Monday, November 24, 2014

How Schools Make Learning Harder Than Necessary

Keep your "nose to the grindstone" is the advice we often give as an essential ingredient of learning difficult tasks. An old joke captures the problem with the old bromide for success, "Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel: Now try to work in that position."

Over the years of teaching, I have seen many highly conscientious students work like demons in their study yet don't seem to learn as much as they should for all the effort they put in. Typically, it is because they don't study smart. And sometimes the problem is created by the teachers' method of instruction.

In an earlier post, I described a learning strategy wherein a student should spend repeated short (say 10-15 minutes) of intense study followed immediately by a comparable rest period of "brain-dead" activity where they don't engage with a new learning task. The idea is that memory of the just-learned material is more likely to be consolidated into long-term memory because there are no mental distractions to erase the temporary working memory while it is in the process of consolidation.

Now, new research now suggests that too much nose-to-the-grindstone can impair learning.
Margaret Schlichting, a graduate student researcher, and Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas tested the effect of mental rest with a learning task of remembering two sets of a series of associated photo pairs.  Between the two task sets, the participants rested and were allowed to think about whatever they wanted. Not surprisingly, those who used the rest time to reflect on what they had learned earlier were able to remember more upon re-test. Obviously, in this case, the brain is not really resting, as it is processing (that is, rehearsing) the new learning. But the brain is resting in the sense that no new mental challenges are encountered.

The university press release quotes the authors as saying, "We've shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning. We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come." Despite the fact that this concept has been anointed as a new discovery in a prestigious science journal, the principle has been well-known for decades. I have explained this phenomenon in my memory books as the well-established term of "interference theory of memory,"

What has not been well understood among teachers is the need to alter teaching practices to accommodate this principle. A typical class period involves teachers presenting a back-to-back succession of highly diverse learning objects and concepts. Each new topic interferes with memory formation of the prior topics. An additional interference occurs when a class period is disrupted by blaring announcements from the principal's office, designed to be loud to command attention (which has the effect of diverting attention away from the learning material). The typical classroom has a plethora of other distractions, such as windows for looking outside and multiple objects like animals, pictures, posters, banners, and ceiling mobiles designed to decorate and enliven the room. The room itself is a major distraction.

Then, to compound the problem, the class bell rings, and students rush out into the hall for their next class, socializing furiously in the limited time they have to get to the next class (on a different subject, by a different teacher, in a differently decorated classroom). You can be sure, little reflection occurs on the academic material they had just encountered.

The format of a typical school day is so well-entrenched that I doubt it can be changed. But there is no excuse for blaring loudspeaker announcements during the middle of a class period. Classrooms do not have to be decorated. A given class period does not have to be an information dump on overwhelmed students. Short periods of instruction need to be followed by short, low-key, periods of questioning, discussion, reflection, and application of what has just been taught. Content that doesn't get "covered" in class can be assigned as homework—or even exempted from being a learning requirement. It is better to learn a few things well than many things poorly. Indeed, this is the refreshing philosophy behind the new national science standards known as "Next Generation Science Standards."

Give our kids a rest: the right kind of mental rest.


Schlichting, M. L., and Preston, A. R. (2014). Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content Proc. Nat. Acad. Science. Published ahead of print October 20, 2014.

Dr. Klemm's latest book, available at most retail outlets, is "Mental Biology. The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate" (Prometheus). 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Insightful Thinking 101

Genius is defined by creativity. Albert Einstein is often regarded as the epitome of genius. Nobody seems to understand his genius other than to say that it bubbled up like uncorked champagne. But the story of his work paints a different picture. His discovery of Special Relativity, for example, came as a stepwise series of small insights spread over many years of incubation.

Einstein used systematic ways of thinking to unleash his creativity. His success was not magic. There was method to his genius. First, Einstein relied heavily on thinking with visual images rather than words. Many famous scientists claim that their best thinking occurs in the form of visual images, even at the level of fantasy. Words and language, according to Einstein, had no role in his creative thought and math was used mainly to express the ideas quantitatively. Einstein, for example, in one of his fantasies visualized himself riding on a beam of light, holding a mirror in front of him. Since the light and the mirror were traveling at the same speed in the same direction, and since the mirror was a little ahead of the light's front, the light could never catch up to the mirror to reflect an image. Thus Einstein could not see himself. Another example of his use of imagery is his thought experiments visualizing train movements. Although fantasy, such thinking is not the product of a hallucinating mind; there is clear logic and order embedded in the fantasy.

A second reason for Einstein's creativity is that he was unafraid, even as an unimpressive student and a patent clerk without recognition as a scientist, to challenge no less an authority than James Clerk Maxwell when the thought experiment could not be explained by current electrodynamic dogma.

