times table so well. However continually repeating something in a short space of time which is called mass repetition is not as effective as spaced repetition. The spacing makes recall more difficult requiring additional effort and it is the effort that strengthens the long-term memory.

3 Visualisation – one of the most powerful senses for recall is your ability to visualise, with some arguing that it’s the main way in which memories are stored. However, researchers would most likely award that accolade to your sense of smell. But few would disagree that picturing something in your “mind’s eye” is an important way of bringing the past into the present.

Ask yourself what colour your front door is, can you see it, where is the letter box positioned, towards the top, in the middle or at the bottom? When you try to answer these questions it’s your visual memory you will be using. Images have also been proven to be effective when used with a verbal commentary. The theory of dual coding suggests that people process verbal and visual information separately but interestingly at the same time making the input of information even more powerful. Mind maps use many of the principles of memory but rely heavily on the use of related colourful and imaginative pictures. Click here to learn more.

4 Rhythm and Rhyme – the ability to remember music and even more fundamentally rhythm helps encode information. Remembering the lyrics to a song will not be as easy as remembering the tune that carries the words. There are lots of examples of memorising using rhythm, think about all those nursery rhymes or how Matilde remembers how to spell difficulty

Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY.

5 Chunking – and lastly the one we started with, remember those numbers from before? You would have had a much better chance if you had chunked them down into smaller pieces of information and associated them with existing knowledge. Look at the letters below for about 20 seconds and try to memorise them.


You should find this a whole lot easier, even though they are the same letters as before but just backwards. You might even have found yourself visualising the blue of the NHS. Click here for more on chunking.

Lest we forget – It is perhaps no mistake that in order to remember those who died in the first world war and all subsequent wars, an image of a poppy was chosen. And who could forget – The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

*Based on psychologist George Miller’s paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956)

Food for thoughts – the impact of food on learning

According the latest government statistics obesity is on the rise, there is also a link to Covid deaths with nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care being obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. The WHO has stated that being overweight and obese is the fifth leading risk for global deaths with at least 2.8 million adults dying each year.

Eating too much is clearly not good for your health but how about what you eat, how might that impact your health, in particular your brain?

Viva las Vagus

Have you ever used your gut instinct, had butterflies in your stomach or when feeling nervous had to rush to the toilet? If so then you already have some evidence of the connection and importance of your gut to the way you think and feel. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the brain stem to part of the colon in effect making the connection. The biggest influence on the levels of activity of the vagus nerve are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut. The vagus nerve is able to sense the microbe activity and effectively transfer this gut information to the nervous system and ultimately the brain. Watch this 2-minute video that shows how this works.

Scientists refer to the relationship between the gut and the brain as the “gut brain axis”. The brain sends chemical signals to the gut through the bloodstream, one such example is the feeling of being full or hungry. But and this is the interesting part – the stomach talks back; gut bacteria send messages in the same way the brain communicates using neurotransmission. Prior blog – The learning brain.

Exactly what the messages say depends on what you eat, a gut filled with fruit and vegetables will have different microbes to one that has just consumed a Big Mac. This is a very new area and most of the research has been completed on rats but there is already some evidence to suggest that junk food impairs memory.

Hopefully this gives you some idea as to the strong connection that exist between your stomach and your brain. We can now move on and consider what specific types of foods can help when learning.

These Ted talks are well worth watching if you want to find out more – Your Gut Microbiome: The most important organ you’ve never heard of (11m), and Mind-altering microbes: How the microbiome affects brain and behaviour (6m).

What to eat when studying

The first thing to say is that I am far from an expert on nutrition and so the focus here is more on the impact food has on mood, concentration, cognition and memory. Secondly, to give this some context it might be worth thinking about what you eat in the same way an athlete does. They pay close attention to their diet to make sure their body is in the best possible condition in order to compete because if not they are reducing their chances of success. However, a good diet is no substitute for the hard work they have to put in at the gym, you have to do both. Short video on how nutrition is key to sports performance.

