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Saturday, August 01, 2020

Lesson 6. Concept Maps.

Facts and ideas can be mapped in ways that show how they relate to each other. The map drawing usually begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a map in real time during a lecture or video. In simple mind mapping, basic ideas are stated within circles, forming word clouds, and arrows are drawn from “parent” to “daughter” clouds. A useful addition is to write in brief text along the arrows that explain what the relationship is, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Simple concept map for the relationship of cells and their organelles. Cross-linking is not shown because it is not particularly useful for this simple information cluster.

Each circle object in the map can be expanded to whatever level of detail is required. In the map above, for example, from “History” you could add a circle for “Hooke” with a labeled connecting arrow saying “the first pioneer was.”

Think with Concept Mapping

Recall lesson 4, where we made the point that thinking about what you are trying to memorize makes the memory process easier and more reliable. Memory becomes easier when you think about the context and ancillary information associated with your memory targets. If the material you are trying to learn is complex, it often helps to convert your notes into concept maps. In concept maps, you draw circles or other geometric shaped word clouds to act as containers for key information, and then you think about how the various items in the circles relate to other items to create concepts. You draw connections among the various circles and write in a few words to state the nature of each relationship.
This process is like so-called mind mapping, except that concept mapping captures information as nodes in an interconnected network, unlike the tree-like structure of mind maps that have one central idea with multiple branches. Concept maps allow multiple cross-connections among the various idea nodes and typically emphasize multiple inter-dependent relationships among the nodes.
The basic task is to think about the relationships among the linked word clouds. A good practical way to automate thinking is to make concept maps as you read, listen to lectures or watch education videos. With pencil and paper write down key words in different locations on the page for major facts and ideas as you encounter them in the learning material and draw a circle around them. Then, perhaps after the lecture, video, or reading, examine each item one at a time and draw a line to any of the other items to which it is associated. Along each line, write in a few words to state what the relationship is. For example, you might link idea A with idea B with the description “makes me ask,” “led to the wrong idea that,” “leads to the truly original idea of,” or whatever might be appropriate. Note that comments work best if they are based on active verbs. This learning strategy is useful for several reasons:

1. Maps give the learner a “bird’s eye view” of the big picture.
2. Learners must engage with the material (i.e. be especially mindful) in order to draw the  
map of key concepts.
3. Learners have to organize information in meaningful ways, a process that requires them to  
think, which facilitates memory storage and retrieval.
4. Information is displayed spatially, which in itself facilitates storage and retrieval. 

Memorizing things by mentally relating them to their location in space promotes remembering because the part of the brain that forms lasting memories (the hippocampus) is also the part of the brain that creates subconscious mental maps of objects in space.

How to Make the Maps

As with creating regular notes, doing it by hand is more engaging and more likely to be memorized easily. However, with maps created by hand, you can’t move objects around; you must erase and write back in. However, that is less of a problem if you have a computer with draw capability. Another option is to create an initial step of placing sticky notes on a wall and moving them around physically to see what is the best spatial layout.
Map construction can be facilitated by computer. There are many elegant computer programs, and some quite satisfactory programs are free (search Google for “free mind maps”) (I like X Mind). Most programs make it easy to move ideas around in the map and make multiple, non-linear links. Not all programs allow elaboration along linking lines, and you may have to write it in by hand. 
Actually, I think maps are a better memorization aid if they are hand-drawn, because that makes the process more personal, more flexible, and perhaps more engaging. If you change your mind about something you put in the map, you either have to erase it or re-draw the map. One option is to draw the map by hand at first and then re-do it later by computer.
Too much text annotation adds to clutter. Clutter is inevitable with broad topics that involve many ideas. Some computer programs create a map that requires a huge sheet of paper to get printed, and you can’t get it all on an 8.5 x 11 sheet without compressing the text so much it is unreadable. The solution here is to make multiple maps, one an overview of the whole thing (main ideas and first- or second-order sub-topics. Then each major sub-idea can have its own map.

