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Richard Nisbett writes of environmental “multipliers” that can deliver a disproportionate effect from a small genetic predisposition—the kid who is genetically just a little bit more curious becomes significantly smarter if she’s in an environment that feeds curiosity. Now stand that notion on its head. Since it’s unlikely I’ll be raising my IQ anytime soon, are there strategies or behaviors that can serve as cognitive “multipliers” to amp up the performance of the intelligence I’ve already got? Yes. Here are three: embracing a growth mindset, practicing like an expert, and constructing memory cues.
Let’s return to the old saw “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” If turns out there is more truth here than wit. Attitude counts for a lot. The studies of the psychologist Carol Dweck have gotten huge attention for showing just how big an impact one simple conviction can have on learning and performance: the belief that your level of intellectual ability is not fixed but rests to a large degree in your own hands.16
Dweck and her colleagues have replicated and expanded on their results in many studies. In one of the early experiments, she ran a workshop for low-performing seventh graders at a New York City junior high school, teaching them about the brain and about effective study techniques. Half the group also received a presentation on memory, but the other half were given an explanation of how the brain changes as a result of effortful learning: that when you try hard and learn something new, the brain forms new connections, and these new connections, over time, make you smarter. This group was told that intellectual development is not the natural unfolding of intelligence but results from the new connections that are formed through effort and learning. After the workshop, both groups of kids filtered back into their classwork. Their teachers were unaware that some had been taught that effortful learning changes the brain, but as the school year unfolded, those students adopted what Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” a belief that their intelligence was largely within their own control, and they went on to become much more aggressive learners and higher achievers than students from the first group, who continued to hold the conventional view, what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” that their intellectual ability was set at birth by the natural talents they were born with.
Dweck’s research had been triggered by her curiosity over why some people become helpless when they encounter challenges and fail at them, whereas others respond to failure by trying new strategies and redoubling their effort. She found that a fundamental difference between the two responses lies in how a person attributes failure: those who attribute failure to their own inability—“I’m not intelligent”—become helpless. Those who interpret failure as the result of insufficient effort or an ineffective strategy dig deeper and try different approaches.
Dweck came to see that some students aim at performance goals, while others strive toward learning goals. In the first case, you’re working to validate your ability. In the second, you’re working to acquire new knowledge or skills. People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder. “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, ‘ability’ feels like something static that lies inside of you, whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Dweck says. Learning goals trigger entirely different chains of thought and action from performance goals.17 Paradoxically, a focus on performance trips up some star athletes. Praised for being “naturals,” they believe their performance is a result of innate gifts. If they’re naturals, the idea goes, they shouldn’t have to work hard to excel, and in fact many simply avoid practicing, because a need to practice is public evidence that their natural gifts are not good enough to cut the mustard after all. A focus on performance instead of on learning and growing causes people to hold back from risk taking or exposing their self-image to ridicule by putting themselves into situations where they have to break a sweat to deliver the critical outcome.
Dweck’s work has extended into the realm of praise and the power it has in shaping the way people respond to challenges. Here’s an example. A group of fifth grade students are individually given a puzzle to solve. Some of the students who solve the puzzle are praised for being smart; other students who solve it are praised for having worked hard. The students are then invited to choose another puzzle: either one of similar difficulty or one that’s harder but that they would learn from by making the effort to try solving. A majority of the students who are praised for their smarts pick the easier puzzle; 90 percent of the kids praised for effort pick the harder one.
In a twist on this study, students get puzzles from two people, Tom and Bill. The puzzles Tom gives the students can be solved with effort, but the ones Bill gives them cannot be solved. Every student gets puzzles from both Tom and Bill. After working to solve the puzzles, some of the kids are praised for being smart, and some for their effort. In a second round, the kids get more puzzles from both Tom and Bill, and this time all the puzzles are solvable. Here’s the surprise: of the students who were praised for being smart, few solved the puzzles they got from Bill, even though they were the same puzzles these students had solved earlier when they got them from Tom. For those who saw being considered smart as paramount, their failure to solve Bill’s puzzles in the first round instilled a sense of defeat and helplessness.
When you praise for intelligence, kids get the message that being seen as smart is the name of the game. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a rare variable they can control,” Dweck says. But “emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of a child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”18
Paul Tough, in his recent book How Children Succeed, draws on Dweck’s work and others’ to make the case that our success is less dependent on IQ than on grit, curiosity, and persistence. The essential ingredient is encountering adversity in childhood and learning to overcome it. Tough writes that children in the lowest strata of society are so beset by challenges and starved of resources that they don’t stand a chance of experiencing success. But, and here’s another paradox, kids at the top of the heap, who are raised in cosseted settings, praised for being smart, bailed out of predicaments by helicopter parents, and never allowed to fail or overcome adversity on their own initiative, are also denied the character-building experiences essential for success later in life.19 A kid who’s born on third base and grows up thinking she hit a triple is unlikely to embrace the challenges that will enable her to discover her full potential. A focus on looking smart keeps a person from taking risks in life, the small ones that help people rise toward their aspirations, as well as the bold, visionary moves that lead to greatness. Failure, as Carol Dweck tells us, gives you useful information, and the opportunity to discover what you’re capable of doing when you really set your mind to it.
The takeaway from Dweck, Tough, and their colleagues working in this field is that more than IQ, it’s discipline, grit, and a growth mindset that imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success. “Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient,” Dweck says. The active ingredient is the simple but nonetheless profound realization that the power to increase your abilities lies largely within your own control.
When you see stellar performances by an expert in any field—a pianist, chess player, golfer—perhaps you marvel at what natural talent must underlie their abilities, but expert performance does not usually rise out of some genetic predisposition or IQ advantage. It rises from thousands of hours of what Anders Ericsson calls sustained deliberate practice. If doing something repeatedly might be considered practice, deliberate practice is a different animal: it’s goal directed, often solitary, and consists of repeated striving to reach beyond your current level of performance. Whatever the field, expert performance is thought to be garnered through the slow acquisition of a larger number of increasingly complex patterns, patterns that are used to store knowledge about which actions to take in a vast vocabulary of different situations. Witness a champion chess player. In studying the positions on a board, he can contemplate many alternative moves and the countless different directions each might precipitate. The striving, failure, problem solving, and renewed attempts that characterize deliberate practice build the new knowledge, physiological adaptations, and complex mental models required to attain ever higher levels.