Brain foods

  1. Apples, berries and Citrus – The British Journal of Nutrition published research in 2010 (The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition) indicating that consuming certain fruits such as berries, apple and citrus, that are rich in flavonoids can help improve memory and cognition.
  2. Dark chocolate – Research published in the Frontiers in Nutrition (Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids) found that dark chocolate which also contains flavonoids improved memory in both the short and long term. But remember many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories so it’s not all good news.
  3. Rosemary – Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found that herbs such as rosemary and lavender impacted memory, with the scent of rosemary enhancing memory but lavender impairing it. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said ‘rosemary is for remembrance’.
  4. Oily fish and walnuts (omega 3) – There is a much-published connection between omega three and the improvement in learning and memory. However, many of these claims are exaggerated to promote a particular type of food or brand with most having such small doses to make little or no difference. There is some evidence published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found people who ate more seafood, which naturally contains omega 3, had reduced rates of decline in semantic memory. But there is little evidence to show that supplements work at all. The best advice is to eat fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet but don’t expect your exam results to improve by that much.
  5. Fruit and vegetables – A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 found an association between consuming fruit and vegetables and being in a positive mood.
  6. Water – Despite being the least exciting of them all, water remains one of the best ways in which you can improve brain functionality. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied 101 participants to see if low water consumption impacted cognition. The result was those who had reduced amounts of water experienced poor memory, reduced energy levels and feelings of anxiety, but those drinking water experienced the opposite.

The evidence on specific foods and its impact on cognition and learning is complex and nuanced. However the connection between the stomach and the brain although still in its early stages has greater potential to lead us to a better understanding as to what we should eat to improve our mental wellbeing.

In the meantime, the best advice is to think about how your diet impacts you personally, identify when you feel best studying is it before a meal or after, pay attention to snacking and of course drink lots of water, eat your greens, all as part of a balanced diet.

Mind Mapping – Tony Buzan, Learning leader


It was with some sadness that I read of the death of Tony Buzan last week. It’s possible you have never heard of him and yet will be familiar with the technique he discovered to help students learn, Mind Mapping. He was born in the UK in 1942 studied Psychology, English, Mathematics and Science at the University of British Columbia.  In addition to his lifelong association with Mind Mapping he worked for Mensa, set up the World Memory Championships in 1991 with Raymond Keene, and found time to write over 140 books. Two of which sit on my bookshelf, both furthered my knowledge and fuelled my interest in learning, memory and how the brain works. These are Use your Head and The Mind Map book.


When Tony Buzan was at Junior school his curiosity was sparked by a boy who had an excellent knowledge of nature, in particular birds but repeatedly failed tests that were set in school. This led him to question what intelligence was. And although I hadn’t read this at the time it was something I had also been interested in. Society had/has somehow lost sight of the fact that people are different, falling into the trap of praising and promoting those that were “clever” and pitying those that were not. It seemed far more sensible to break intelligence down into a series of biological/neurological qualities, and in 1983, when Howard Gardner published his book on Multiple Intelligence Theory this made perfect sense to me and provided evidence that Buzan was on to something.

Mind Mapping – does it work?

According to Tony Buzan, “Mind Mapping is a two-dimensional note-taking technique with which a Mind Map is made using all the relevant knowledge about a specific subject.”

I have written about how to Mind Map before, so please follow the links if you want to find out more – Mind Mapping unplugged – The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams.

Remarkably there is little evidence to prove that Mind Mapping works, academics have focused instead on Concept Mapping, a hierarchical diagram that links conceptual knowledge, but the principles that underpin Mind Mapping are consistent with much of what we know is effective in learning.

This quote from Tony Buzan offers a deeper insight into why it works.

“I used to take formal notes in lines of blue, and underline the key words in red, and I realised I needed only the key words and the idea. Then to bring in connections, I drew arrows and put in images and codes. It was a picture outside my head of what was inside my head – ‘Mind Map’ is the language my brain spoke.”

In this narrative there are three important principles identified. Firstly, use only key words, this process of reduction is hugely valuable in learning. When the brain has to select one or two words it engages in a process of reflection and review, reading and re-reading asking which one word should I pick, and why. Secondly connections, it is well accepted that the brain finds storing unrelated chunks of information difficult, a Mind Map requires the student to link information and in so doing forces a connection. And lastly, arguably one of the most powerful, the use of images. The brain appears to have a limitless capacity to store pictures, the brighter, more colourful and stranger the better.

In summary, it’s not that Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan and before we knew little about the best techniques to aid learning, what he did was pull together much of what we now know to be effective using as inspiration the drawings of the Leonardo de Vinci and created a tool that requires the student to know little of the theory behind how it works but by preparing one engages them in a series of very effective techniques that will help them learn.


It would be wrong to suggest that everything Tony Buzan said or did was correct, he has been responsible for promoting what many now recognise as pop psychology that has since been proved to be incorrect. For example

“Did you know that you use less than 1% of your brain? The good news is that Mind Mapping can help you to access the other 99%.”

