What are we learning?

After class a student told me, “I thought I had been taught how to learn in school but now you’ve ruined everything.” She asked me to look at her notes. “See?”, she said, “Don’t these notes look like the material on the powerpoint? And they are neatly written aren’t they?” I agreed, they indeed were.


Then what was the problem, what had I ruined?


That day my Cognitive Psychology class had just finished an activity and discussion on strategies for learning. Students selected THE most commonly used learning strategies by college students from the following list (adapted from: Dunlosky et al., 2013):

  1. Highlighting (text or information)
  2. Re-reading (to be learned material)
  3. Summarize
  4. Mnemonic (use key words to describe)
  5. Imagine (use mental images while learning)
  6. Elaborate (provide related details to to be learned information)
  7. Self-explain (write why in own words)
  8. Testing (practice by asking yourself questions about material)
  9. Distribute Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days)
  10. Interleave Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days, but switch content each half hour)

The items on the list were described by Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) as either of low, moderate, or high in how useful they are for learning. In the list, the lowest appear in red, moderate in blue, and high in green.

Students said their peers would consider method #1 Highlighting and #2 Re-reading as the most used strategies. I asked them who thought the average college student tests themselves on materials, on their own, BEFORE taking a test. Methods 8, 9, and 10 are all ways you can test yourself on material. NO ONE RAISED THEIR HAND.

Student preferred methods like re-reading and highlighting do take time, but have very low pay off for learning. Consider this, as a new college student I recall carefully laying


out a fresh pack of colorful highlighters. I sat down with my book or class notes and meticulously color-coded information in a pattern I thought would be both meaningful and lead to successful remembering. I WAS WRONG. Not only did this take a lot of time, the time spent convinced me the effort would pay off.

Learners typically pick the least effortful method, but one that also takes a lot of TIME. Their time spent “studying” gives them an ILLUSION of knowing material. In a student’s words… “I spend my time and attention trying to write down everything the teacher says. Sometimes this is copying down, word-for-word, what is on presentation slides. When I go back to study these notes. I find they are just words without meaning.”

The student is sharing the illusion of learning that occurs when studying takes a lot of time. She felt like she knew the material but after reading it again she realized it wasn’t in her own words and there were no detailed examples she could connect the materials to. Her next step was to turn back to the text and powerpoint and read and re-read material, hoping information would sink in. Come test time, her knowledge of material was only surface-level. She knew the very basics but had trouble on the test because she could not explain the content on essay questions and had difficulty with multiple-choice questions that apply knowledge.


For most students there is no course dedicated to the science of learning in their college curriculum.

  • One that lets them know how to successfully study for more than a 48-hour memory.
  • One that teaches them the science of how human memory works.
  • One that teaches them the skills they can use for college preparation as well as in their careers.

I am inspired to follow in the steps of Dr. Edward DeLosh at Colorado State University. Dr. DeLosh teaches a general education course called “The Science of Learning.” Here students are taught, “The science of learning and remembering with an emphasis on strategies and methods that students can use to enhance their learning and studying.”

FOR MY ANGRY STUDENT. She deserves to know how to study and learn BEFORE she has one semester left in college. She should be upset that what has been missing in her studies is the SCIENCE OF LEARNING. I am committed to help change this.

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The Memory Diet?

Eggs, coffee, blueberries, dark chocolate, walnuts, avocados, kale….


No, this is not my shopping list. It is a list of foods touted by popular press, to improve memory and cognitive function. Recently I asked students in my Human Memory class to investigate a food believed to be related to memory improvement. The above foods made the list along with several other suggestions (e.g., eat the Mediterranean diet, take supplements like turmeric and vitamin E, and drink red wine). Students were required to provide the source of claim — almost always a popular press site. Then they noted whether the article referenced a scientific study and other features of the source’s validity like whether or not the article was sponsored content.

Finally, the students checked our library databases to see if their was any scientific research to support the claim and make an overall recommendation about adding or not adding the food to a daily diet.

You are hoping that now I bring you great clarity about what to eat for an efficient, better than before memory?……………


What did the students find?

1.) Some of the articles were sponsored. So, we can’t be sure there is not bias in reporting to serve the sponsorship.