When Michelangelo finally completed painting over 400 life size figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he is reported to have written, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” What appeared to his admirers to have flowed from sheer genius had required four torturous years of work and dedication.20
Deliberate practice usually isn’t enjoyable, and for most learners it requires a coach or trainer who can help identify areas of performance that need to be improved, help focus attention on specific aspects, and provide feedback to keep perception and judgment accurate. The effort and persistence of deliberate practice remodel the brain and physiology to accommodate higher performance, but achieving expertise in any field is particular to the field. It does not confer some kind of advantage or head start toward gaining expertise in another domain. A simple example of practice remodeling the brain is the treatment of focal hand dystonia, a syndrome affecting some guitarists and pianists whose repetitive playing has rewired their brains to think that two fingers have been fused into one. Through a series of challenging exercises, they can be helped gradually to retrain their fingers to move separately.
One reason that experts are sometimes perceived to possess an uncanny talent is that some can observe a complex performance in their field and later reconstruct from memory every aspect of that performance, in granular detail. Mozart was famous for being able to reconstruct complex musical scores after a single hearing. But this skill, Ericsson says, rises not out of some sixth sense but from an expert’s superior perception and memory within his domain, which are the result of years of acquired skill and knowledge in that domain. Most people who achieve expertise in a field are destined to remain average performers in the other realms of life.
Ten thousand hours or ten years of practice was the average time the people Ericsson studied had invested to become expert in their fields, and the best among them had spent the larger percentage of those hours in solitary, deliberate practice. The central idea here is that expert performance is a product of the quantity and the quality of practice, not of genetic predisposition, and that becoming expert is not beyond the reach of normally gifted people who have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.
Mnemonic devices, as we mentioned, are mental tools to help hold material in memory, cued for ready recall. (Mnemosyne, one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, was the goddess of memory.) Some examples of simple mnemonic devices are acronyms, like “ROY G BIV” for the colors of the rainbow, and reverse acronyms, as in “I Value Xylophones Like Cows Dig Milk” for the ascending value of Roman numerals from 1 to 1000 (e.g., V = 5; D = 500).
A memory palace is a more complex type of mnemonic device that is useful for organizing and holding larger volumes of material in memory. It’s based on the method of loci, which goes back to the ancient Greeks and involves associating mental images with a series of physical locations to help cue memories. For example, you imagine yourself within a space that is very familiar to you, like your home, and then you associate prominent features of the space, like your easy chair, with a visual image of something you want to remember. (When you think of your easy chair you may picture a limber yogi sitting there, to remind you to renew your yoga lessons.) The features of your home can be associated with a countless number of visual cues for retrieving memories later, when you simply take an imaginary walk through the house. If it’s important to recall the material in a certain order, the cues can be sequenced along the route through your house. (The method of loci is also used to associate cues with features you encounter along a very familiar journey, like your walk to the corner store.) As we write this passage, a group of students in Oxford, England, are constructing memory palaces to prepare for their A-level exams in psychology. Every week for six weeks, they and their instructor have visited a different café in town, where they have relaxed over coffee, familiarized themselves with the layout of the place, and discussed how they might imagine it occupied with vivid characters who will cue from memory important aspects of psychology that they will need to write about at exam time.
We’ll come back to these students, but first a few more words about this technique, which is surprisingly effective and derives from the way imagery serves to contribute vividness and connective links to memory. Humans remember pictures more easily than words. (For example, the image of an elephant is easier to recall than the word “elephant.”) So it stands to reason that associating vivid mental images with verbal or abstract material makes that material easier to retrieve from memory. A strong mental image can prove as secure and bountiful as a loaded stringer of fish. Tug on it, and a whole day’s catch comes to the surface. When a friend is reminding you of a conversation with somebody the two of you met on a trip, you struggle to recall it. She tells you where the discussion happened, and you picture the place. Ah, yes, it all comes flooding back. Images cue memories.21 Mark Twain wrote about his personal experiences with this phenomenon in an article published by Harper’s. In his days on the speaking circuit, Twain used a list of partial sentences to prompt himself through the different phases of his remarks, but he found the system unsatisfactory—when you glance at snippets of text, they all look alike. He experimented with alternatives, finally hitting on the idea of outlining his speech in a series of crude pencil sketches. The sketches did the job. A haystack with a snake under it told him where to start his story about his adventures in Nevada’s Carson Valley. An umbrella tilted against a stiff wind took him to the next part of his story, the fierce winds that blew down out of the Sierras at about two o’clock every afternoon. And so on. The power of these sketches to evoke memory impressed Twain and gave rise one day to an idea for helping his children, who were still struggling to learn the kings and queens of England, despite long hours invested by their nanny in trying to hammer the names and dates into them through brute repetition. It dawned on Twain to try visualizing the successive reigns.
We were at the farm then. From the house porch the grounds sloped gradually down to the lower fence and rose on the right to the high ground where my small work den stood. A carriage road wound through the grounds and up the hill. I staked it out with the English monarchs, beginning with [William] the Conqueror, and you could stand on the porch and clearly see every reign and its length, from the Conquest down to Victoria, then in the forty-sixth year of her reign—EIGHT HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN YEARS of English history under your eye at once!… I measured off 817 feet of the roadway, a foot representing a year, and at the beginning and end of each reign I drove a three-foot white-pine stake in the turf by the roadside and wrote the name and dates on it.
Twain and the children sketched icons for each of the monarchs: a whale for William the Conqueror, because both names begin with W and because “it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history”; a hen for Henry I, and so forth.