However, he also said

“Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.”

And in this world rich with information, AI and robotics, this may be the only thing that will keep us ahead of the game.

Listen to Tony Buzan talking about Mind Maps

RIP Tony Buzan learning leader.





Cramming works, but only until tomorrow


I have written about cramming before or to be precise it was in the title of a previous blog but the main focus was on the benefits of attempting exam questions. As a result, I feel I should say far more about what many students reluctantly admit is their most commonly used study method.

Cramming is the process of leaving everything until the last minute and then studying intensely in a relatively short period of time. Students know they shouldn’t do it and yet the “cramming badge of honour” is often worn with pride. It is accompanied by the boast, “anyway I work better under pressure”.

Better under pressure

Yerkes and Dodson (Yerkes-Dodson Law) famously put rats in a maze and administered electric shocks as they attempted to choose between a black and white door. They noticed that mild shocks improved the rats’ performance until a certain point, after which it greatly decreased. A chart of the shock strength versus performance takes the shape of an inverted U. And although there has been some criticism as to the exact findings, the concept that people perform better under pressure is true but only to a point, and of course judging when that point is reached is personal and arguably impossible.

The conclusion therefore has to be that creating a stressful situation by leaving everything until the last minute is not a particularly sensible strategy. An exam environment brings its own high level of stress without you having to manufacture your own.

Back to cramming

In June and July, I identified 6 scientifically proven learning strategies, and it is here that we can find the answer to the question, does cramming work?

Spaced practice is the process of studying over time compared with studying the same content but intensely at the end, normally prior to a test. The results as to which one is best is conclusive, spacing your learning is far better because you will not only improve what is called retrieval strength but also storage strength. The implications being that you will you be able to recall what you have learned quickly and the information will be stored waiting for when you might need it in the future.

However, studying at the end, effectively cramming also works, it has to, students have been using this method of revising since the very first exam. But, and there is a but, it only helps with retrieval strength, that is you will only be able to retrieve the information for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a day. Should you want to recall what you learned at some point in the future it won’t be there. The reason, a short burst constantly topped up will keep the information in short term memory but due to the lack of time the brain is unable to consolidate what you have learned, effectively taking it into long term memory. There is some evidence to support the view that this consolidation takes place when you are a sleep, something else that students who cram often don’t get, but that is a sufficiently large enough topic it would need a future blog.


Cramming does work for short term chunks of information for example formulas, key words that remind you of knowledge stored in long term memory, formats, illustrations etc. Simple memory techniques such as acronyms and acrostics are great and should be used, they are part of the tool kit of a professional student. But they are in addition to a more structured and spaced out way of learning, not an alternative.

Here are a few more resources.

This past blog gives specific advice – Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

Video (5m) – How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS – This is worth watching 472, 000 others have.

Video (2.5m) – How to Cram for a Test.


The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part two )

Welcome to part two, exploring the facts and what really works in learning.


Eliot Hirshman defined elaboration as “a conscious, intentional process that associates to-be-remembered information with other information in memory. In other words adding something new to what you already know e.g. elaborating. There are a number of variations as to how this concept might be used but one is called elaborative interrogation, and involves students questioning the materials they are studying. This might be students asking “how and why” questions in groups and answering them either from their course materials or ideally memory. This technique can also be used by a student studying alone, outside of the classroom, a kind of loud self enquiry.

Although the science on exactly how effective some of these ideas are is not conclusive, I would argue that many teachers I have met learn a great deal by saying something out loud to a class, in some instances many times, and then asking themselves challenging questions, e.g. “if it works in this situation why won’t it work now”? The truth is it is often the student who asks the challenging question!

Concrete examples

Concrete examples make something easier to understand and remember, largely because the brain can both recognise and recall concrete words more readily than abstract ones. In addition it has been demonstrated that information that is more concrete and imageable enhances the learning of associations, even with abstract content.

What you have just read to a certain extent is a group of abstract words, easier for example, easier than what? But if we added that it was easier than eating an apple? Although the experience of eating an apple may vary, everyone knows what an apple looks, smells and tastes like.

A concrete term refers to objects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell.

By using concrete examples it makes it much easier to concisely convey information, that can be remembered and visualised. It is a good example of Dual coding.

Dual coding

Few people would disagree with the idea that pictures are more memorable than words, this is referred to as the picture superiority effect. Dual coding supports this by suggesting that text when accompanied by complementary visual information enhances learning. It is important to be clear, dual coding is the use of both text and visuals, replacing a word with a picture is not the same.