2.) Most of the articles did reference a research study. This is great!

3.) When articles did reference research, the results cannot (yet) be applied to every-day eating habits.

What does this mean for us?

Although we might like drinking coffee and eating chocolate, we cannot follow a specific guideline for eating this food in a way that would benefit memory. Tips such as drinking black coffee (avoiding sweeteners and sugary cream) are always solid. However, how much coffee is best for cognition is undefined. For chocolate, research suggests a serving of 1 ounce a day would be beneficial. Again though, consider mistakes people might make as they indulge in their “daily” chocolate. I can see my kid generalizing this to eating his hidden away Halloween candy! There simply is not enough evidence to prescribe a diet with any of these foods to see direct memory and cognitive benefits.

What can you do for your memory?

Suggestions for cognitive improvement walk the line for healthy living. Eating a balanced diet low in saturated fats and sugar, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables is sound advice. Exercise is important but individual differences on best exercises for  you and your body is as varied as food.

I suggest, the LEARN method to improve memory: Listen (pay attention), Elaborate, Associate, Re-tell, and Night (get a full-night of sleep). To find more about this method, see my post on Learning Styles.

Why you want to learn with Learning Styles but should use the LEARN method instead.

Personalized learning sounds great. The idea that you have one preferred way to learn best is appealing. But where you go wrong is assuming this preference should actually be applied to how you are taught, in all circumstances. Take this classroom scenario as an example of how people approach the idea of learning styles. You are in a class where the teacher always talks. The teacher does not provide any hand-on activities or visuals to go along with the lecture.

You put up a big fuss because you have taken an learning styles inventory and KNOW that you learn BEST when you see something written down. You NEED the teacher to yield to your preference or you will shut down and become incapable of doing well in the class.


Okay, so maybe you are not that irrational. Still, stop and consider two questions that address this way of thinking:

1.) Is your teacher using best practices for teaching and learning? Well, maybe not. It is problematic to simply talk at students. Students need a variety of teaching methods. If the teacher doesn’t ask questions or engage students in any way OTHER than “just talking” then I fully agree — this is probably not a class where students are learning. But maybe the teacher is an excellent story teller, engaging in narration full of vivid imagery and clever anecdotes relating the material to every day life. In this case, students only hearing a lecture may come away with a lot of knowledge.

2.) Should material be presented only the way you like? Maybe you do learn better with pictures. But that isn’t the end of the story. Everyone learns better when they have many ways to remember. If I’m teaching you about types of apples, I’ll have much better luck showing you pictures of the apples I’m describing than only telling you about them. You would have an even better chance learning about these applies if you could taste them. Better still, just like my son’s kindergarten class pictured below, you will learn SO MUCH about apples if we go out to an apple orchard to pick, gather, wash, talk about and eat apples. HE WON’T STOP TALKING ABOUT APPLES!

Calin Apple Orchard

Seriously though, don’t you wish you could feel that way about the Physics class you took in high school or while learning Statistics in college?

Preferences will only get you so far. There is a dual relationship in teaching and learning. I am fully on board with being the most effective teacher I can be BUT I also want to equip students with best practices to learn in any circumstance. You can do that with what I am calling the LEARN Method.

Learn google

Girl listening with her hand on an earL: LISTEN. Before you can learn anything you have to be tuned in. Forget doing two things at once. Make sure if you are reading, you can actually pay attention to the book. If you are watching a documentary, don’t also browse the internet. If you are in the classroom, really BE IN THE CLASSROOM. Turn off all distractions unless they are required for your learning. Learning does not occur through absorption — you really have to be paying 100% attention to learn!

elaborateE: ELABORATE. Explain and describe what you are learning using many details. Back to the apple orchard. The children learned so much about apples because their knowledge was elaborated on with pictures, tastes, smells, sounds, and stories. Whether it be chemical elements in high school or types of animals in biology class, you need to make multiple connections with new information. Think of your mother who might ask you a lot of questions about a date with a significant other: where did you go? what did you do? what did you wear? what happened? All kidding aside, when we describe and explain with a lot of APPROPRIATE details, we are more likely to learn.