Third, Einstein thought long and hard on this problem for over seven years when he published his seminal paper in1905 at the age of 25.  Actually, he said in his autobiography that he started pondering the problem when he was 16. The point is that the revelation did not happen in an instant—it was the product of incubation. Actually, his ideas were fermenting for years, where he repeatedly thought about alternative possibilities and eliminated those that didn't add up. By the process of elimination incubated over a long time of thinking, the final solution became accessible.

This view of creativity is consistent with the view of Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes and came within a hair of decoding DNA structure that would have won him a third. He said, "To have a good idea, you have to have lots of ideas." All exceptional scientists generate lots of ideas, and then winnow out the ones that are practical for testing by experiment. In other words, Einstein and Pauling are proof that creativity is not as inaccessible for ordinary people as it seems. There are systematic ways for everyone to become more creative.

These ways of thinking can be taught and used by anyone. Young scientists aspire to have an early experience of working for a time in the lab of a famous scientist, in the hope of learning how to make discoveries. Many Nobel Prize winners have been students of other Nobel Prize winners. Consider the case of Hans Krebs, who discovered the energy-production process in cells. His "family tree" of scientists shows the following relationships of science teachers and mentors:

Berthollet (1748-1822)
   Gay-Lussac (1778-1850)
      Liebig (1803-1873)
         Kekule (1829-1896)
            von Baeyer (1835-1917)
               Fischer (1852-1919)
                  Warburg (1883-1970)
                             Krebs (1900- 1981)

All of these men were famous and each of the last four received Nobel Prizes, which began in 1901. A role model for Hans was Otto Myeroff, who worked in the same institute and who received the Nobel Prize in 1922. This tree is cultural, not biological. There was only one scientist in Hans' biological family tree, a distant cousin, who was a physical chemist.

In the years (1926-1930) Hans studied with Otto Warburg, where he learned the value of inventing new tools and techniques for conducting experiments to test ideas about energy transformation in living tissue. Another important lesson was the value of hard work on ideas. Warburg worked long and hard hours all his life; he was working in his lab eight days before he died, at the age of 81.

* * *

Creativity is a subset of a general learning competency that entails correct analysis, understanding, insight, and remembering. Here, I stress the importance of insight, often referred to as "thinking outside the box." Moreover, I make the claim that this competency can be taught and mastered through practice.

This mode of thinking goes by other names, such as lateral thinking or "thinking outside the box." Whatever you call it, such thinking requires breaking the constraints of predispositions, limiting assumptions, bias, mental habit, and rigid past learning.

See if you can solve the problem below, which is a simple illustration of the common problem of self-imposed limitation of thinking:

Problem: draw four straight lines that connect all dots without lifting the pencil off the paper. Each line starts where the other finishes. Can you do it?

In case you didn't figure it out, here is one solution:

Many people can't do this task. Reasons for failure here and with other creativity challenges include:

  1. Improper understanding of the problem. Failure to recognize what is allowed and what is not.
  2. Failure to look beyond the ideas that first emerge.
  3. Being so close to a solution that you keep working with the same flawed approach.

Frame the Issue Properly

The sample dot-connection task above illustrates the problems you get into by the way you have framed the problem. When faced with any problem, it is natural to make certain assumptions about facets of the problem that were not explicitly stated. In the above, case, I didn't say that the lines had to stay within the borders of the dots, but many of you probably made that assumption. You were actually free to make the assumption that it was o.k. to do that.

The way we classify things creates a logjam to new ideas. For example, something in Newton's sensory or cognitive world caused him to see the similarity between an apple and the moon in a new way; of course they were both round, solid bodies. But it is not clear what caused him to perceive what is now obvious, namely that both are subject to the effect of gravity. Even seeing the apple fall from a tree would not be a meaningful mental cue for explaining moon motion to most people, because they are not used to thinking of the moon as "falling." Creative thought is affected by the ways in which we classify things. We put apples and moons into categories; but by insisting on describing and naming them, we restrict the categories to which they belong. Apples are supposed to be round, red, and sweet, while moons are large, yellow, rocky, and far away. The names themselves get in the way of thinking of either as a classless object that is subject to gravity. A lesser order of creativity is commonly seen in the simple realization of the significance of obvious associations. The associations may even be negative (e.g., if penicillin is present on a bacteriological plate, the organisms will NOT grow).

A question calls for an answer: a problem, its solution. The trick is not only to ask questions, but to ask questions or pose problems in the most effective ways. A question can easily limit creative thinking if it restricts the space of potential answers. It therefore is important to pose questions in open-ended ways and ways that do not make too many assumptions about an acceptable answer. A major part of the creativity task is proper formulation of the problem itself.

Improving Creative Thinking Ability

People who have looked carefully at the creative process have learned that everyone of ordinary intelligence has latent creative abilities that can be enhanced by training and by a favorable environment. But many of us have not developed our creative capacity. Our brains seem frozen in cognitive catalepsy, boxed in by rigid thinking.