We got a good deal of fun out of the history road; and exercise, too. We trotted the course from the Conqueror to the study, the children calling out the names, dates, and length of reigns as we passed the stakes.… The children were encouraged to stop locating things as being “over by the arbor,” or “in the oak [copse],” or “up at the stone steps,” and say instead that the things were in Stephen, or in the Commonwealth, or in George III. They got the habit without trouble. To have the long road mapped out with such exactness was a great boon for me, for I had the habit of leaving books and other articles lying around everywhere, and had not previously been able to definitely name the place, and so had often been obliged to go to fetch them myself, to save time and failure; but now I could name the reign I left them in, and send the children.22 Rhyme schemes can also serve as mnemonic tools. The peg method is a rhyme scheme for remembering lists. Each number from 1 to 20 is paired with a rhyming, concrete image: 1 is bun, 2 is shoe, 3 is tree, 4 is store, 5 is hive, 6 is tricks, 7 is heaven, 8 is gate, 9 is twine, 10 is pen. (After 10 you add penny-one and start over with three-syllable cue words: 11 is penny-one, setting sun; 12 is penny-two, airplane glue; 13 is penny-three, bumble bee; and so on up to 20.) You use the rhyming concrete images as “pegs” on which to “hang” items you want to remember, such as the tasks you want to get done today. These twenty images stay with you, always at the ready whenever you need help to remember a list of things. So when you’re running errands: bun gives you the image of a hairstyle and reminds you to buy a hat for your ski trip; shoe reminds you of being well dressed, prompting you to pick up the dry cleaning; tree reminds you of family tree, cuing that birthday card for your cousin. The rhyming images stay the same, while the associations they evoke change each time you need to hold a new list in mind.
A song that you know well can provide a mnemonic structure, linking the lyrics in each musical phrase to an image that will cue retrieval of the desired memory. According to the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, the preeminent historian of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, traditional poems and songs seem to have been used as mnemonic devices for sending messages accurately over vast distances, from China at one end of the empire to Europe at the other end. The military were forbidden from sending written messages, and how they communicated remains a secret, but Weatherford thinks mnemonic devices were a likely method. He notes that the Mongol song known as the Long Song, for example, which describes the movement of a horse, can be sung in varying tones and trills so as to communicate movement through a particular location, like a crossing of the steppe or of the low mountains.
The versatility of mnemonic devices is almost endless. What they hold in common is a structure of some kind—number scheme, travel route, floor plan, song, poem, aphorism, acronym—that is deeply familiar and whose elements can be easily linked to the target information to be remembered.23
To return to the psychology students preparing for their A-level exams: In a classroom at Bellerbys College in Oxford, a dark-haired eighteen-year-old whom we’ll call Marlys sits down to write her A2 exams in psychology. She will be asked to write five essays over the course of two testing sessions totaling three and a half hours. A-level courses are the British equivalent of Advanced Placement courses in the United States and are prerequisites for going on to university.
Marlys is under a lot of pressure. For one thing, her exam scores will make the difference in whether or not she gets into the university of her choice—she has applied to the London School of Economics. To be assured a spot in a top university in the United Kingdom, students are required to take A-levels in three subjects, and the grades they must earn are published in advance by the universities. It’s not at all unusual that they are required to earn an A grade in each subject. If they earn less than the required grade, they must compete in a difficult clearing process by which the universities fill up their remaining spaces, a process that bears a lot in common with a lottery.
If that weren’t stress-inducing enough, the scope of the material for which Marlys must be prepared to show mastery in the next hour and a half is enormous. She and her fellow psychology students have studied six major topics in their second year of A-level preparations: eating behavior, aggression, relationships, schizophrenia, anomalistic psychology, and the methods of psychological research. Within each of the first five topics she must be prepared to write essays on seven different questions. Each essay must illuminate the answer in twelve short paragraphs that describe, for instance, the thesis or condition, the extant research and its significance, the countervailing opinions, any biological treatments (say, for schizophrenia), and how these relate to the foundational concepts of psychology that she mastered for her first-year A-levels. So she faces: Five major topics, times seven essay questions for each topic, with a dozen succinct, well-argued paragraphs in each essay to show mastery of the subject. In other words, the universe of different essays she must master going into exams is a total of thirty-five—plus a series of short answers to questions on psychological research methods. Marlys knows which of the main topics will be the subject of today’s exam, but she has no idea which essay questions will be assigned, so she’s had to prepare herself to write on all of them.
Many students who reach this point simply freeze. Despite being well grounded in their material, the stakes at play can make their minds go blank the moment they confront the empty exam booklet and the proctor’s ticking clock. That’s where having taken the time to construct a memory palace proves as good as gold. It’s not important that you understand the intricacies of British A-levels, just that they are difficult and highly consequential, which is why mnemonic devices are such a welcome tool at exam time.
Today, the three test topics turn out to be evolutionary explanations of human aggression, the psychological and biological treatments for schizophrenia, and the success and failure of dieting. Okay. For aggression, Marlys has got the she-wolf with her hungry pups at the window of the Krispy Kreme shop on Castle Street. For schizophrenia, she’s got the over-caffeinated barista at the Starbucks on High Street. For dieting, that would be the extremely large and aggressive potted plant inside the café Pret-a-Manger on Cornmarket Street.
Excellent. She settles in her seat, sure of her knowledge and her ability to call it up. She tackles the dieting essay first. Pret-a-Manger is Marlys’s memory palace for the safekeeping of what she has learned about the success and failure of dieting. Through a prior visit there, she has become thoroughly familiar with its spaces and furnishings and populated them with characters that are very familiar and vivid in her imagination. The names and actions of the characters now serve as cues to the dozen key points of her essay.