Maps to Study By

Maps used for study purposes need to be kept compact and simple. Memorization is facilitated by using icons or drawings to represent ideas is more effective than a lot of text. Some computer programs even have a library of icons you can select. Just make sure the icons are effective representations of the text they substitute for. You might want to use text and a representative icon, but base your memorization rehearsals on the icon.
Concept maps not only direct you to think about and organize academic content, they also promote memorization because concepts are laid out in spatial arrays.
The study emphasis should be on the relationships. That will automatically help memorize the factoids in the word clouds and stimulate your thinking to develop new understanding and insights. Also, make it a point to note the spatial location of key word clouds.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Lesson 5. Taking Notes

If you have a serious need to memorize, you usually must make notes. Just what is it that I think is valuable about note taking? First and foremost is the requirement for engagement. Students must pay attention well enough to make decisions about the portion of the learning material that will need to be studied later. Paying attention is essential for encoding information, and nobody can remember anything that never registered in the first place.

Note taking requires thinking about the material to decide what needs to be captured for later study. This hopefully generates questions that can be raised and answered while working your way through the learning material. Sadly, in the last few years I notice that in my college classes, few students take notes. It is as if they think they can remember everything (they can’t). The cause may be that teachers tend to hand out prepackaged notes. I object to this practice, because it reduces the level of student engagement and thinking. If such notes are distributed, the notes should be in a skeleton form that just provides an organized framework for students to construct their own notes.

Handwritten notes have special advantages. If done in pencil, which I recommend, items can be erased or re-arranged. You can draw diagrams and pictures, which provide visual images to strengthen memorization and control spatial layouts. Using different layouts for each page gives each page a visual uniqueness that facilitates memory. A well-established fact about memory is that spatial location is an important cue for encoding and recall. Where information is provides important cues as to what the information is. The spatial layout of script and diagrams on a page allows the information to be visualized, creating an opportunity for a rudimentary form of photographic memory, where a learner can imagine in the mind's eye just where on the page certain information is, and that alone makes it easier to memorize and recall what the information is. This effect occurs because the hippocampus, which initiates memorization in the brain, also maps spatial location.

This brings me to another important point about visualization. Pictures are much easier to remember than words. Hand-written notes allow the student to represent verbalized ideas as drawings or diagrams. If you have ever had to learn the Kreb's cycle of cellular energy production, for example, you know how much easier it is to remember the cycle if it is drawn rather than described in paragraph form.

I will explain the several methods for note taking.

The type of note format should vary with the nature of the learning material and the level of expected memorization of the content from reading material, videos, and lectures. All these forms can be produced with computers, but I don’t recommend using a computer. Researchers Pam Meuller and Daniel Oppenheimer provide clear evidence that handwritten note taking produces better learning in college students. Remembering factoids was about the same in both groups, but memory for concepts was distinctly better in students who took notes by handwriting. In their report of three studies, cited over 1,000 times, learning efficacy was scored in two groups of students, one taking notes on a laptop computer and the other by handwriting.

When tested on learning material, students who used handwritten notes that they studied scored significantly higher than students using laptops, including agile touch-typists who took vastly more copious notes. Handwriters took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording. There are many possible explanations for the superiority of handwriting, beginning with the "less is more" idea in which too much information produces cognitive overload.

For touch typists, taking notes on a laptop is a relatively mindless process in which letters are banged out on autopilot. A good typist does not have to think. 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 encoding, 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.

These notes are arranged in terms of topic, sub-topic, sub-subtopic, and so on. Each item is on a separate line and is indented. Each topic or sub-topic can be numbered and lettered. Here is an example for information on cell biology (Figure 1a):

Fig. 1a. Common numbering way of taking outline notes.
The numbering and lettering can become distracting. I prefer to use headings, sub-headings, sub-subheadings. This is readily automated in a word processing by using a styles menu (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on). Here is an example (Figure 1b):

Fig 1b. Common way of taking notes using heads and subheads

Outline notes are most useful when you must capture large amounts of
information quickly. If you don’t have much time to think, outlines are usually easy to construct because that is the way most information is presented in lectures, videos, and textbooks. A presenter typically presents a main thought, then explains it with some detail, and then moves on to the nest main idea.
For more understanding and to promote memory, it is important to think about the words that appear in an outline. Other note-taking methods may require reconstructing the initial outlined information in a different format, and this requires some thinking.


Here you create a table with separate columns for each topic (Figure 2). You typically have only one blank row in which you put the information you want to memorize. Depending on the subject matter, you might want to segregate facts and concepts.