In addition there is some evidence to suggest that by adding a movement such as drawing something rather than showing the static image can enhance the process even more.

One final point that I have written about many times before, duel coding should not be confused with learning styles. This is not suggesting that some people will “get” dual coding” because it fits with their learning styles, it works for everyone.

Well that’s it six of the top learning techniques that you can use with confidence and are proven to work.

See you next month, I am just off to enjoy a concrete experience, Clam Chowder on Pier 39.

The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part one)

Brain in jar

One of the most difficult questions to answer is – “How do you know”? This is because it challenges both the logic behind your thinking and the quality of information on which you based your statement or opinion. Is it possible you have taken reliable information and put it together in the wrong way or is the evidence supporting your argument questionable?

Saying something with confidence will lead people to believe that what you are saying is true but without real evidence it is still only an opinion.

The so called scientific method which introduced us to the idea of gathering evidence cannot be attributed to one individual, the high-profile contributors include Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Descartes and Newton. It was clearly an organic process that Newton eloquently described as standing upon the shoulder of giants.

Regardless of the originator, the scientific method has changed the way we think and shaped much of the modern world, from discoveries in medicine, putting a man on the moon and the creation of the internet. But……Not Learning.

Learning science

Although still a relatively new field there are a group of individuals who include cognitive and computer scientists, linguists and educational phycologists who collectively call themselves Learning Scientists. By gathering evidence in the form of data about how students learn they have been able to draw conclusions that are “evidence based”. What can be proven and what cannot. For both students and teachers their findings should be essential reading.

One important point, this does not in any way detract from what a good teacher does, no more than offering advice to doctors on the evidence supporting the success of a new drug.

The top 6 evidence-based study techniques

1. Spaced practice (distributed)

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you are effectively taking the same amount of time to study, just doing it over a longer period of time. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called your retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. One implication is that cramming can work but only if you want to retain information for a short period of time, to pass an exam for example. As such it is understandable why students do this, because they have proved in the past it was successful.  If, however you need that information for the next level of study, you may need to learn it all over again!

“The effect is simple: the same amount of repeated studying of the same information spaced out over time will lead to greater retention of that information in the long run, compared with repeated studying of the same information for the same amount of time in one study session.”

Watch this video, it’s an excellent summary.

2. Interleaving

Interleaving is simply studying different subjects or topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to the next, this latter process is called blocking. However as with spaced practice students might find it harder (see desirable difficulty) because interleaving involves retrieval practice and is more difficult than blocked practice, but the knowledge is retained for far longer. One proven technique is for students to alternate between attempting a problem and viewing a worked example. This is much better than attempting to answer one question after another. Its simply about switching activity.

But be careful, interleaving is best done within a subject, don’t move from Chemistry to Art for example. Unfortunately we don’t have any evidence as to what the optimum time period should be, so that might have to come down to trial and error. If however its too short a time there is a danger you will effectively be multitasking, and as I have mentioned in a previous blog, that simply doesn’t work.

This video by brain hack is excellent

“Interleaving occurs when different ideas or problem types are tackled in a sequence, as opposed to the more common method of attempting multiple versions of the same problem in a given study session, known as blocking.”

3. Retrieval practice

This may come as no surprise to many students and certainly not to anyone who reads this blog, its true testing actually improves memory. The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful.  There is also an added benefit, if you are told there is going to be a test, the increased test expectancy leads to better-quality encoding of the new information.

One concern is that while there is little doubt that retrieval practice works, there is some research to show that pressure, perhaps the result of test anxiety during retrieval can undermine some of the learning benefit.

“However, we know from a century of research that retrieving knowledge actually strengthens it.”

Part two, next month

I hope this insight into evidence based learning has been useful, next month I will cover Elaboration, Concrete examples and Dual coding.

And if you would like to find out more here is a link to the article that quotes much of the research to support these techniques.

Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

keep-calm-and-study-all-night-5 Well not exactly all night

For students May and June are the main exam months. Studying and learning can be enjoyable…. honestly, but the fun has to come to an end and it does, with the exam. It cannot be avoided and so is best embraced, treat the exam as a game and you the player. What you need to do is give yourself the very best chance of winning.

Become a professional exam taker, someone who follows a process of preparation, very much like a top sportsperson. This means you personally need to be in the best physical and mental shape and have a series of exercises that will get you match fit.