She enters the shop in her mind. La Fern (the man-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” one of her favorite movies) is holding Marlys’s friend Herman captive, her vines wrapped tightly around him, restraining him from a large dish of mac and cheese that sits just beyond his reach. Marlys opens her exam book and begins to write. “Herman and Mack’s restraint theory suggests that attempting not to overeat may actually increase the probability of overeating. That is, in restrained eaters, it is the disinhibition (loss of control) that is the cause of overeating.…” In this manner Marlys works her way through the café and the essay. Herman breaks free of his restraints with a mighty roar and makes a bee line for the plate, practically inhaling the pasta to the point of bursting. “Restraint theory received support in studies by Wardle and Beale, which found that obese women who restrained their eating actually ate more [inhaled the pasta] than obese women who took up exercise, and more than those who made no changes to their diet or lifestyle. However, Ogden argues …” and so on. Marlys moves mentally through the café clockwise, encountering her cues for the boundary model of hunger and satiety, biases arising from cultural inclinations to obesity, the problems with diet data based on anecdotal evidence, metabolic differences related to high levels of lipoprotein lipase levels (“little pink lemons”), and the rest.
From Pret-a-Manger she moves on to the Krispy Kreme shop, where a mental walk through the interior cues images that in turn cue what she’s learned about the evolutionary explanations of aggression. Then on to Starbucks, where the crazed barista and the shop’s floorplan and clientele cue her through twelve paragraphs on the biological treatments of schizophrenia.
Marlys’s psychology teacher at Bellerbys College is none other than James Paterson, the boyish-looking Welshman who just happens to be a rising figure in world memory competitions.24 When teachers at Bellerbys fill out the paperwork to take students on field trips, it’s typically to a lecture at the Saïd Business School, or perhaps to the Ashmolean Museum or Bodleian Library in Oxford. Not so with James. His paperwork will more likely seek approval to take students to any of half a dozen different cafés around town, comfortable settings where they can tap into their imaginations and construct their mnemonic schemes. In order for the students to nail all thirty-five essays securely in memory, they divide the topics into several groupings. For one group they build memory palaces in cafés and at familiar locations around the Bellerbys campus. For another group they use the peg method. Still other groups they link to imagery in favorite songs and movies.
We should make one important point, though. Before Paterson takes students on their mnemonic outings to construct memory palaces, he has already thoroughly covered the material in class so that they understand it.
Among Paterson’s former students who have graduated from Bellerbys and gone on to use the technique at university is Michela Seong-Hyun Kim, who described for us how she prepares for her university-level exams in psychology. First, she pulls together all her material from lecture slides, her outside reading, and her notes. She reduces this material to key ideas—not whole sentences. These form the plan for her essay. Next she selects the site for her memory palace. She ties each key idea to a location in the palace that she can visualize in her mind’s eye. Then she populates each location with something crazy that will link her to one of the key ideas. When she sits in the exam hall and finds out the essay topics, she takes ten minutes to mentally walk through the relevant memory palaces and list the key ideas for each essay. If she’s forgotten a point, she moves on to the next one and fills in the blank later. Once the plan is sketched out, she sets to work, free of the stressful anxiety that she won’t remember what she’s learned under the pressure of getting it right.25 What she does is not so different from what Mark Twain did when he used sketches to remember his speeches.
Michela says that the idea of skipping a bullet point that she cannot remember but will fill in later would have been completely alien to her before learning to use mnemonics, but the techniques have given her the confidence to do this, knowing that the content will come to mind momentarily. The memory palace serves not as a learning tool but as a method to organize what’s already been learned so as to be readily retrievable at essay time. This is a key point and helps to overcome the typical criticism that mnemonics are only useful in rote memorization. To the contrary, when used properly, mnemonics can help organize large bodies of knowledge to permit their ready retrieval. Michela’s confidence that she can pull up what she knows when she needs it is a huge stress buster and a time saver, James says.
It’s worth acknowledging that Krispy Kreme and Starbuck’s shops are not often called palaces, but the mind is capable of wondrous things.
At Paterson’s first World Memory Championships, that rookie year of 2006, he acquitted himself well by placing twelfth, narrowly edging out the American Joshua Foer, who later published an account of his experiences with mnemonics in the book Moonwalking with Einstein. Paterson can memorize the sequence of playing cards in a shuffled deck in less than two minutes, hand you the deck, and then recite them back to you with his eyes closed. Give him an hour, and he will memorize ten or twelve decks and recite them back without error. Top champs can memorize a single deck in thirty seconds or less and upward of twenty-five decks in an hour, so Paterson has a ways to go, but he’s a dedicated competitor and coming on strong, building his skills and memory tools. For example, just as the peg method involves memorizing an image for the digits 1 through 10 (1 is bun, 2 is shoe, etc.), in order to remember much longer strings of digits, Paterson has committed to memory a unique image for every numeral from 0 to 1,000. This kind of achievement takes long hours of practice and intense focus—the kind of solitary striving that Anders Ericsson tells us characterizes the acquisition of expertise. The thousand images locked into memory took Paterson a year to master, fitted in between the other demands of family, work, and friends.
We caught up with Paterson in a school office and asked if he’d mind giving us a quick memory demonstration, to which he readily agreed. We recited, once, the random number string 615392611333517. Paterson listened closely and then said, “Okay. We’ll use this space.” He looked around at the fixtures. “I see this water cooler here becoming the space shuttle, which is taking off just as an underground train comes shooting out the bottom of the cooler. In the bookshelves there behind the cooler, I see the rapper Eminem having a gunfight with Leslie Nielsen from Naked Gun, while Lieutenant Columbo looks down on them.” How to make sense of this? He remembers digits in groups of three. Every three-digit number is a distinct image. For example, the number 615 is always a space shuttle, 392 is always the Embankment tube station in London, 611 is Leslie Nielsen, 333 is Eminem, and 517 is Lieutenant Columbo. To make sense of these images, you need to understand another, underlying mnemonic: for each numeral 0 through 9, James has associated a sound of speech. The numeral 6 is always a Sheh or Jeh sound, the 1 is always a Tuh or Duh sound, and 5 is an L sound. So the image for the number 615 is Sheh Tuh L, or shuttle. Virtually every three-digit number from 000 to 999 lives in Paterson’s mind as a unique image that is an embodiment of these sounds. For our spontaneous quiz, for example, he drew on these images in addition to the space shuttle:
In the memory championship event of spoken numbers, which are read aloud to contestants at the rate of one per second, Paterson can memorize and recite back seventy-four without error, and, with much practice, he’s raising that count. (“My wife calls herself a memory widow.”) Without mnemonic tools, the maximum number of digits most people can hold in working memory is about seven. That is why local telephone numbers were designed to be no more than seven digits long. By the way, at the time of this writing the world record in spoken digits—what psychologists call memory span—is 364 digits (held by Johannes Mallow of Germany).