Fig. 2. Chart format for note taking

Cornell Method

Here, you use a table that captures key facts or concepts in a different spatial layout (Figure 3).
Fig. 3. Cornell note format

Matrix Notes

Matrix notes place information in a table, where the columns might be categories of information and the rows contain items within each category. The columns represent one category of information (such as topics and the rows another, such as items. Here is the basic idea (Figure 4):
Fig. 4. Matrix note format
Matrix notes promote an overall “bird’s eye” view of relationships among ideas. This requires more thinking and may not be possible in the real time of watching a video or lecture. However, the method is very powerful, in large part because it requires you to think deeply. Such thinking may also provide insights that would otherwise not occur. Matrix notes can be more comprehensive and force thinking about content in a wide range of contexts. Matrix notes are most useful when cross-cutting relationships need to be recognized and clarified.

The advantages for learning are that the learner conceptualizes the ideas in the process of constructing the matrix. Because ideas are presented in one view, preferably in units of one page at a time, it is easy to see cross-cutting relationships that otherwise are not so apparent. Such organization is an aid to stimulating insight. In addition, the fixed spatial layout is a memory aid.
The process might usually begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a matrix in real time during a lecture or video.

Next lesson: Lesson 6. Mind Mapping
Follow my “neuro-education” group on Linkedin at
To check out my four books on learning and memory, see my web site:

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.
Mueller, Pam A. and Oppenheimer, Daniel M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Blaming Sons for Sins of the Fathers

A newsletter by David Rupert posted on Patheos described the current rebellion in the U.S. this way: “We want to transfer the sins of the fathers – and their friends – on to a current generation. That is a deep and dark hole to plunge, a place in which no one is safe. Taking the innocence of a modern people and swapping that for the guilt of the ancients is neither practical nor reasonable.” 
Note the word “reasonable.” Mob rule is not based on reason but on raw hateful emotion that transfers blame to innocents. It is not reasonable for blacks to blame black store owners for racism and destroy their businesses. It is not reasonable to blame today’s whites for slavery, when most of them had ancestors who did not come to this country until after slavery was ended by the civil war. It is not reasonable to destroy monuments to the two men most responsible for freeing the slaves, Lincoln and Grant. That is not only unreasonable, it is stupid.
A dominant theme of the “cancel” culture is to erase American culture and history, on the assumption that it is all so bad we don’t want to be reminded of it. If we cancel our history, how do we learn from it? How do we avoid repeating some of the worst of it, like the racism? In fact, you could say that racism is worse now, fed by the looters, rioters, and race-baiters who constantly dredge up old grievances to poison inter-racial relationships for political gain. How does provoking people invite love and unity?
How do we escape this nihilistic entrapment? A first principle is to insist that critics and protesters have placed blamed appropriately. In the case of the current rebellion against police, for example, we should require protesters to be honest. Is it honest to blame all police or the policing system for the misbehavior of a small minority of police?  Is it fair to ignore one’s own complicity, such as being hostile or resisting arrest when you have broken the law?
In the case of slavery, is it appropriate to blame all contemporary whites, when most of them had ancestors who had nothing to do with slavery, who weren’t even in the country at that time? In case of the social and political errors of the past, Rupert gives good advice: “Rather than concentrating on the sins of the fathers, maybe we should focus on the sin of the son. That’s you. That’s me.”

Rupert, David. (2020). Sins of the father: What should we do about an imperfect past? Patheos. June 26.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Lesson 4. How Thinking Helps You Remember.