One book that is dedicated to improving creativity is by D. N. Perkins, The Mind's Best Work. He finds that after-the-fact anecdotes about well-known examples of great leaps of creative thought have generally received little or no close scrutiny of the mental processes that led to them. There are too many opportunities for the real mental correlates of creativity to be lost through excitement and distraction (as part of the "eureka" phenomenon), lack of need or desire to reconstruct the thought processes, and faulty skill and memory in reconstructing the process. Experiments where people have been asked to think aloud or report their thoughts during an episode of invention led Perkins to conclude that creativity arises naturally and comprehensibly from certain everyday abilities of perception, understanding, logic, memory, and thinking style.

Generating Insight

As an indication that creativity can be taught and learned, I offer the following personal anecdote.

"Grade = C.  Klemm: Your work shows a lot of industriousness.  Strive for INSIGHT!"

That note was scrawled across an assignment paper I had turned in to my professor, C. S. Bachofer, at Notre Dame. I had worked very hard on that paper, was quite proud of it, and had expected an A. Decades years later, I could still see that message, seared into my memory like a brand on cow hide. It was as if he meant that I was not smart enough. If true, how was I supposed to make myself smarter?  Isn't that a born capacity? You either have it or you don't.

As the years went by, and I became a professor myself, I gradually came to realize that Professor Bachofer was really saying something else.  He was telling me to discover in my own terms and learning style the tactics and techniques that can develop insight capability.  I now know that it IS possible to learn how to become more insightful.  Some of this may be teachable to others.

Idea generation has little to do with intelligence. I remember a graduate student of mine who had great test scores and all As from six years of college work. As was my practice, I tried helping this student develop a thesis project by giving him a published research paper and asking him what ideas occurred to him? After the first paper, he said nothing particular came to mind other than what was reported in the paper. So, figuring I had just picked a paper that was too mundane, I gave him another paper. Again, the same result occurred.  After about four or five tries with the same result, I said, “I’m afraid this is not going to work. You really should not go into this line of work. In any case, if you persist in this ill-advised quest, you will have to find another major professor.”

So how could this student have generated ideas? First, he should have been looking for alternatives. In reading, for example, I focus on what the author did not say. This not only stimulates me to think of other possibilities but also improves my ability to remember what was written. Thinking about something is the best way to rehearse the memory of it.

Thinking of alternatives requires imagination. Young children have lots of imagination. Unfortunately, school tends to stamp that out in the first few years. This is one reason I like to use mnemonic devices to promote memory. All these devices require imagination, and the more you exercise this capability, the better you can get at it.

Idea generation needs to be valued. School tends to devalue creativity. Expectations are to learn what is dished out and pass a high-stakes test on it. What educators value most is understanding and remembering accepted knowledge. Do we believe students are too dumb for higher level thinking? Do we believe that these higher skills are innate and cannot be taught? Do we believe that maybe they could be taught if we only knew how?

The Creative Process

The literature on the creative process is vast, and I can only summarize it here. Have you seen the advertisement from IBM Corporation, in which there was a long alphabetized list of "old English" words? The ad's caption read, "Anyone could have used these 4,178 words. In the hands of William Shakespeare, they became King Lear." King Lear epitomizes the essence of creativity: to take commonly used and understood ideas and recombine them in elegant new ways. 

Some practical advice on how to think innovatively is provided by Beth Comstock, the CMO at General Electric. She was inspired by a brilliant boss who wasn't afraid to offer an idea before its time. Even though many of his ideas were absurd, many were also gems. None of these would have been born had he not been willing to "put it out there." As Einstein said, "If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it." The point is that creative ideas often come of the oven half-baked. Typically, the recipe has to be modified.

Comstock's advice includes:

1. Nurture the newborn idea. Absurd ideas are all too easy to dismiss. Be patient with them and protect them from early-stage critical analysis. This accepting attitude lies at the heart of effective brainstorming. Get the ideas out on the table. They often will grow or transform into better ideas. Sit on them. Let them incubate.

2.  Commit to a promising idea. Successful ideas are nurtured by passion. If you believe in the promise of an idea, noodle it to fit a meaningful problem. Do your homework. Smooth the rough patches. Ask others to help make the idea better.

3. Tell others, even when you feel embarrassed about how flakey the idea might be. This clarifies your own thinking and at least a few of your listeners may get intrigued and help you improve the idea.

4. Hang in there. Don't be intimidated by negative feedback. Use such feedback to improve the idea. If necessary, put the idea in storage until improvements come to mind, or new technology or resources become available or others people are more accepting. If you believe in your idea, don't give up.

A fundamental aspect of creative thinking is to be flexible in interpreting what you see or hear. Powers of observation include of course the ability to notice things. But just registering a visual or thought input is not enough. Creative brains see what others only look at. That is, creative brains look for implications.

A basic condition for a creative act is to combine known elements into new combinations or perspectives that have never before been considered. Perkins writes of the utility of deliberately searching for many alternatives so that many combinations and perspectives can be considered. Creativity is much more likely to emerge when a person considers many options and invests the time and effort to keep searching rather than settling for mediocre solutions.