AssociateA: ASSOCIATE. Connect new information with things you already know. The best teachers know this well. They make information relevant to learner experiences. If a teacher makes learning about numbers related to performance on a fantasy football team, people may be more likely to pay attention and learn complicated statistical formulas…if they are interested in sports. Analogies and associations take very complex or obscure information and tie it into what a person already knows. We are motivated by what is familiar and what we like. 

Pet BirdR: RE-TELL: Teach someone the new information you have learned. The best way to reinforce your learning is to be held accountable to teaching it to someone else. When you learn something new, have a debate about it with a roommate or spouse. Try to teach them by way of simplification. This will also work with children — although they may not be great listeners. I’ve found that having children has made me a better teacher. Explaining almost anything to a small child requires not only simplifying it but using language appropriate for them. Re-telling also requires processing thoughts outside your mind. Many learners develop a false sense of knowing because they have never had to explain a concept to someone else. 

NightN: NIGHT. Make night time and achieving a full-night’s sleep sacred. Okay, I’m a work in progress with this one. In our culture we sometimes see people getting a full 8 hours sleep as lazy or week. We place a high value on productivity. Sleep is required for information to become well-learned though. Neuroscientists have found that something called consolidation occurs when we sleep. Consolidation happens as neurons and memory systems of the brain re-work with newly learned information to stabilize it. When your father encouraged you to get a good night sleep before a big test, he wasn’t kidding. Much of the consolidation process happens when we sleep. Less sleep, impaired or low-quality sleep and we are less likely to cement new memories so they can be remembered long after.

Never mind Learning Styles, remember the LEARN METHOD: LISTEN, ELABORATE, ASSOCIATE, RE-TELL, NIGHT and you’ll have more success learning.



Photographic memory: Fact or falsehood?

I was giving a guest lecture to a high school psychology class on learning and memory. After getting through much of the content, the class instructor asked if I would talk about strategies for student success in college. As some students perked up, one student exclaimed, “well, ‘Mike’ doesn’t have to worry about learning how to study because he has a PHOTOGRAPHIC memory.” I felt two waves of emotion: First, I sensed relief among some of the students. This comment of a superior and somewhat magical memory meant they were off the hook, didn’t it? They simply do not have the ‘special ability’ and so why try? Second, was the feeling of weariness I had over having to address the statement.flat800x800075f

The student brought up one of the many misconceptions about human behavior. A small untruth pointing to the larger issue of Psychology’s Image Problem. Psychology, unlike other sciences, often runs into the problem of confusing common sense with fact. Every one of us has motivations, emotions, and thoughts which make each person an expert on their own life and more likely than not, we use this experience to view the world. We are less likely to do this with Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, although ideas about gravity, chemical reactions, and metabolic processes, also occur within us or around us.

Try it out — Tonight at dinner (assuming you are not only talking to 3-year olds or other psychologists) bring up the idea that opposites attract or that most adults experience a mid-life crisis. You’ll likely find yourself a lively discussion filled with examples and stories affirming these beliefs. But, like the student talking about the PHOTOGRAPHIC memory, your beliefs are wrong.


So what has gone wrong? The student likely has a strong visual memory. He, like all of us, relies on details from images to remember. This is referred to as eidetic memory or visual memory. We all benefit from relying on images to remember. For example, memory champions (yes, there are national and world-wide competitions on memory) use detailed and bizarre ideas and attempt to create a “visual image” to help them remember. Joshua Foer, journalist and author of, Moonwalking with Einstein

has widely discussed the benefits of imagery to best remember. In his Ted talk he brilliantly describes remembering his talk by linking characters like Britney Spears, Cookie Monster, and characters from the Wizard of Oz to places in his home. This is a method which has been used for centuries to recall called the Method of Loci. Without getting too bogged down with the method though consider the importance of remembering the interviewer’s name at a job interview. You’d do anything to avoid the embarrassment of finishing the interview, shaking her hand, and not being able to REMEMBER HER NAME!

Frustrated Businesswoman Tearing Out Hair







One strategy is to use image-based features to remember. Pick a feature on her face or something she is wearing to focus on. Quickly incorporate it into her name. Or use her name in a silly, cartoon-like scenario. Come up with a….once you see it you can’t un-see it type of image. If you are feeling less creative, simply say it back to her right away, then again using any image you’ve come up with.