The more you know, the smarter you can be. The more you know about how to memorize, the more you will be able to memorize and know. I identify five steps for thinking effectively about how to memorize.
Step 1. What NOT to Memorize. The first crucial step in thinking about what you are trying to memorize is to identify what does not need to be memorized. Why memorize something you can easily figure out? Use core principles and logic to arrive at answers and thereby reduce the amount of information you have to memorize.
Step 2. Associations. Memory is easier to form and recall if you think about how items are associated. Bread and butter go together, thinking of one helps you think of the other. Once you begin to encode your memory target, thinking about its context and implications will help you remember it. Also, think about how the memory target relates to what you already know, and how all that fits into its context. Thinking is the best kind of memory rehearsal, because in the process of thinking about information related to the memory target, you are repeating the basic information in your mind in different contexts with useful associated cues that promote encoding and later retrieval.  
Step 3. Missing Information. Think about the related information that is NOT presented that should have been. In learning science, for example, I have found that spotting key omissions crucially aids my understanding, because it usually makes me ask a question that I try to answer. Figuring out the answer, or looking it up, expands both my understanding and the knowledge base while at the same time creating associations for the memory target that make it easier to remember.  
Step 4.  Mnemonics. Next, think about an image, acronym or memory gimmick you can use to help remembering. Such a process is vastly more effective than the simple and boring rote-memorizing approach of repeating something over and over again.
Don’t shy away from difficult material. Thinking about it makes remembering more likely, and you gain analytical skills by forcing yourself to figure things out. The popular belief that it is easier to learn things that are easy rather than harder is also probably wrong. Easy material may not elicit enough attention and engagement to produce lasting learning.
Kent State psychology professors reported that when college students think something is easy to learn they may have only a superficial level of learning that does not last much beyond the next test. Just staring repeatedly at learning material is not nearly as effective as thinking about it, forcing retrieval, and correcting any memory errors.
Easy learning, as in a single cramming session, is deceptive. It is not nearly as effective as the harder learning of spreading out the study over many days and weeks and each time thinking about it anew. Even greater benefits come from forced recall. The self-testing under delayed conditions is much more effective precisely because it is harder to recall material learned days ago.
The deceptiveness of ease of learning was reinforced in a study reported in Psychological Science by Nate Kornell and collaborators at three other universities. Participants were asked to predict how easily they would remember vocabulary words after studying them once or multiple times. Some of the words were presented in the standard font size on the person’s computer screen, while others were presented four times larger —something that makes the text feel easier to process, but prior research shows that does not improve memory. In addition, for some words, participants were told they would be allowed to study more than once. The participants uniformly predicted that studying the words in larger font would help them remember more than studying the words multiple times. In fact, increased font size did nothing to help them, but studying even once more improved their recall of the new words.
Some school authorities have it all backwards. They want teachers to make the material as easy to learn as possible. I don’t mean to excuse teachers whose instruction is disorganized and confusing. But teachers who challenge students with difficult material and assignments, as well as frequent testing, are actually doing their students a favor. They are just the opposite of the common accusation of being “bad” teachers.
I think that when learning is difficult, learners are obliged to be more engaged. This brings me to the last step.
Step 5. Engagement.  Be deeply engaged with your learning material. It is the engagement that achieves deep and lasting learning. Of course, this only works for students who are motivated to learn.
I learned an even more useful lesson on difficult learning from my professor, Dr. C. S. Bachofer, at Notre Dame. The course involved was about radiation biology, and all the learning material came from a leading textbook. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Bachofer assigned a section of text each week for us to read. Each student was required to identify three major problematic sections in the text, such as statements that were confusing, incomplete, or open to challenge. We had to write these down in precise terms. Then, we were to write an answer for each of our questions and share with the other students for open debate in class. That meant we had to think hard and maybe do a little library research. We learned from our own inquiry and from the insights of each other.
This approach to teaching and learning stimulated our engagement with the subject, forced us to state things precisely in writing, and required us to be creative in resolving issues that we initially poorly understood. Key factoids and concepts became memorized almost automatically as a consequence of the thinking process. Dr. Bachofer’s role was limited to correcting any of our collective errors and occasionally adding some key item that none of us knew about. Unlike most of today’s teachers, he didn’t think it was his job to explain things we should be able to figure out on our own.
Many years later, I developed with Jim Snell, a computer techy friend, an on-line collaborative learning computer conferencing system for implementing this process. This software, FORUM, was a precursor to Google Docs. We won a $5,000 first prize in an international contest for the “Best New Idea in Distance Education.”
You can think about memory targets most anywhere, most anytime. Think about what you are trying to remember during “down times,” when you have nothing else constructive or entertaining to do. Think in between classes, during riding the bus, during getting a haircut, while waiting in line, and so on.


1.     First thing: identify what you need to memorize.
2.     Think the context and implications of your memory target. Use these associations to help you remember it.
3.     Identify what is missing, not stated.
4.     Think about an image, acronym or memory gimmick you can use to help remembering.
5.     Welcome difficult learning tasks because they train to engage more robustly with learning material and thus remember it.
6.     Make learning YOUR responsibility, not your teacher’s responsibility.

Next Lesson from “Memory Medic:” Week 5. Taking Notes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A New Way to Think About Father's Day

Why are we still celebrating Father's Day? Why celebrate when there aren’t that many real fathers anymore who provide a positive role model, financially support a family, and help raise mentally healthy children? Father’s day should make us all reflect on today’s widespread absence of fathers in a home. In the U.S., across all demographics, 40% of children are born outside of marriage (in Blacks, it is 72%). Add to that the huge amount of divorces (40-50% of first-time marriages, still higher for second marriages). The problem of single moms having to work and raise their children alone is caused not only by irresponsible men but also by liberated females who seem quite satisfied with just a sperm donor.