The first and fundamental step in the creative process is to have a clear notion of what the problem is and to be able to frame it appropriately. Recall in the opening example how you framed the dot problem determined whether or not you could solve it. The effective thinker begins by first focusing on the structure of the problem rather than its technical detail.

Creative operations require conceiving alternative solutions. These come from each person's permanent memory store, his or her lifetime data base of knowledge and experience. Memorizing does not impair thinking ― it can empower thinking. Other potential alternatives are brought in from such external sources of input as reading, ideas from colleagues, data bases, and other sources. Next, these alternatives can be processed logically (by associating, sorting, and aligning into new or unusual categories and contexts) or more powerfully by the use of images, abstractions, models, metaphors and analogies.

Thus, knowledge is not the enemy of creativity. One's capacity for creativity depends on the store of knowledge. Einstein, for example, would not have discovered relativity if he had not known basic physics in general and Maxwell's ideas and equations in particular. As my friend, Ann Kellet has said, "To think outside the box, you have to know what is inside the box." The trick is to take a fresh look at what is inside the box.

The next stages involve noticing clues and potential leads, realizing permutations of alternatives that are significant, and finally selecting those thoughts that lead to a new idea. There are dozens of thinking tools that stimulate idea. Check out these tools at the Web sites,, and

The process of considering and choosing among alternative approaches involves a progressive narrowing of options in the early stages of creation and a readiness to revise and reconsider earlier decisions in the later stages. Einstein ran into several blind alleys in his discovery journey. This narrowing process requires the creator to break down and reformulate the categories and relationships of thoughts and facts that are commonly applied to the problems and its usual solutions. The creative thinker examines all reasonable alternatives, including many which at first may not seem "reasonable." Each alternative needs to be examined, not only in isolation, but in relation to other alternatives—and in relation to the initial problem expressed in different ways. The practical problem then becomes one of reducing the size of the problem and alternative solution space to workable dimensions. That may well be why one has to be immersed in the problem for long periods, with subconscious "incubation" operating to help sort through various alternatives and combinations thereof.

Note that all of these operations must occur in the working memory, which unfortunately has very limited capacity. That is probably the reason why insight and creativity are so hard to come by. Researchers of the subject of creativity would do well to look for ways to create more capacity for our working memory and to make it more efficient. The most manipulatible factor would seem to be the mechanics of supplying information input from external sources.

The final stages of creativity are more straightforward. They involve critical and logical analysis, which typically forces a refinement of the emerging ideas. Analysis should force the refinement of premature ideas and re-initiation of the search and selection processes. Sometimes, analysis will force the realization that the wrong problem is being worked or that it needs to be reformulated.

If you have but one wish, let it be for an idea

                                                     ― Percy Sutton 

Further Reading

DeBono, Edward. (2009) Think! Before It's To Late. Vermilion. London.

Klemm, W. R. (1990).Leadership: Creativity and innovation, p. 426-439.Concepts for Air Force Leadership, ed. by R. I. Lester and A. Glenn Morton. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University.

Klemm, W. R. (2001)   Hans' Nobel Prize family. Augst 15, 2014.

Michalko, Michaeal (2001) Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius. Ten Speed Press. New York.

Norton, John D. Einsteins pathway to special relativity. Accessed Aug. 14, 2014.

Perkins, D. N. (1981). The Mind's Best Work. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge.  

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Analytical Thinking — Logic Errors 101

Improving learning and memory entails developing learning and thinking competencies. Chief among these competencies are logical analysis, insightfulness, and the ability to remember what has been learned. Most of my posts have dealt with improving memory. Here, I start a two-series posting on the other two basic learning competencies: critical thinking and creativity. In this post, I will summarize the more common thinking errors that corrupt analysis. Most of the thinking errors below can be described as "specious," which means superficially plausible but actually wrong.

AD HOMINEN ARGUMENT: discounting a position or conclusion on the basis of the credentials of the person who makes it, rather than the merits of the argument itself. Example: Your professor has no credibility to teach on cognitive neuroscience, because he is a veterinarian. Such statements not only fail to acknowledge whatever truth is in the teaching, but also fail to consider that the person has more experience and knowledge than his or her label would imply. See "all-or-none thinking" below.
Two related argumentation tactics for discounting one's credibility are politicization and ridicule. In politicization, the tactic is to align one's position with the majority, as if that conferred more logical validity. With ridicule, the tactic aims to prevent serious consideration of the ridiculed position and create a default endorsement of the protagonist's position.

ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. Nuance is absent.

ANTHROPOMORPHISM: to attribute qualities and properties to non-people that only people can have. Example: “the purpose of evolution is to ….” Evolution happens, but not because it has a purpose.

APPEAL TO AUTHORITY: attempts to justify the conclusion by quoting an authority in its support. This also includes greater readiness to accept ideas if they come from someone with the appropriate credentials rather than the intrinsic merit of the ideas.