It is actually useful for all of us to rely heavily on mental pictures as we learn. However, research has well-documented that what we come up with is not a perfect match to the original image. We don’t have exact replicas of pictures in our mind. Research on a phenomenon called ‘flashbulb’ memory in which we remember specific details of a particular memorable event (e.g., JFK’s death, events surrounding 9/11) further shows that our mental images are not perfect and change often. Researchers tested people months and years after these events to find that they confuse details and lose accuracy like any other memory.

The truth is that it takes work to have a good memory. Joshua Foer, the journalist described above actually won the USA Memory Championship one year. Like most of us however, some days he cannot remember where he parked his car. Psychology researchers like Dr. Anders Ericsson have well-established that it take effort and use of mental strategies (like creating acronyms, using images, elaborating on the situation with something you know well) to best remember.

Next time someone tells you they know someone with a Photographic memory please don’t believe them. Instead start a discussion about strategies they use to help them remember best. Chances are you can share tips to help them remember too.


Back to School and Memory: The Forever Student

I have gone back to school now for thirty-one years in a row. Every year since 1st grade, through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate school, and now in my 10th year of college teaching I have looked at the world and my time in it from the fresh perspective of another school year. Not one year since kindergarten have I missed the combined nostalgia and dread children and young adults everywhere likely feel when faced with a fresh start. Consider some of your favorite back-to-school memories: new shoes and backpack, sharpened pencils and crayons, labeled notebooks, joyous reunions, and the smell (good and bad) of the school building. Yet, there are less joyful ideas racing back too: schedules, the end of care-free summer days, piles of homework, and potential problems with teachers and peers.

Image result for back to school and memory

Studying memory, I am curious about my perspective of TIME through the lens of the school year. Perhaps with a continual re-set of a new beginning I will have better, more distinct memories for each year. Image result for timeResearchers and regular folks alike report that as you grow older life speeds up. This seems to be further compounded when you have children. I am constantly being reminded, to the point of nausea that time is moving too quickly after having children. Look at how much they’ve grown Aunt Dot exclaims year after year at all of those family gatherings.

Do you remember looking up at your parents with almost repulsive curiosity about why your relatives seemed obsessed about  YOUR growing? I now see this sentiment centered on my own two small children. Just this summer as my 5 year-old prepares for kindergarten I have thought about how many times he has been asked if he is ready for school. If his experience of time is like most young children, and days and months seem to go on forever, chances are he is starting to think this kindergarten thing doesn’t even exist. Think of taking a two hour drive to the nearest big city. A young child may ask “are we there yet” close to fifty times, if you are lucky. Image result for children looking up at parents

As we grow, our brains encode our experiences and these memories essentially shape who we are and how we see the world. This self-awareness or autobiographical memory is just starting to take hold in my 5 year-old; most of his previous memories, due to lack of language and neurological developments will fade into nothing. From now until his early thirties though time will seem like a cavern of possibility. I hope he will have no sense of a short life during this time.

If you are in your mid-thirties to forty chances are you are waking up most days wondering how you got to middle-age. Up to this point, time has been marked by autobiographical events (first days of school, graduations, birthdays, holidays, first loves, weddings, birth of children, death of loved ones) that keep stamping our idea of life with new ink. As we have these life memories not only are we creating a sense of identity but we are laying down our ability to think about our past. When asked to remember our past, reminiscing takes shape into a peak of special memories around twenties to mid-thirties. So if you to think about memories most central to who you are/most exciting/most personal, chances are you have what is referred to in memory research as a “bump” or inflection of events recalled during this time. As we age, we tend to have more predictable patterns to our lives (more stability in relationships and jobs). Without unique memories to partition out our lives, when we think back we perceive our life as moving quickly. Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time captures this experience with the following, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.’ Being surprised now about being in my mid-thirties I have no doubt that if I am lucky enough to grow old, that like Proust I will feel a younger self trapped among the wrinkles!

Image result for journey

Never mind being annoyed, if one more person tells me time flies when you have children….