We misleadingly excuse the present state of social turmoil as frustration over Covid restrictions and job loss and racism. These are surely aggravating factors, but not the underlying causes of our unraveling society. The real causes are the mental health disturbances of young people created by fatherlessness. We have now raised about two generations of troubled and dysfunctional young people who are plagued by anxiety, alienation, anger, depression, drug abuse, homelessness, welfare dependency, suicide, and anti-social behavior. Neither socialism nor ending racism nor a Covid vaccine will solve the underlying problem. The lack of fathers in the home means that the majority of young people grow up with insufficient parental guidance and instruction on how to cope in a complex, confusing, and unfair world. They are love-deprived. Consequently, they feel entitled, yet not realizing that they never received the one thing they were really entitled to: a loving father in the home. These young people are left to respond with their only resources of anger and tantrums. These young people and their single parents do not seem to regard family destruction as a problem, because to them it is now the “new normal.”  

In the old days, children were nurtured not only by a loving father but also by religious institutions. Now, numerous surveys show that today’s young people are by far the least religious of all age groups. The correlation of fatherlessness, religious rejection, and social discord is not a coincidence.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Lesson Course 3. Paying Attention

How attentive are you? One way to check is to run this little thought experiment: sit quietly in a chair, with a second-hand watch or clock nearby, close your eyes, and check to see how long you can go without thinking of anything. If you can go more than 5 seconds without any thought, that is far better than average.
What does this little test say about attention? Actually, you are not paying attention as such, you are paying attention to not paying attention. In other words, you just measured your limited capacity to resist distraction. Resisting distraction is the other side of the focus coin. If you can resist distraction, you can focus on any object of thought without being distracted. So what? Being able to focus is a skill that is crucially important to developing your ability to remember.
         There are ways to develop the ability to focus. Before I get into that, however, let me illustrate a related point. You perhaps have heard the instruction: “Do not think about pink elephants.” I tell you now, “Do not think about pink elephants.” Were you able to not think about pink elephants? Unlikely. Real elephants are not pink. A pink elephant is such a compelling image so that you are hard pressed to not see it in your mind’s eye.

Make Memory Targets Compelling

This makes a point about focus. If the target of focus is compelling, it is hard not to focus on it. Thus, whatever you need and want to focus on is easier to attend if you make it compelling. If a target of focus is compelling, it becomes encoded more strongly. You learned in Lesson 1 that encoding is the first crucial step in the memorization process cycle. One of the best ways for a compelling focus of attention is to make a target of attention a mental image, either a literal simulation of the actual target or a metaphorical representation of it. Generally, the most robust images are not literal but those that are ridiculously exaggerated (like pink elephants). This tactic is the basis used by “memory athletes” who compete in international contests to see who can memorize the most material in the shortest amount of time. I will say much more about specific mental imagery tactics in Lesson 9 where mnemonics are explained.
The other obvious way to make compelling memory targets is to motivate yourself to remember. As I explained in my book on The Learning Skills Cycle, the centerpiece hub of the cycle is motivation to learn. Approach learning tasks with a zeal that drives you to do all things needed to memorize and the success in learning then strengthens the motivation to learn more. As I explained in the story about my “conversion” in the 7th grade, once I learned how to get to the top of the class and how good that felt, I was motivated to achieve that standing every year.

Avoiding Distraction

While it is true that the brain processes information in parallel, conscious memorization operates serially. That is, you consciously attend one thing at a time, switching at high speeds from one targets of attention to another. Any time you switch targets, you disrupt the processes of encoding and initiation of consolidation. This explains why multi-tasking greatly impairs memorization.
School environments are notorious for creating distractions. Students in a classroom have to make special effort to stay focused on instructional material.