James is quick to acknowledge that he was first drawn to mnemonics as a shortcut for his studies. “Not the best of motives,” he admits. He taught himself the techniques and became a bit of a slacker, walking into exams knowing he had all the names, dates, and related facts readily at hand.
What he didn’t have, he discovered, was mastery of the concepts, relationships, and underlying principles. He had the mountaintops but not the mountain range, valleys, rivers, or the flora and fauna that compose the filled-in picture that constitutes knowledge.
Mnemonic devices are sometimes discounted as tricks of memory, not tools that fundamentally add to learning, and in a sense this is correct. The value of mnemonics to raise intellectual abilities comes after mastery of new material, as the students at Bellerbys are using them: as handy mental pockets for filing what they’ve learned, and linking the main ideas in each pocket to vivid memory cues so that they can readily bring them to mind and retrieve the associated concepts and details, in depth, at the unexpected moments that the need arises.
When Matt Brown, the jet pilot, describes his hours on the flight deck of a simulator drilling on the rhythm of the different hand movements required by potential emergencies, he reenacts distinct patterns he’s memorized for different contingencies, choreographies of eye and hand, where the correct and complete sequence of instruments and switches is paramount. Each different choreography is a mnemonic for a corrective maneuver.
Karen Kim is a virtuoso violinist. When we spoke with her, Kim was second violin in the world-renowned string ensemble Parker Quartet, who play much of their material from memory, a rarity in classical music. Second violin is often largely accompanimental, and the mnemonic for memorizing the harmonies is the main melodic theme. “You sing the melody in your head,” Kim says, “and you know that when the melody goes to this place, you change harmony.”27 The harmonies of some works, like fugues, with up to four themes that pass around the group in intricate ways, are especially challenging to memorize. “You need to know that while I’m playing the second theme, you’re playing the first. Memorizing the fugues is very difficult. I need to learn everybody else’s part better. Then I start to recognize patterns that I maybe knew intellectually before, but I wasn’t listening out for them. Memorizing the harmonies is a big part of knowing the architecture of the piece, the map of it.” When the quartet is mastering a new piece, they spend a lot of time playing through things slowly without the sheet music, and then gradually speeding it up. Think Vince Dooley gradually synchronizing the different positions on the Georgia Bulldogs football team as they tailor their plays to take on a new Saturday night opponent. Or the neurosurgeon Mike Ebersold, examining a gunshot victim in the emergency room and methodically rehearsing what he’s likely to encounter in a brain surgery that he’s about to perform.
Seeing the pattern of physical movements as a kind of choreography, visualizing a complex melody as it is handed off like a football from one player to another, “seeing the map of it”: all are mnemonic cues to memory and performance.
With continued retrieval, complex material can become second nature to a person and the mnemonic cues are no longer needed: you consolidate concepts like Newton’s 3 laws of motion into mental models that you use as a kind of shorthand. Through repeated use, your brain encodes and “chunks” sequences of motor and cognitive actions, and your ability to recall and apply them becomes as automatic as habit.
It comes down to the simple but no less profound truth that effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability. This single fact—that our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth but are, to a considerable degree, ours to shape—is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities. What we do shapes who we become and what we’re capable of doing. The more we do, the more we can do. To embrace this principle and reap its benefits is to be sustained through life by a growth mindset.
And it comes down to the simple fact that the path to complex mastery or expert performance does not necessarily start from exceptional genes, but it most certainly entails self-discipline, grit, and persistence; with these qualities in healthy measure, if you want to become an expert, you probably can. And whatever you are striving to master, whether it’s a poem you wrote for a friend’s birthday, the concept of classical conditioning in psychology, or the second violin part in Hayden’s Fifth Symphony, conscious mnemonic devices can help to organize and cue the learning for ready retrieval until sustained, deliberate practice and repeated use form the deeper encoding and subconscious mastery that characterize expert performance.
8 Make It Stick
NO MATTER WHAT YOU MAY set your sights on doing or becoming, if you want to be a contender, it’s mastering the ability to learn that will get you in the game and keep you there.
In the preceding chapters, we resisted the temptation to become overtly prescriptive, feeling that if we laid out the big ideas from the empirical research and illustrated them well through examples, you could reach your own conclusions about how best to apply them. But early readers of those chapters urged us to get specific with practical advice. So we do that here.
We start with tips for students, thinking in particular of high school, college, and graduate school students. Then we speak to lifelong learners, to teachers, and finally to trainers. While the fundamental principles are consistent across these groups, the settings, life stages, and learning materials differ. To help you envision how to apply these tips, we tell the stories of several people who, one way or another, have already found their way to these strategies and are using them to great effect.
Learning Tips for Students
Remember that the most successful students are those who take charge of their own learning and follow a simple but disciplined strategy. You may not have been taught how to do this, but you can do it, and you will likely surprise yourself with the results.
Embrace the fact that significant learning is often, or even usually, somewhat difficult. You will experience setbacks. These are signs of effort, not of failure. Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise. Effortful learning changes your brain, making new connections, building mental models, increasing your capability. The implication of this is powerful: Your intellectual abilities lie to a large degree within your own control. Knowing that this is so makes the difficulties worth tackling.
Following are three keystone study strategies. Make a habit of them and structure your time so as to pursue them with regularity.
Practice Retrieving New Learning from Memory
What does this mean? “Retrieval practice” means self-quizzing. Retrieving knowledge and skill from memory should become your primary study strategy in place of rereading.
How to use retrieval practice as a study strategy: When you read a text or study lecture notes, pause periodically to ask yourself questions like these, without looking in the text: What are the key ideas? What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define them? How do the ideas relate to what I already know?
Many textbooks have study questions at the ends of the chapters, and these are good fodder for self-quizzing. Generating questions for yourself and writing down the answers is also a good way to study.