I have become almost painfully aware that my children are growing up quickly. I can, however, take solace in that to their blissfully under-formed ‘autobiographical selves’ growing up seems to take forever. Being around school starts for more than thirty years I wonder…will the newness of each school year help time slow? Will I continue to make enough new and exciting memories to slow the passing of time?

Will you?

*For a great read on time and memory check out Douwe Draaisma’s

Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past

Image result for Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past

Is Memory Failure EVERYDAY LIFE?

How does my memory compare to yours? We can’t help but compare our own cognitive prowess with others. In the start of my memory class this fall my students and I have discussed memory improvement by way of memory training. The idea of “training” for memory might conjure up pictures of your brain lifting weights!


Sites to improve your memory, attention, and overall cognition are alive and well and ready to take your money. But, before you push a button and commit to a brain gym membership you might want to see how you are doing.

The Everyday Memory Questionnaire (revised) by Royle, J. & Lincoln, N.B. (2008) provides a relatively simple way for you to see what everyday tasks prove you are a memory master and to help indicate where you might need some “brain bulking-up.”


Below are examples of things that happen to people in everyday life. Some of them may happen frequently and some may happen very rarely. For each of the 13 items, consider how often, on average, you think each one has happened to you over the past month.

Rate each item on a scale of 0 — 4 using the following key:

Once or less in the last month = 0

More than once a month but less than once a week = 1

About once a week = 2

More than once a week or less than once a day = 3

Once or more in a day = 4

**You’ll want to keep track so that you can add all of the numbers at the end!!

1. Having to check whether you have done something that you should have done.
2. Forgetting when it was that something happened; for example, whether it was yesterday or last week.
3. Forgetting that you were told something yesterday or a few days ago, and maybe having to be reminded about it.
4. Starting to read something (a book or an article in a newspaper, or a magazine) without realizing you have already read it before.
5. Finding that a word is ‘on the tip of your tongue’. You know what it is but cannot quite find it.
6. Completely forgetting to do things you said you would do, and things you planned to do.
7. Forgetting important details of what you did or what happened to you the day before.
8. When talking to someone, forgetting what you have just said. Maybe saying
‘what was I talking about?’
9. When reading a newspaper or magazine, being unable to follow the thread of a story; losing track of what it is about.
10. Forgetting to tell somebody something important, perhaps forgetting to pass on a message or remind someone of something.
11. Getting the details of what someone was told you mixed up and confused.
12. Forgetting where things are normally kept or looking for them in the wrong place.
13. Repeating to someone what you have just told them or asking someone the same question twice.


Okay, so what do I do now, you say? Perhaps you think that went well, or maybe I’ve opened up a vortex of all that you thought was wrong with your memory. Don’t panic. Here are some numbers you can work with.

Your score will total up to be something between 0 and 52. If you answered 0, then you are likely a memory master and should consider writing this post instead of me! Chances are you are more interested in the average score. Participants tested by Royle & Lincoln had an average score of 9.75 with a standard deviation (or the amount of variation among scores) of 8.6.

What does this mean for me, you ask?


Well, consider yourself among the land of “normal memory” if you are around the average. Scores well above the average are what YOU are really concerned about… consider about two times the average (for example, approaching or higher than 30) cause for concern.

There is help for us all! When you think about the 13 items, chances are that there is room for improvement. These items target memory retrieval (being able to get a memory when we want it) and attention (well, we all know what that is). Most of our problems begin with focusing on the task. I suggest you go back through the list and assess how much better you would be if you simply paid more attention (or had the energy to pay attention) during tasks.

If this helps…you may quickly realize that with a little more sleep, hobbies, time for relaxation, an amazing partner…that you can begin to IMPROVE. After all, memory failure IS a part of everyday life.


Royle, J. & Lincoln, N. B. (2008). The everyday memory questionnaire – revised: Development of a 13-item scale. Disability and Rehabilitation, 30 (2), 114-121.

What DOES Google Know?

I have been teaching for seven years at a mid-sized university in the Midwest. The first few years of my teaching I didn’t feel that GOOGLE was yet the master. When it happened, it was sudden, shocking even, and a game-changer.