Learning to Focus

Conscious focus of attention is a skill that can be learned through deliberate practice. The best proof comes from Hindu ascetics who do such astonishing things as voluntarily regulating their heart rate and blood pressure or lying on a bed of nails. The Buddhist meditation practices provide a practical way for anybody to train their brains to focusyou don’t have to be a Buddhist. The technique that works for me is called “mindfulness meditation.” The objective is to be mindful of what you are thinking and to force yourself to think of only one thing, usually slow, deep breathing. All extraneous silent mental chatter and images are pushed out of consciousness.
See how long you can sustain sole focus on your breathing and keep out all intruding thoughts. Notice all things associated with the breathing, but nothing else. At first you may feel aches and pains you have not been attending because you were thinking of other things. Ignoring these aches consciously during meditation adds to the value of the exercise. Hear the sound of the moving air with each breath. Feel the pulse in your neck. If you don’t feel it, crook your neck or lie down to feel it in your back or hear it by turning your ear to a pillow. Notice the rhythm and the gradual slowing of breathing. Feel your clothes shifting position and the tension flowing out of your muscles, first in the jaw, then back and legs. The first time you try it, you likely will lose focus within a couple of seconds. But after a few days of 15-minute sessions, you will realize your brain has learned how to focus for several minutes or more. Not only does this kind of meditation teach your brain how to concentrate, it also lowers blood pressure, reduces memory-impairing stress, and contributes to peace of mind.
As you develop the capacity to focus, reinforce the training by being more attentive to every target of attention that you are trying to memorize. Also, notice what is associated with the information you are trying to memorize. If you are learning about an historical event, like the First Continental Congress, notice what is going on in the meeting hall, where it took place, why that place was chosen, what prompted the meeting, who stood out in the meeting, and so on. In short, notice the context in which things exist. Paying attention to such details at the time of initial encoding provides huge numbers of cues that strengthen the encoding and can serve as handles to help you retrieve the information in the future. The context obviously aids in understanding as well. Sometimes, just the understanding helps you figure out something you actually failed to remember.


  •   1 To strengthen encoding and the initial stages of memory consolidation, make memory targets compelling. The best way is to represent the targets as mental images.
  •      Do not multi-task. Alter you learning environment as best you can to reduce distracting stimuli and thoughts.
  •      Train your brain to focus. Make time for a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session every day and try to focus on your every experience throughout the day.
  •      Don’t go around in a mental fog. Notice things. Be consciously aware of everything.

Next Lesson: Week 4. Think and Get Smart

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Learning Course Lesson 1. Stages of Memory Formation

As mentioned in the introduction to this free short course on learning and memory, when I was in the 7th grade, I finally became motivated to be a better student than the D-student I was in the 4th grade. I don’t remember what my grades were in the 5th and 6th grades, but it is a good bet they weren’t impressive. When in the 7th grade, the crush I had on my gorgeous female teacher, Miss Torti, made me take stock of what I had to do to make good grades to impress her by being the top student in the class.

One of the first things I realized was that no one thing was the problem. I could study more, but that in and of itself did not seem likely to improve my memory ability. No, I did not want to work harder. I wanted to figure out how to work smarter. In those head-scratching days in the first few weeks of 7th grade, I realized that several things must be in play, and I had to figure out what they were and work on improving my ability to do those things.

First, it was rather obvious that I couldn’t memorize some piece of her instruction if it did not register in the first place. The formal word for that is “encoding,” which of course I did not know. But I did intuitively understand that I had to pay attention to what Miss Torti said and to those things in my books that she said were important to know. Moreover, even my 7th grade brain figured how that I had to pay attention to get things to register. So, I started to pay attention more intensely. I made myself stop thinking about other things or day-dream during her instruction.

I quickly learned that paying attention was a big help. But I also discovered that a day or so after a lesson, I forgot what I knew that I had payed attention to well enough to learn. Then the obvious hit me: What good is learning if I don’t remember it? To impress Miss Torti, I had to remember what she was teaching days, even weeks, after she taught it, as when quiz time rolled around.
So, despite my lack of understanding as to what was going on, I realized that I had to check myself every day or so to see if I remembered things I had just learned. If I forgot, I had to re-learn it. Now that is aggravating. Why can’t I learn it just once? So, one thing I figured out was that initial paying attention was not enough. I needed to pay attention hard. What did that mean? It meant to me that I had to think hard about what I was paying attention to. What did I already know that was similar? How could this new information be important? Were there some associated cues that I could package with this information to help me remember it? How could I use this new information to learn other things? Some of this thinking did not occur all at once. Some things occurred to me a few hours or days later. Unknown to me, there was a process going on in my brain that scientists call “memory consolidation.” This is a biochemical process that is spread out over time, because the neural circuits needed to store a representation of the information have to be constructedthat takes a while.