Set aside a little time every week throughout the semester to quiz yourself on the material in a course, both the current week’s work and material covered in prior weeks.
When you quiz yourself, check your answers to make sure that your judgments of what you know and don’t know are accurate.
Use quizzing to identify areas of weak mastery, and focus your studying to make them strong.
The harder it is for you to recall new learning from memory, the greater the benefit of doing so. Making errors will not set you back, so long as you check your answers and correct your mistakes.
What your intuition tells you to do: Most studiers focus on underlining and highlighting text and lecture notes and slides. They dedicate their time to rereading these, becoming fluent in the text and terminology, because this feels like learning.
Why retrieval practice is better: After one or two reviews of a text, self-quizzing is far more potent for learning than additional rereading. Why might this be so? This is explained more fully in Chapter 2, but here are some of the high points.
The familiarity with a text that is gained from rereading creates illusions of knowing, but these are not reliable indicators of mastery of the material. Fluency with a text has two strikes against it: it is a misleading indicator of what you have learned, and it creates the false impression that you will remember the material.
By contrast, quizzing yourself on the main ideas and the meanings behind the terms helps you to focus on the central precepts rather than on peripheral material or on a professor’s turn of phrase. Quizzing provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you haven’t yet mastered. Moreover, quizzing arrests forgetting. Forgetting is human nature, but practice at recalling new learning secures it in memory and helps you recall it in the future.
Periodically practicing new knowledge and skills through self-quizzing strengthens your learning of it and your ability to connect it to prior knowledge.
A habit of regular retrieval practice throughout the duration of a course puts an end to cramming and all-nighters. You will need little studying at exam time. Reviewing the material the night before is much easier than learning it.
How it feels: Compared to rereading, self-quizzing can feel awkward and frustrating, especially when the new learning is hard to recall. It does not feel as productive as rereading your class notes and highlighted passages of text feels. But what you don’t sense when you’re struggling to retrieve new learning is the fact that every time you work hard to recall a memory, you actually strengthen it. If you restudy something after failing to recall it, you actually learn it better than if you had not tried to recall it. The effort of retrieving knowledge or skills strengthens its staying power and your ability to recall it in the future.
Space Out Your Retrieval Practice
What does this mean? Spaced practice means studying information more than once but leaving considerable time between practice sessions.
How to use spaced practice as a study strategy: Establish a schedule of self-quizzing that allows time to elapse between study sessions. How much time? It depends on the material. If you are learning a set of names and faces, you will need to review them within a few minutes of your first encounter, because these associations are forgotten quickly. New material in a text may need to be revisited within a day or so of your first encounter with it. Then, perhaps not again for several days or a week. When you are feeling more sure of your mastery of certain material, quiz yourself on it once a month. Over the course of a semester, as you quiz yourself on new material, also reach back to retrieve prior material and ask yourself how that knowledge relates to what you have subsequently learned.
If you use flashcards, don’t stop quizzing yourself on the cards that you answer correctly a couple of times. Continue to shuffle them into the deck until they’re well mastered. Only then set them aside—but in a pile that you revisit periodically, perhaps monthly. Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory.
Another way of spacing retrieval practice is to interleave the study of two or more topics, so that alternating between them requires that you continually refresh your mind on each topic as you return to it.
What your intuition tells you to do: Intuition persuades us to dedicate stretches of time to single-minded, repetitive practice of something we want to master, the massed “practice-practice-practice” regime we have been led to believe is essential for building mastery of a skill or learning new knowledge. These intuitions are compelling and hard to distrust for two reasons. First, as we practice a thing over and over we often see our performance improving, which serves as a powerful reinforcement of this strategy. Second, we fail to see that the gains made during single-minded repetitive practice come from short-term memory and quickly fade. Our failure to perceive how quickly the gains fade leaves us with the impression that massed practice is productive.
Moreover, most students, given their misplaced faith in massed practice, put off review until exam time nears, and then they bury themselves in the material, going over and over it, trying to burn it into memory.
Why spaced practice is better: It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced.
If you use self-quizzing as your primary study strategy and space out your study sessions so that a little forgetting has happened since your last practice, you will have to work harder to reconstruct what you already studied. In effect, you’re “reloading” it from long-term memory. This effort to reconstruct the learning makes the important ideas more salient and memorable and connects them more securely to other knowledge and to more recent learning. It’s a powerful learning strategy. (How and why it works are discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 4.) How it feels: Massed practice feels more productive than spaced practice, but it is not. Spaced practice feels more difficult, because you have gotten a little rusty and the material is harder to recall. It feels like you’re not really getting on top of it, whereas in fact, quite the opposite is happening: As you reconstruct learning from long-term memory, as awkward as it feels, you are strengthening your mastery as well as the memory.
Interleave the Study of Different Problem Types
What does this mean? If you’re trying to learn mathematical formulas, study more than one type at a time, so that you are alternating between different problems that call for different solutions. If you are studying biology specimens, Dutch painters, or the principles of macroeconomics, mix up the examples.
How to use interleaved practice as a study strategy: Many textbooks are structured in study blocks: They present the solution to a particular kind of problem, say, computing the volume of a spheroid, and supply many examples to solve before moving to another kind of problem (computing the volume of a cone). Blocked practice is not as effective as interleaved practice, so here’s what to do.
When you structure your study regimen, once you reach the point where you understand a new problem type and its solution but your grasp of it is still rudimentary, scatter this problem type throughout your practice sequence so that you are alternately quizzing yourself on various problem types and retrieving the appropriate solutions for each.
If you find yourself falling into single-minded, repetitive practice of a particular topic or skill, change it up: mix in the practice of other subjects, other skills, constantly challenging your ability to recognize the problem type and select the right solution.
Harking back to an example from sports (Chapter 4), a baseball player who practices batting by swinging at fifteen fastballs, then at fifteen curveballs, and then at fifteen changeups will perform better in practice than the player who mixes it up. But the player who asks for random pitches during practice builds his ability to decipher and respond to each pitch as it comes his way, and he becomes the better hitter.