APPEAL TO CONSENSUS: positions defended on the basis that many people hold the same view. This is sometimes called the “Bandwagon Fallacy.” Correctness of a position does not depend on who or how many hold it. See also the comments above about politicization

APPEAL TO IGNORANCE: using an opponent’s inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the conclusion’s errors. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

APPEAL TO FINAL CONSEQUENCES: claiming validity for one’s position on the basis of the expected outcome or consequence (also known as a "teleological" argument or sometimes as a "circular argument"). Example: people have free will because otherwise they can’t be held responsible for bad behavior. This is not evidence for the assertion, but merely a statement of a supposed consequence.

ARGUMENT SELECTIVITY: using arguments supporting your position while glossing over the weaknesses and leaving out important alternative arguments. This is often called “cherry picking.” A related argumentation error is to ignore the valid ideas of another while focusing on their ideas that are easier to attack. A related inappropriate selectivity is rejecting an idea altogether just because some part of it is wrong.
A variation of this error is “false dichotomy,” where a set of valid possibilities is reduced to only two.

BEGGING THE QUESTION: an argument that simply reasserts the conclusion in another form. This is a common fallacy where one tries to explain an idea or position by restating a description in a different way. The restatement is still a description, giving the illusion that this new way of stating something explains it.

BIASED LABELING: how one labels a position can prejudice objective consideration of the position. For example, calling a position “Science-based” does not necessarily make it true. Or, conversely, calling a position “colloquial” does not necessary invalidate it.

CIRCULAR REASONING: reasoning where a belief in a central claim is both the starting point and the goal of the argument.

CLOUDING THE ISSUE (OBFUSCATION): using multiple complex ideas and data of unclear relevance to overwhelm the capacity for reason, yet giving the impression of authority and reason— in other words, "baffling them with B. S." Simple language in the service of lucid thought is the sign of superior intelligence.

COGNITIVE SHORTCUT BIAS (Einstellung). This is the dogged tendency to stick with a favored view or argument for a position, and ignoring, in the process, other more fruitful possibilities. Even chess masters, for example, may use an established gambit when a better tactic is available.

CONFIRMATION BIAS. People have a natural tendency to notice only the facts that support their position while discounting those that do not — in other words, believing what you want to believe.

CONFUSING CORRELATION WITH CAUSATION. When two things happen together, and especially when one occurs just before the other, people commonly think that one thing causes the other. Without other more direct evidence of causation, this assumption is invalid. Both events could be caused by something else. In case people need convincing, just remind them of this example: rain and lightning go together, but neither causes the other.

CONFUSING FORCE OF ARGUMENT WITH ITS VALIDITY: repeating erroneous argument does not validate it. Saying it louder doesn’t help either.

DEDUCTION FALLACIES: a valid deductive argument must have consistent premises and conclusions (both must be either true or both false). Failure to be consistent produces “non sequiturs,” that is, conclusions that are not logical extensions of the premise.

EMOTIONAL REASONING: Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. This is an emotional "knee jerk" kind of thinking, often the first thing that comes to mind, which often precludes or overwhelms rational analysis. This error is common in political discourse. People who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts. For example, scientists sometimes unduly value a position because it is “parsimonious,” or elegant, or easily understood (or even complex and sophisticated).

EXLUSIVITY CONFUSION. When several apparent ideas or facts are examined, it is important to know whether they are independent, compatible, or mutually exclusive. Example: concepts of evolution and creationism, as they are typically used, are mutually exclusive. However, stated in other ways, they might be more compatible.

FALSE ANALOGY: explaining an idea with an analogy that is not parallel, as in comparing apples and oranges.

HALO EFFECT: Generalizing merit to an idea or thought on the basis of irrelevant merit of something else. For example, if you like someone, you are more likely to be accepting of their thinking and minimize the defects. Similarly, favorable first impressions are more likely to yield positive impressions later.

INTUITIVE THINKING: relying on a "gut feeling" without fact checking. Example:
            A bat and ball costs $1.10.
            The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.
            How much does the ball cost?

Most people, even students at the most selective universities, give the wrong intuitive answer of 10 cents. The right answer is 5 cents. Do the math.

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS. This error occurs under a variety of situations. The most common cause is failure to consider alternatives. An associated cause is failure to question and test assumptions used to arrive at a conclusion.

MAGNIFICATION & MINIMIZATION. Exaggerating negatives and understating positives. Be aware of how easy it is for you and others to exaggerate the positives of a position and understate the negatives.

MISSING THE POINT. Sometimes this happens unintentionally. But frequently recognition that one’s argument is weak creates the temptation to shift focus away from the central issue to related areas where one can make a stronger argument.

NOT LISTENING. Have a clear notion of the issue and the stance that others are taking. If you have to read another’s mind or “read between the lines,” seek clarification lest you end up putting your words in somebody else’s mouth.