As I thought about things over time, it also became obvious that in order to think about the academic content, I was actually retrieving it so I could think about it. There is a process associated with retrieval in general that I did not learn about for some six decades later when neuroscientists discovered that retrieval triggers re-consolidation. That is, when you retrieve something you have learned, the brain treats it as a well-formed “new” piece of information, well-encoded because it is already partially learned, and that it can be associated with anything new at the time, such as the context at the time retrieval was triggered. Then the old and new get re-consolidated together as a new, more strongly encoded item of information. In other words, memorizing is not an event at one point in time. It is a cyclic process.

Clearly what we can now see, though I did not understand it in the 7th grade, was that memorization was a cycle involving encoding, consolidation, retrieval, and re-consolidation. Each time the brain puts some new information through this cycle, the memory gets stronger and stronger, more and more permanent. In the 7th grade, I stumbled into this cycle without really understanding why it worked. All I knew was that it worked. Wow, did it work!  … all As and number one ranking in every course, from 7th grade onward until college. Many decades later as I learned more about this cycle, it inspired me to write the book for all students of all ages, Better Grades, Less Effort.


  1. New information needs to be strongly encoded in order to be remembered.
  2. Memory requires nurturing and protection in the mind to allow consolidation into a more permanent memory.
  3. Forcing yourself to retrieve a weakly formed memory strengthens the encoding and provides the opportunity to incorporate new cues and information.\
  4. A retrieved memory is re-consolidated, strengthening the original version.

Next Lesson: Week 2. Paying Attention

Learning Lesson 2. Getting Motivated

Do you remember my story in the Introduction to this short course about how motivated changed me from a D student in the 4th grade to an all-A student in the 7th grade? We don’t all have a Miss Torti in our lives to motivate us to be effective learners, but we all have something. If you can’t find a source of motivation, make one up. It can change your life.

In my book for parents and teachers, The Learning Skills Cycle, I made it a point to begin the cycle with motivation. If motivated to learn, a student not only acquires the knowledge but, in the process, can become more learning competent as learning skills develop. As a student realizes that such skills have been acquired, confidence about the ability to learn grows, and this in turn stimulates more motivation to learn. This positive feedback cycle does not occur if students do not acquire learning skills.

The basis of the motivation does not have to be particularly inspiring or honorable. My physical attraction to Miss Torti certainly lacked such worthiness. For motivation to give you the drive needed to do all that is necessary to become a good learner, you must feel compelled and passionate about the objective.
Bad educational environments and experiences stamp out the motivation to learn. In my work in consulting with middle-school teachers, I have found that by that grade level many students have been turned off of learning. They had too many bad learning experiences in the earlier grades. This is especially true of the majority of students who have not learned how to excel in school. Week after week, year after year, ordinary performance kills their interest in learning. Such students develop defense mechanisms. “Why do I have to learn this?’ “This book is boring.” “My teacher doesn’t like me.” “I could make As, but I don’t want to.” “School work is for nerds.” So goes a litany of excuses.

These problems have always plagued teachers who try to motivate the under-achievers. In today’s standards-based, high-stakes testing environment, we have the new problem that a teacher is liable to give an answer that is equivalent to “You need to learn this to score well on the state learning achievement tests so that you make your teachers and school look good.” This, you can be assured, does not do much to motivate students.

Well, learners, I have shocking news for you. Motivation that works in learning has to come from inside of you, not from the outside influence of parents, teachers, school district, or whatever. You are like horses that can be led to water. Outside influences can't make you drink if you are not thirsty.
So, how do you make yourself thirsty for effective and efficient learning? Well, the efficiency goal comes easy. We are all rather lazy about school work, and thus naturally want our learning to occur with minimal effort. The effective goal should also come easy, because what is the point of trying to learn if you aren’t good at it? What is the point of learning if you don’t remember it?
Beyond such basics, I can list several things that will motivate you to learn:

·       The Wonder of Learning. We live in a universe and world full of natural wonder. Every academic subject is wondrous to some people. Why not you? You can see the wonder in every subject (yes, even algebra, if you look for it.).

Babies are fascinated by what they see, hear, and touch. Watch a baby as a mobile dangle overhead. Exploratory activities become conspicuously pronounced if the mobile objects are close enough to be manipulated. Everything a baby encounters is new and astonishing. Why do we allow ourselves to lose that fascination with the world as we get older? For some people, the more they learn, the less wondrous the world seems. Among adults, scientists seem to be an exception (to a biologist, pond scum is beautiful and wondrous).