What your intuition tells you to do: Most learners focus on many examples of one problem or specimen type at a time, wanting to master the type and “get it down cold” before moving on to study another type.
Why interleaved practice is better: Mixing up problem types and specimens improves your ability to discriminate between types, identify the unifying characteristics within a type, and improves your success in a later test or in real-world settings where you must discern the kind of problem you’re trying to solve in order to apply the correct solution. (This is explained more fully in Chapter 3.)
How it feels: Blocked practice—that is, mastering all of one type of problem before progressing to practice another type—feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery as you go, whereas interrupting the study of one type to practice a different type feels disruptive and counterproductive. Even when learners achieve superior mastery from interleaved practice, they persist in feeling that blocked practice serves them better. You may also experience this feeling, but you now have the advantage of knowing that studies show that this feeling is illusory.
Other Effective Study Strategies
ELABORATION improves your mastery of new material and multiplies the mental cues available to you for later recall and application of it (Chapter 4).
What is it? Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material.
For instance: Examples include relating the material to what you already know, explaining it to somebody else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class.
A powerful form of elaboration is to discover a metaphor or visual image for the new material. For example, to better grasp the principles of angular momentum in physics, visualize how a figure skater’s rotation speeds up as her arms are drawn into her body. When you study the principles of heat transfer, you may understand conduction better if you imagine warming your hands around a hot cup of cocoa. For radiation, visualize how the sun pools in the den on a wintry day. For convection, think of the life-saving blast of A/C as your uncle squires you slowly through his favorite back-alley haunts of Atlanta. When you learned about the structure of an atom, your physics teacher may have used the analogy of the solar system with the sun as the nucleus and electrons spinning around like planets. The more that you can elaborate on how new learning relates to what you already know, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create to remember it later.
Later in this chapter, we tell how the biology professor Mary Pat Wenderoth encourages elaboration among her students by assigning them the task of creating large “summary sheets.” Students are asked to illustrate on a single sheet the various biological systems studied during the week and to show graphically and through key words how the systems interrelate with each other. This is a form of elaboration that adds layers of meaning and promotes the learning of concepts, structures, and interrelationships. Students who lack the good fortune to be in Wenderoth’s class could adopt such a strategy for themselves.
GENERATION has the effect of making the mind more receptive to new learning.
What is it? Generation is an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution.
For instance: On a small level, the act of filling in a missing word in a text (that is, generating the word yourself rather than having it supplied by the writer) results in better learning and memory of the text than simply reading a complete text.
Many people perceive their learning is most effective when it is experiential—that is, learning by doing rather than by reading a text or hearing a lecture. Experiential learning is a form of generation: you set out to accomplish a task, you encounter a problem, and you consult your creativity and storehouse of knowledge to try to solve it. If necessary you seek answers from experts, texts, or the Web. By wading into the unknown first and puzzling through it, you are far more likely to learn and remember the solution than if somebody first sat you down to teach it to you. Bonnie Blodgett, an award-winning gardener and writer, provides a strong example of generative learning in Chapter 4.
You can practice generation when reading new class material by trying to explain beforehand the key ideas you expect to find in the material and how you expect they will relate to your prior knowledge. Then read the material to see if you were correct. As a result of having made the initial effort, you will be more astute at gleaning the substance and relevance of the reading material, even if it differs from your expectation.
If you’re in a science or math course learning different types of solutions for different types of problems, try to solve the problems before you get to class. The Physics Department at Washington University in St. Louis now requires students to work problems before class. Some students take umbrage, arguing that it’s the professor’s job to teach the solution, but the professors understand that when students wrestle with content beforehand, classroom learning is stronger.
REFLECTION is a combination of retrieval practice and elaboration that adds layers to learning and strengthens skills.
What is it? Reflection is the act of taking a few minutes to review what has been learned in a recent class or experience and asking yourself questions. What went well? What could have gone better? What other knowledge or experiences does it remind you of? What might you need to learn for better mastery, or what strategies might you use the next time to get better results?
For instance: The biology professor Mary Pat Wenderoth assigns weekly low-stakes “learning paragraphs” in which students are asked to reflect on what they learned the previous week and to characterize how their class learning connects to life outside the class. This is a fine model for students to adopt for themselves and a more fruitful learning strategy than spending hours transcribing lecture slides or class notes verbatim into a notebook.
CALIBRATION is the act of aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so as to avoid being carried off by the illusions of mastery that catch many learners by surprise at test time.
What is it? Everyone is subject to a host of cognitive illusions, some of which are described in Chapter 5. Mistaking fluency with a text for mastery of the underlying content is just one example. Calibration is simply the act of using an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgment to better reflect reality. The aim is to be sure that your sense of what you know and can do is accurate.
For instance: Airline pilots use flight instruments to know when their perceptual systems are misleading them about critical factors like whether the airplane is flying level. Students use quizzes and practice tests to see whether they know as much as they think they do. It’s worth being explicit here about the importance of answering the questions in the quizzes that you give yourself. Too often we will look at a question on a practice test and say to ourselves: Yup, I know that, and then move down the page without making the effort to write in the answer. If you don’t supply the answer, you may be giving in to the illusion of knowing, when in fact you would have difficulty rendering an accurate or complete response. Treat practice tests as tests, check your answers, and focus your studying effort on the areas where you are not up to snuff.
MNEMONIC DEVICES help you to retrieve what you have learned and to hold arbitrary information in memory (Chapter 7).
What are they? “Mnemonic” is from the Greek word for memory, and mnemonic devices are like mental file cabinets. They give you handy ways to store information and find it again when you need it.
For instance: Here is a very simple mnemonic device that some schoolchildren are taught for remembering the US Great Lakes in geographic order, from east to west: Old Elephants Have Musty Skin. Mark Twain used mnemonics to teach his children the succession of kings and queens of England, staking the sequence and length of their reigns along the winding driveway of his estate, walking it with the children, and elaborating with images and storytelling. Psychology students at Bellerbys College in Oxford use mnemonic devices called memory palaces to organize what they have learned and must be prepared to expound upon in their A-level essay exams. Mnemonics are not tools for learning per se but for creating mental structures that make it easier to retrieve what you have learned.