Below is your training regime from the night before the exam – good luck

The night before

You should by now have:

  • Read through and reduce your class/tuition notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max) of revision notes, see March Blog on how to prepare notes. You may have some professionally produced revision notes, but it is still best to make your own.
  • Practiced past questions on the key examinable areas both under exam and non exam conditions.
  • Started the process of memorising the revision notes.

Be realistic – The key to the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time, so don’t think you can cover everything. Let’s assume you have 3/4 hours, 6.00pm – 10.00pm maybe.

Put to one side the large folder that contains all your notes taken throughout the term/year, and concentrate only on the 10-20 page revision notes.

Focus and memorise – In the 3/4 hours that you have you want to get an overview of the subject and focus on the areas that need memorising. These should be the key examinable areas and are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas s not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of notes, but very little, focus on talking out loud, drawing pictures, writing out mnemonics etc. See my blogs on memory, in particular: Thanks for the memories  and To pass an exam do and exam.

Admin – make sure you have set to one side everything you will need the next day. This includes your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Physical and mental preparation – Drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress. So you may want to build into your 4 hours, 30 minutes for a run or brisk walk. This could be at the half way point of your evening, combining a well earned break with the exercise maximises your time.

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to sleep. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, watch TV for 10 minutes, something trivial or read a book. You need to break the state of mind from that of studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself that you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage, it’s a pointless thought strategy and not what the professional exam taker does.

The morning before

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you at least another hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals. Don’t worry about falling to sleep in the exam; the adrenalin won’t let you.

1 hour before

What you do after arriving at the exam centre/School etc  is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own going over the revision notes; don’t bother taking your folder of course notes. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to stop them worrying. Both are fine.

After the examExam post it!

Afterwards is also a little personal, most will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some conformation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

The American basket ball player Art Williams had a good saying that I will leave you with. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy — I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it”

And although personally I found exams difficult I have never regretted the hard work, it was for me worth it.

And something to watch

How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS

Or you could try this

This blog is for Beth – good luck xx

To pass an exam – do an exam

To ride a bike - Ride a bike

Although the debate around the value of examinations (testing) is set to continue, new research from Kent State University in the US suggests that examinations aid learning by making the brain develop more efficient ways of storing information. Dr. Katherine Rawson, associate professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychology, and former Kent State graduate student Mary Pyc published their research findings in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of the journal Science. 

“Taking practice tests – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something from memory – can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to remember that information again later,” Rawson said. 

In the article titled “Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis,” Rawson and Pyc reported an experiment indicating that at least one reason why testing is good for memory is that testing supports the use of more effective encoding strategies. In particular the brain comes up with mental keywords – called mediators – which trigger memories which they would not do when studying only.

 I have to say that this comes as no surprise to me nor would it to any student or anyone who has ever read a book on memory techniques.   It does however add some significant evidence to support the use of testing or mock examinations as a means of preparation for the real thing.

 To pass examinations you require much more than just memory techniques, and in many ways all this research* has done is show that you can recall certain words far more easily if you link them via another word, the mediator, and then test to find out if you can in fact remember them. But because you can’t pass an exam without remembering what you have learned it does mean that by spending a little more time in encoding the information and by testing yourself afterwards you must improve your chances of passing.

 To my mind the research still has some way to go in recognising the other benefits of doing practice exams or tests, and I should add looking at the answers. For example do they not give a very clear indication of the standard required, provide focus as to what is important and what is not, give a concise summary of key parts of the syllabus, show how the knowledge should be applied in the context of the question and improve your level of concentration knowing that you will be tested latter, I could go on.

 How does this help – some tips

 When trying to get something into your head, don’t just read it, although reading is a method of learning, it is not very effective when it comes to remembering. Reading is largely an auditory process; you say the words in your head. Ever heard the saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. At the same time as reading, underline the key words and make notes with those key words. The very process of extracting them from the text will help. Next you need to remember those key words, well why not link them with a story (A mediator) or with single words as illustrated in the study. There are several memory techniques that use the principle of association to link words, check out the “stack and link and number rhyme” systems. See video below for an example of how to use the number rhyme system.

 And then of course you need to test yourself and your ability to recall those key words afterwards.

 So be in confident and inspired that what you new has now been proven and that  tests are not just about finding out if you will pass or fail the exam, they are an integral and vital part of the learning process, and that’s a fact.

 *In the research they asked students to remember Swahili-English word pairs, such as ‘wingu – cloud and use a mediator (wingu’ sounds like ‘wing’ – the mediator, birds have wings and fly in the ‘clouds) to link the two.

For more thoughts on what this means – click