OVER-GENERALIZATION. It is illogical to assume that what is true for one thing is true for something else. Example: some scientists studying free will claim that the decision-making process for making a button press is the same for more complex decisions.

UNSUPPORTED ASSERTION. Recognize when a claim is made without supporting evidence. This also occurs when one confuses a judgment or opinion for a fact.

Further Reading

Clayton, C. W., (2007). The Re-Discovery of Common Sense: a Guide to: The Lost art of Critical Thinking. iUniverse. Lincoln, Nebraska.

Gilovich, T. (1993) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. The Free Press, New York.

Hughes, W. et al. (2010) Critical Thinking, Sixth Edition: An Introduction to the Basic Skills. The Broadview Press. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Kahnemann, Daniel (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Girous. New York.

Read reviews of my books at Follow me on Twitter @wrklemm.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Memory Gimmicks 4. Story Chains

As we took our hour and a half drive to Houston, my granddaughter was practicing a school assignment of memorizing the names of the first 10 presidents. By the time we got there, she still had not done it. I told her a simple way to memorize such sequential lists, and showed her that she could have mastered the task in about 10 minutes. The solution is one of the oldest mnemonic devices: create image-based story chains. The idea is to imagine an image for each item to be memorized and then link them in a story sequence.

As I mentioned for Tip 1, several thousand years ago, ancient Greek orators were noted for their ability to give hours-long speeches from memory. After all there were no teleprompters then, nor even any practical way to write down a long speech. So how did they pull off such astonishing feats? They invented a visual imaging technique where thoughts were mentally captured as images in the mind’s eye because images are much easier to remember than words. They then placed these mental images sequentially in imagined story chains. Thus, they could give their speeches as if they were reading a list of bullet points, but it was all done in their as visual imagination.

This approach works because the human brain is wired to construct and remember stories. If you have any doubt, just think of the popularity of the movies, TV dramas, and novels (some 100,000 in English each year).

Here is a practical example that should interest school teachers and students. Suppose you wanted to memorize the organelles of a cell.

 The picture above shows an icon image representation for each major cell component. The table below shows how each icon can represent the name and function of each organelle as well as showing how the images can be linked in a story chain. You might, for example, mentally represent the nucleus as a nuclear reactor. Then, for the Golgi apparatus, you might picture a sound-alike, "gold." And so on. The images provide cues that capture some of the function of the organelle as well as just helping to  remember its name.

Cell Parts and Function
Place in Story Chain
Nucleus … nuclear … nuclear reactor: makes really valuable stuff (like gene expression)
The cell's most important part is the nucleus.
Golgi apparatus … Golgi … gold: stuff that is really valuable, as in finished product (finished proteins)
Energy produced by the reactor is valuable, like gold
Centrioles … center: splits the line (centrioles split cells)
It takes a lot of gold to pay for a professional football player.
Ribosomes … ribs: they put meat on your ribs, as well as make other proteins too
Pro players eat a lot, like bar-b-que ribs.
Lysosomes ... lie: ribs lie down on chemicals and crush them
The player lies to the cook that the ribs taste bad
Mitochrondria … mites: they move around energetically
As punishment for lying, the mite bits him in the "you know where."
Cell membrane … cellophane: wraps it all together
You wrap up this whole silly story with cellophane.

Note that the sequence could be changed. The icons are put in whatever order needed to facilitate a story. If it is necessary to keep track of serial order, as in a list of U.S. Presidents for example, this may affect your choice of icons and it may take a little more imagination to create a story chain.

One thing that I have noticed about story chains is that a lot is remembered just from the process of selecting images and constructing the story. After all, thinking about a subject is a most powerful way to remember it. Another thing is that, as with all imaging representations, the imagination is developed and it becomes easier to come up with creative solutions that you can apply to other memory tasks. Children can probably do this better than adults.

Finally, story chains are applicable to many memory challenges. You can use them for such tasks as speeches, lists, a sequence of instructions or directions, or names of people in a group. And making up such stories can be fun.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Handwritten Notes Lead to Better Learning

In response to the trend to abolish teaching of cursive in schools, about a year ago I posted an article on what I thought were the developmental benefits of handwriting ( That post has generated over 230 comments.

Now there is evidence that handwriting of lecture notes, compared to typing on a laptop, improves learning by college students. Following up on prior studies that indicated relative ineffectiveness of taking notes by laptop, researchers Pam Meuller and Daniel Oppenheimer provide clear evidence that handwritten note-taking produces better learning in college students.

They reported three experiments that compared the efficacy of college students taking notes by handwriting or with a lap top. Those who used handwritten notes that they studied later scored significantly higher than students using laptops, including fleet typists who took vastly more copious notes. Handwriters took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording. There are many possible explanations, beginning with the "less is more" idea in which too much information produces cognitive overload. Notably, when the typing students were told to avoid verbatim notes, they still did it. This suggests that there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing.  Handwritten notes involve more thought, re-framing, and re-organization, all of which promote better understanding and retention. The manual act of handwriting requires more engagement with the subject matter. Finally, handwritten notes capitalize on the use of drawings and of personalized spatial layout of the notes. Memorization involves not only what the information is, but where it is spatially located.