Brief stories follow of two students who have used these strategies to rise to the top of their classes.
Michael Young, Medical Student
Michael Young is a high-achieving fourth-year medical student at Georgia Regents University who pulled himself up from rock bottom by changing the way he studies.
Young entered medical school without the usual foundation of premed coursework. His classmates all had backgrounds in biochemistry, pharmacology, and the like. Medical school is plenty tough under any circumstances, but in Young’s case even more so for lack of a footing.
The scope of the challenge that lay before him became abruptly evident. Despite his spending every available minute studying his coursework, he barely eked out a 65 on his first exam. “Quite honestly, I got my butt kicked,” he says. “I was blown away by that. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. It was nothing like any kind of schooling I had done before. I mean, you come to class, and in a typical day you get about four hundred PowerPoint slides, and this is dense information.”1 Since spending more time studying wasn’t an option, Young had to find a way to make studying more effective.
He started reading empirical studies on learning and became deeply interested in the testing effect. That’s how we first learned of him: He emailed us with questions about the application of spaced retrieval practice in a medical school setting. Looking back on that stressful period, Young says, “I didn’t just want to find somebody’s opinion about how to study. Everybody has an opinion. I wanted real data, real research on the issue.”
You might wonder how he got himself into medical school without premed coursework. He had earned a master’s degree in psychology and worked in clinical settings, eventually as a drug addiction counselor. He teamed up with a lot of doctors, and he slowly began to wonder if he would be happier in medicine. Had he missed his calling? “I didn’t think of myself as being especially intelligent, but I wanted to do more with my life and the idea wouldn’t leave me.” One day he went to the biology department of his local university, Columbus State in Columbus, Georgia, and asked what courses he would need to become a doctor. They laughed. “They said, ‘Well, nobody from this school becomes a doctor. People at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech go to medical school, we haven’t had anybody go to medical school in a decade.’ ” Not to be put off, Young cobbled together some courses. For example, for the biology requirement, the only thing he could take at Columbus State was a fishing class. That was his biology course. Within a year he had gotten whatever medical background was available from the school, so he crammed for a month for the Medical College Admission Test and managed to score just well enough. He enrolled at Georgia Regents.
At which point he found himself very far indeed from being over the hump. As his first exam made all too clear, the road ahead went straight up. If he had any hope of climbing it, something about his study habits had to change. So what did change? He explains it this way:
I was big into reading, but that’s all I knew how to do for studying. I would just read the material and I wouldn’t know what else to do with it. So if I read it and it didn’t stick in my memory, then I didn’t know what to do about that. What I learned from reading the research [on learning] is that you have to do something beyond just passively taking in the information.
Of course the big thing is to figure out a way to retrieve the information from memory, because that’s what you’re going to be asked to do on the test. If you can’t do it while you’re studying, then you’re not going to be able to do it on the test.
He became more mindful of that when he studied. “I would stop. ‘Okay, what did I just read? What is this about?’ I’d have to think about it. ‘Well, I believe it happens this way: The enzyme does this, and then it does that.’ And then I’d have to go back and check if I was way off base or on the right track.”
The process was not a natural fit. “It makes you uncomfortable at first. If you stop and rehearse what you’re reading and quiz yourself on it, it just takes a lot longer. If you have a test coming up in a week and so much to cover, slowing down makes you pretty nervous.” But the only way he knew of to cover more material, his established habit of dedicating long hours to rereading, wasn’t getting the results he needed. As hard as it was, he made himself stick to retrieval practice long enough at least to see if it worked. “You just have to trust the process, and that was really the biggest hurdle for me, was to get myself to trust it. And it ended up working out really well for me.” Really well. By the time he started his second year, Young had pulled his grades up from the bottom of his class of two hundred students to join the high performers, and he has remained there ever since.
Young spoke with us about how he adapted the principles of spaced retrieval practice and elaboration to medical school, where the challenges arise both from the sheer volume of material to be memorized and from the need to learn how complex systems work and how they interrelate with other systems. His comments are illuminating.
On deciding what’s important: “If it’s lecture material and you have four hundred PowerPoint slides, you don’t have time to rehearse every little detail. So you have to say, ‘Well this is important, and this isn’t.’ Medical school is all about figuring out how to spend your time.”
On making yourself answer the question: “When you go back and review, instead of just rereading you need to see if you can recall the learning. Do I remember what this stuff was about? You always test yourself first. And if you don’t remember, then that’s when you go back and look at it and try again.”
On finding the right spacing: “I was aware of the spacing effect, and I knew that the longer you wait to practice retrieval the better it is for memory, but there’s also a trade-off with how successful you are when you try to recall it. When you have these long enzyme names, for example, and this step-by-step process of what the enzyme is doing, maybe if you learn ten steps of what the enzyme is doing, you need to stop and think, can I remember what those ten steps are? Once I found a good strategy for how much to space practice and I started seeing consistent results, it was easy to follow from there because then I could just trust the process and be confident that it was going to work.” On slowing down to find the meaning: Young has also slowed down the speed at which he reads material, thinking about meaning and using elaboration to better understand it and lodge it in memory. “When I read that dopamine is released from the ventral tegmental area, it didn’t mean a lot to me.” The idea is not to let words just “slide through your brain.” To get meaning from the dopamine statement, he dug deeper, identified the structure within the brain and examined images of it, capturing the idea in his mind’s eye. “Just having that kind of visualization of what it looks like and where it is [in the anatomy] really helps me to remember it.” He says there’s not enough time to learn everything about everything, but pausing to make it meaningful helps it stick.
Young’s impressive performance has not been lost on his professors or his peers. He has been invited to tutor struggling students, an honor few are given. He has been teaching them these techniques, and they are pulling up their grades.
“What gets me is how interested people are in this. Like, in medical school, I’ve talked to all of my friends about it, and now they’re really into it. People want to know how to learn.”
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