·       Relevance. The real-world relevance of academic subjects is not always self-evident to someone learning the subject for the first time. Even if the learner understands the relevance, the subject may not be relevant for them at the time they have to learn it. The first step in seeing relevance is to realize that our lack of knowledge about a subject has put us in a small and narrow world that blinds us to the relevance. Once we know there is relevance we do not yet perceive, we have reason to look for it. In other words, we need to try to identify the relevance of what we need to learn for us. Once we realize how we might use new information or how it might make us a better or more competent person, we have reason to learn it. Even if the relevance is limited to the recognition we would get from successful learning, that in itself can be sufficient relevance.

·       Rewards and Punishments. We have all been amazed by performance animals that demonstrate astonishing feats of learning at Sea World, circuses, and similar venues. These animals learn all sorts of tricks they seemingly have no need to learn. Their training process is known as “operant conditioning.” They learn under conditions in which they are punished for failure to learn and rewarded for successful learning. Direct punishment does not work very well as a motivator. As used by trainers, punishment occurs in the failure to receive a reward if the learning objective is not met.

In a typical school environment, grades are the usual basis for reward and punishment. This is frequently not enough. Recall that my low grades in the 4th grade did not motivate me to get better. What worked finally in the 7th grade was seeing Miss Torti pay attention to me because I was showing improvement. The more I learned, the more she payed attention to me. The principle here is called “positive reinforcement.” It means that when we receive a reward, even a small one, for generating a certain behavior, we are motivated to repeat the behavior. So, the practical point for students is to construct or find positive reinforcement for themselves for improving their learning skills and resulting learning successes. You may not have a Miss Torti to reward you for your achievements, but you can reward yourself.

·       Ownership and Pride.  I think it was back in the Great Depression that someone coined the expression, “Knowledge is something nobody can take away from you.” You may have things stolen, you may lose your job, you may lose out in a competition, but your knowledge is always yours. And you earned it. You have the powerful sense of ownership. This is the obvious benefit of projects where the student builds something, like robots or a science-fair presentation. Even less obvious products, like cursive writing, are something a student owns in a very personal way, and if it is done well, can take great pride in. Speaking of cursive, in the first 6 weeks of the 7th grade, I had to take a penmanship course. I apparently have good hand-eye coordination, and I readily learned to write well. I took great pride in showing others my handwriting, because I knew it was really good. That little success may have had more to do with my 7th grade academic reformation than anything else. To this day, I still get compliments on my handwriting. It was a great feeling in the 7th grade, and still feels good every time I look at my handwriting.

·       Attitude Adjustment. No one likes failure. No one likes to feel inferior. Everyone relishes achievement. Failure should not be an option. However, we make failure an option by constructing excuses for it. We develop attitudes to explain away our failures and in the process perpetuate the failures. At some point, when it dawns on us that our attitude is counter-productive, we realize the value of adjusting our attitudes to be more positive.

·       Acting “as if.” Behavior changes attitudes, emotions, and motivation.  Conscientious students try to adjust their attitudes and feelings by force of will—this often fails. A better result, especially with students who are not all that conscientious, can sometimes occur with the principle enunciated about 100 years ago by the famous psychologist William James. He noted that how a person acts can change his or her own thinking, attitude, and feelings. This is the "as if" principle, which states that behaving the way one wants to be will help make it so. We know that mind can sometimes change behavior, but the "as if" principle says that behavior can change mind.

·       Learning Self-control. Few things in life are as motivating as when you reach the point where you are in charge, where you discover that your capacity for self-control gives you power. Once you discover that you have the power to be a good learner, you will want to seize the added power that learning gives you in this world.

·       Confidence. Confidence is something you have to earn. As you begin your trek to effective and efficient learning, small successes will happen. They will build on each other and give you reason to be more confident. When I made my first A in a difficult subject, I realized, “Hey, I can do this. I just did. Maybe I am not as stupid as my former Ds suggested.” Belief in your ability to learn can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As confidence slowly grows, you start thinking about what worked in the learning effort, and you know you can do more of that. You start to believe that you can learn how to learn.


1. Find what is awesome and wonderful in everything you have to learn.
2. Identify why or how what you have to learn is relevant to something in your life.
3. Give yourself little rewards for each successful learning event.
4. Take ownership of what you learn and be proud of yourself for knowing it.
5. If your attitude about school or learning is impeding successful learning, adjust your attitude to be more positive.
6. Act "as if" you are a good learner, and do the things good learners do.
7. Control yourself. Be the "master of your own ship."
8. Gain confidence from successful learning events. Believe in yourself.

Next Lesson: Lesson 3. Paying Attention.