Students love when a lecture goes off topic. It is a chance to break free of monotony, to get the jitters out and most teachers will tell you that it can be a welcome distraction. So when a question comes up like, what is the capital of South Dakota? who was the second man on the moon? what exactly is goulash? there is a chance for laughter and idle chatter….unless there is GOOGLE.

One day about eight weeks into a fall semester course on Human Memory we got off track and started to discuss common comfort foods. I fondly described one of my favorites. “We’ve all had it” I said, a mixed up concoction of the following: meat, tomatoes/tomato sauce, noodles and whatever spare vegetables you would like.goulash

Based on my previous five years in New England in graduate school I fondly remember this combination as American Chop Suey. My students understood the homemade comfort food mashup I described but said I was calling it by the WRONG name. Suddenly, a voice from the back of the room said, I just Googled it and “we” call this Goulash. A great resonance fell over the rest of the class. From then on two things were understood. One, my students were committed to names of their foods and two, GOOGLE knows.

Is there anything GOOGLE could not add to any class. Forgot what the capitol of South Dakota is? Just Google it! Can’t decide who the second man to walk on the moon was? Oh, don’t think for even ONE minute about that. Just Google it too!

Just to be clear, Google is not inherently the problem. However, I didn’t have to think hard for examples of the many, many times I relied on Google for the answer. I could sense the subtle change the knowledge capabilities of Google was having on my own thinking. Can’t remember the name of a song but can remember some of the lyrics:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see…..
Why bother when Google will do it for you. 

The next semester in Human Memory my students read a paper by researchers Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner in 2011. Their work, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” See Abstract explains that people no longer put effort into thinking hard about answers to difficult questions. Rather, they are primed to think about computers and where they might access knowledge (e.g., the internet) on a specific webpage, file, or blog.

Does this so-called “Google Effect” influence your memory in any way? This was the question I posed to my students. There responses were not terribly surprising. Most of them suggested that relying on technology for the answers was “just what we do.” It is easy, effortless, and frees us from remembering all of the details we might face in a day. Besides, they agreed, it had been like this for the majority of the twenty year-old students’ young lives. When you don’t immediately know the answer, it is second-nature to ask the internet, they asserted.


I reasoned with my students that the problem is when you Google something you are short-cutting the retrieval process. Memory retrieval occurs when information is activated from long-term memory (information you currently are not thinking about) into short-term memory (memory that becomes part of your conscious experience). Stepping on retrieval with an urge to Google the answer prevents you from thoughtfully considering an idea. Sure, some might argue that retrieval should be automatic; that is, fast enough that if an answer doesn’t immediately come to you then why bother? While this can be true, it is very possible to use other, related, information that you MAY KNOW QUICKLY as cues. Consider a Trivial Pursuit question asking for the name of the second person to walk on the moon. If you really want to remember that person it is best to think of relevant cues. Perhaps you can remember the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Just thinking of Mr. Armstrong could lead to our “target” astronaut’s name. But, maybe you already thought of Neil and need something more. As a teacher I’ve learned that when cues are both relevant (highly related) and distinct (somewhat unusual), they can often trigger a target memory. If I told my class that this astronaut’s first name was the sound of a tiny insect best known for making honey….well then…most people would suddenly retrieve, Buzz! Yes, Buzz Aldrin was the second man on the moon.


So should you, me, or any of my students REALLY care about the Google Effect? Based on what I have learned about memory, I say, YES! Googling “it” can lead to self-handicapping. If we short-cut the retrieval process and reach for their nearest device too often then we are no longer “practicing memory.” We all need more practice with our memories. Sure it is fun to have data at our fingertips but if we heavily rely on the internet for immediate knowledge, we are less likely to stay the course when our memories are all we can rely on. Obviously, we don’t let students take their smart phones to a test. Your competitors at Thursday-night trivia expect your team to put the phones away. It is important to take the time and effort, on occasion, to rely on our own memory and retrieval process.

You owe it to yourselves to think about how to think! Remember, improving everyday memory requires two key components: 1.) Effort and a willingness to practice 2.) Paying attention.

What do you think….do YOU RELY TOO MUCH ON GOOGLE?

P.S. If you haven’t Googled it already, the capital of South Dakota is Pierre.