Added note: Readers interested in education are invited to join our Neuro-education group on Linkedin (

Mueller, P. A., and Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science. 23 April. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Memory Athlete Gimmicks for Memory Wimps. Tip 3: SVO

"Moon Walking with Einstein" is the title of a recent memory improvement book written by Joshua Foer, a reporter of memory championships. Foer became so entranced by watching astonishing memory feats in the contests that he decided to learn the secrets. After talking to memory athletes, he started practicing the techniques and within a few years became a memory champion himself.  You could do that too!

Memory athletes are those seeming freaks of nature who enter contests to see how fast they can memorize the sequence of four shuffled decks of cards or how long a string of digits they can memorize. But memory athletes are not freaks. They are ordinary people like Foer, you, and me who have learned some gimmicks that make possible the seemingly impossible.

Here, I will describe the simplest and easiest gimmick to use. I call it SVO, which stands for SUBJECT (or actor or agent), VERB, and OBJECT. This is the intuitive way we think with our language. Usually the subject is a person, which is why others call this technique POA for person, object, action). But animals or inanimate things can do things too. The trick is to visualize, using lots of imagination, an actor doing something relating to an object … as in moon walking with Einstein. Memorization is made easy because the images are so bizarre and vivid. 

I will illustrate the principles with Foer's method for memorizing the sequence of a deck of cards. He didn’t explain his method completely, deliberately I think, because he probably did not want to be “drummed out” of the elite memory athlete club to which he had been initiated. Not knowing his particular scheme, I will conjure an illustration of how all cards can be visualized. For example, the suits might be as follows:

·         Spades: Batman (black, darkness)
·         Clubs: Tiger Woods (re: golf clubs)
·         Diamonds: Diamond Jim Brady (diamond tie stud) or Za Za Gabor (who famously said, “Daaahling, always wear your diamonds, even to the grocery store. You never know who you will run into”).
·         Hearts: Somebody you love

Then, to associate the card number with the suit, you could use the number code, which is another tip that I will explain later. But as an illustration, the number four is coded as “rye,” which can be a picture of a field of grain or a bottle of rye whisky, whichever you prefer. Thus, for example, the four of clubs would be visualized as Tiger Woods (SUBJECT) teeing off (VERB) on a bottle or rye whisky (OBJECT), instead of a golf ball. What does one do with the face cards? They can be converted to numbers too, Jack = 11, Queen = 12, King = 13, Ace = 1 (Or 14; the number code for one is “tie” and you don’t want to get confused if you are using Diamond Jim Brady as your code for diamonds.

Finally, Foer did mention that he clusters three sequential cards into one image, so that he only has to memorize 17 items, with one item left over, instead of 52.

Well most of us aren’t going to enter memory contests or card-count in Vegas (they catch on to you pretty quick). So, how do we apply this to everyday life? You could use this SOV approach to play a better game of bridge. But many events in daily life are better remembered this way.

First, a simple illustration:

·         Capital of Arkansas (Little Rock): most people know Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. Visualize Clinton (SUBJECT) throwing (VERB) a little rock (OBJECT) at Noah's ark (…ansas)

Now, here is a more complex example where you can string together multiple items to be remembered:

·        Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system: Everybody knows that the heart is key, because it pumps blood. See the heart (SUBJECT) as pumping (VERB) blood (OBJECT) out on to the main traffic artery, like a freeway. Imagine you as an image of Harvey (like Harvey the rabbit in the movie) riding in a boat in the blood river. See the boat slow down and start to back up as it leaves on the off ramp. Maybe you want think of the boat going through a hole (“ole” for arteriole) to get to the off ramp. Then see the boat stop at the stop light (covered with baseball caps … capillary). Then, on green the boat goes back up on the access road (because Harvey had gotten off too soon, in vain (vein). This schema also helps as a metaphor for associating function at the various locations.

While all this seems bizarre, it works with great power. Facts and concepts memorized this way are robustly encoded and readily consolidated into lasting memory because humans are visual animals. We have far more brain area devoted to vision than we do any other sense.
Another way to make the point is with the age-old phenomenon of fairy tales. Fairy tales often carry a moral that we want our children to remember. A few fairy tales are even for adults, with the political protest embedded as a metaphor. In any case, a fairy tale is easy to remember because it is visually vivid, with people acting on or with things.

SVO is perhaps the most flexible memory device. Use it for simple memory tasks or for truly demanding memory challenges.

The publisher of Dr. Klemm's "Memory Power 101" book has now made it available as an audio book at Amazon. Also, you can read multiple reviews at 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Educational Reform. Why It Is Not Working.

The chart below is telling: SAT scores have been flat for over 40 years while education spending has increased 140%. Though this is Texas, I have seen similar data for other states.

 At the national level, federal government educational spending has skyrocketed, with no comparable improvement in educational outcomes.

 Clearly, the data debunk the supposition that more money is needed to fix education. What about changing standards and curricula? What have we got to show for all the reforms in the last 40 years such as Head Start, New Math, Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, charter schools, Next Generation Science Standards, and Common Core?

Could it be that we are trying to apply right answers to the wrong problems? If money, revised standards and curricula, and high-stakes testing are not the real problems, what is?

I think the real problem is that students generally lack learning competencies. Amazingly, schools tell students more about what to learn than how to learn. I think that such schooling has it backwards. In my view, the main goal of school should be to motivate students to learn and to teach them how to do it. Good schooling also ought to cultivate good academic taste, that is, the ability to distinguish principle from fact, useful information from trivia, logical analysis from specious argumentation, and intellectual excellence from superstition, myth, and falsehood. With that accomplished most everything else will fall into place.

What do I mean by "learning competencies?" In this post, I will just identify the competencies needed for effective learning as follows:


In a follow-on post, I will explain what I think teachers can do to promote student development of these learning competencies. The corollary is that Colleges of Education need to be doing more research on these competencies and provide more instruction to pre-service teachers on how to teach learning competencies. In short, what is the smart way to address the real problem in education?

Dr. Klemm has a new book, Mental Biology, The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. See review:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Naps and learning competencies

I have written before about research that clearly demonstrates improved learning after sleep. Sleep promotes the "consolidation" of recently acquired short-term memories into more permanent memories.  Impaired consolidation is a major problem in teaching and learning. Teachers often have to repeat the same instruction again and again, and yet many children still do not perform well on high-stakes tests. Anything teachers can do to improve retention of instruction would be useful, and that includes making school children aware that they probably need to get more sleep. The well-known change in sleep cycles during adolescence makes a strong case for starting school later in the morning. But another issue is whether or not naps during the school day would improve learning.

A recent study in Brazilian schools has addressed this question by having 371 6th graders take a nap after receiving a 15-minute lecture on intentionally novel information that was not relevant to the normal curriculum. Students were then given a surprise multiple-choice test on this content at three different times after the lecture: 1, 2, and 5 days after the lecture.  Scores were compared with that of a pre-test on this material before the lecture.

Students were divided into a nap group, in which students were given sleep masks and encouraged to try to sleep, lying down on mats in a quiet room. The other group went to a regular class by their usual teacher after the lecture.

Not surprisingly, both groups showed improved scores (12% gain) when tested the next day. However, this gain disappeared by five days in the non-nap group, whereas essentially no decline in test scores was evident at testing two or five days later. Teachers would not be surprised that students soon forgot what they are taught. In this situation, the preserved memory in the nap group was especially impressive, given that the study was designed to impair learning in both nap and non-nap groups in four ways:

1.      Students were not allowed to take notes.
2.      Students were not encouraged to remember this information.
3.      The lecture topic was not relevant to the curriculum.
4.      Students did not know they were going to be tested.

If these constraints on learning had not been present, I suspect that the nap effect would have been much larger. Moreover, there was no objective measure of how much actual sleep each student had. Many might have just been resting. Data were not tracked by individual student, but rather averaged over the whole group. Finally, multiple-choice tests were used, and these only test recognition memory. If naps do improve memory, a larger nap effect might be seen with tests that call for students to generate a remembered answer, as in short answer or fill-in-the blanks tests.

While theory and experiments such as this suggest that napping could help student learning, there are of course practical constraints. Time spent napping is time that content cannot be presented.

My experience as an educational consultant in schools is that schools seem to conspire to make learning difficult. First, students are constantly over-stimulated and distracted, not only by social interactions, but by posters, pictures, and do-dads placed conspicuously all over the rooms and in the halls. Many teachers allow students to multi-task, for example, using cell and smart phones in class. Classes are commonly disturbed by loud public-speaker announcements from the principal's office and by loud bells signaling the end of class. Immediately after class, no quiet time is allowed for reflection on what happened in class. Students actually start tuning out about five minutes before the anticipated bell ring, and the bell causes them to leap up, run out into the halls, and start socializing. Then, of course, there is the emphasis on all manner of extracurricular activities that occupy the minds of many students much more than curriculum. It's a wonder students learn anything.

Finally, few if any teachers teach students how to learn. The emphasis is on what to learn and on performing well on state-mandated test scores. I have started to give teacher workshops to help teachers realize the importance of developing learning competence in their students. If students had better learning skills, the job of teaching would be much easier and student test performance would improve automatically.


Lemos, N. et al. (2014). Naps in school can enhance the duration of declarative memories learned by adolescents. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. Vol. 8, article 103. Doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00103

Dr. Klemm is author of two books on learning and memory, Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort.