Research has found that people are most likely to successfully apply appropriate learning and remembering strategies when they have also been taught general information about how the mind works.

The more you understand about how memory works, the more likely you are to benefit from instruction in particular memory skills.

When you have a good general understanding of how memory works, different learning strategies make much more sense. You will remember them more easily, because they are part of your general understanding. You will be able to adapt them to different situations, because you understand why they work and which aspects are important. You will be able to recognize which skills are useful in different situations. Not least important, because you understand why the strategies work, you will have much greater confidence in them.

[taken from The Memory Key]

Knowledge about memory is called "metamemory". There are four broad aspects of this kind of knowledge:

  • Factual knowledge about memory tasks and processes (that is, knowledge about both how memory works and about strategic behaviors)
  • Memory monitoring (that is, both awareness of how you typically use your memory as well as awareness of the current state of your memory)
  • Memory self-efficacy (that is, your sense of how well you use memory in demanding situations)
  • Memory-related affect (emotional states that may be related to or generated by memory demanding situations)

[taken from Hertzog, 1992]

Metamemory is assumed to play a significant role in the development of children's learning and memory performance. It's also — more surprisingly mdash; now thought to play some part in the decline in cognitive performance with age.

Part of the reason for this is, of course, the widespread perception that memory does decline with age, and accordingly, when older adults experience memory failure, they are more inclined to simply attribute it to age, rather than attempt to improve their performance. Relatedly, older adults are less inclined to use new strategies, partly because they don't believe it makes a difference.

But, whatever your age, old or young, your memory can be improved by mastering and using effective strategies. The main obstacle, for both old and young, is in fact convincing them that it's not them, it's what they're doing. And they can learn to do things better.

  • Hertzog, C. 1992. Improving memory: The possible roles of metamemory. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag. pp 61-78.
  • McPherson, F. 2000. The Memory Key. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.

Successful remembering requires effective self-monitoring

We forget someone’s name, and our response might be: “Oh I’ve always been terrible at remembering names!” Or: “I’m getting old; I really can’t remember things anymore.” Or: nothing — we shrug it off without thought. What our response might be depends on our age and our personality, but that response has nothing to do with the reason we forgot.

We forget things for a number of short-term reasons: we’re tired; we’re distracted by other thoughts; we’re feeling emotional. But underneath all that, at all ages and in all situations, there is one fundamental reason why we fail to remember something: we didn’t encode it well enough at the time we learned/experienced it. And, yes, that is a strategy failure, and possibly also a reflection of those same factors (tired, distracted, emotional), but again, at bottom there is one fundamental reason: we didn’t realize what we needed to do to ensure we would remember it. This is a failure of self-monitoring, and self-monitoring is a crucial, and under-appreciated, strategy.

I’ve written about self-monitoring as a study skill, but self-monitoring is a far broader strategy than that. It applies to children and to seniors; it applies to remembering names and intentions and facts and experiences and skills. And it has a lot to do with cognitive fluency.

Cognitive fluency is as simple a concept as it sounds: it’s about how easy it is to think about something. We use this ease as a measure of familiarity — if it’s easy, we assume we’ve met it before. The easier it is, the more familiar we assume it is. Things that are familiar are (rule of thumb) assumed to be safe, seen as more attractive, make us feel more confident.

And are assumed to be known — that is, we don’t need to put any effort into encoding this information, because clearly we already know it.

Familiarity is a heuristic (rule of thumb) for several attributes. Fluency is a heuristic for familiarity.

Heuristics are vital — without these, we literally couldn’t function. The world is far too complex a place for us to deal with it without a whole heap of these rules of thumb. But the problem with them is that they are not rules, they are rules of thumb — guidelines, indicators. Meaning that a lot of the time, they’re wrong.

That’s why it’s not enough to unthinkingly rely on fluency as a guide to whether or not you need to make a deliberate effort to encode/learn something.

The secret to getting around the weaknesses of fluency is effective testing.

Notice I said effective.

If you intend to buy some bread on the way home from work, does the fact that you reminded yourself when you got to work constitute an effective test? Not in itself. If you are introduced to someone and you remember their name long enough to use it when you say goodbye, does this constitute an effective test? Again, not in itself. If you’re learning the periodic table and at the end of your study session are able to reel off all the elements in the right order, can you say you have learned this, and move on to something else? Not yet.

Effective testing has three elements: time, context, and feedback.

The feedback component should be self-evident, but apparently is not. It’s no good being tested or testing yourself, if your answer is wrong and you don’t know it! Of course, it’s not always possible to get feedback — and we don’t need feedback if we really are right. But how do we know if we’re right? Again, we use fluency to tell us. If the answer comes easily, we assume it’s correct. Most of the time it will be — but not always. So if you do have some means of checking your answer, you should take it.

[A brief aside to teachers and parents of school-aged students: Here in New Zealand we have a national qualifying exam (actually a series of exams) for our older secondary school students. The NCEA is quite innovative in many ways (you can read about it here if you’re curious), and since its introduction a few years ago there has been a great deal of controversy about it. As a parent of students who have gone through and are going through this process, I have had many criticisms about it myself. However, there are a number of good things about it, and one of these (which has nothing to do with the nature of the exams) is a process which I believe is extremely rare in the world (for a national exam): every exam paper is returned to the student. This is quite a logistical nightmare of course, when you consider each subject has several different papers (as an example, my younger son, sitting Level 2 this year, did 18 papers) and every paper has a different marker. But I believe the feedback really is worth it. Every test, whatever its ostensible purpose, should also be a learning experience. And to be a good learning experience, the student needs feedback.]

But time and context are the important, and under-appreciated, elements.  A major reason why people fail to realize they haven’t properly encoded/learned something, is that they retrieve it easily soon after encoding, as in my examples above. But at this point, the information is still floating around in an accessible state. It hasn’t been consolidated; it hasn’t been properly filed in long-term memory. Retrieval this soon after encoding tells you (almost) nothing (obviously, if you did fail to retrieve it at this point, that would tell you something!).

So effective testing requires a certain amount of time to pass. And as I discussed when I talked about retrieval practice, it really requires quite a lot of time to pass before you can draw a line under it and say, ok, this is now done.

The third element is the least obvious. Context.

Why do we recognize the librarian when we see her at the library, but don’t recognize her at the supermarket? She’s out of context. Why does remembering we need to buy bread on the way home no good if we remember it when we arrive at work? Because successful intention remembering is all about remembering at the right time and in the right place.

Effective encoding means that we will be able to remember when we need the information. In some cases (like intention memory), that means tying the information to a particular context — so effective testing involves trying to retrieve the information in response to the right contextual cue.

In most cases, it means testing across a variety of contexts, to ensure you have multiple access points to the information.

Successful remembering requires effective monitoring at the time of encoding (when you encounter the information). Effective monitoring requires you not to be fooled by easy fluency, but to test yourself effectively, across time and context. These principles apply to all memory situations and across all ages.


Additional resources:

If you want to know more about cognitive fluency and its effect on the mind (rather than memory specifically), there's nice article in the Boston Globe. As an addendum (I'd read the more general and in-depth article in the Globe first), Miller-McCune have a brief article on one particular aspect of cognitive fluency -- the effect of names.

Miller-McCune have have a good article on the value of testing and the motivating benefits of failure.

New book now available in paperback!

I'm pleased to announce that my new book "How to Learn: The 10 principles of effective revision & practice" is now available here in paperback. It should be available on Amazon within a week, and eventually elsewhere. Once it's available on Amazon, I will add it to the Kindle "Matchbook" program, as my other books already are - that means that you can pick up the Kindle version for only a little more, if you've already purchased the paperback.


New book!

book cover

Very excited to announce that my new book

How to learn: The 10 principles of effective revision and practice

Book cover

Paperback (available 2 Dec), E-book (pdf), E-book (Kindle), E-book (ePub)
296 pages
Wayz Press (November, 2013)
978-1-927166-13-0 (pdf)
978-1-927166-11-6 (mobi)
978-1-927166-12-3 (ePub)
978-1-927166-14-7 (paperback)
ASIN:  B00GXJHUUU  (Kindle)


Links to iTunes will go live as soon as available


Purchase in DRM-free digital format (pdf, mobi, ePub) from the Mempowered Store

Purchase for Kindle from Amazon

Purchase for Kobo reader in the Kobo store

Paperback available here



Read an excerpt

Being a successful student is far more about being a smart user of effective strategies than about being 'smart'. In Effective Notetaking and Mnemonics for Study, Dr McPherson showed readers many strategies for improving understanding and memory. But these on their own can only take you so far, if you don’t know how to cement that information into your brain for the long term. In this new book, Dr McPherson explains the 10 principles of effective practice and revision.

Few students know how to learn effectively, which is why they waste so much time going over and over material, as they try to hammer it into their heads. But you don’t need to spend all that time, and you don’t need to endure such boredom. What you need to do is understand how to review your learning in the most optimal way. Using examples from science, math, history, foreign languages, and skill learning, that is what this book aims to teach you.

As always with the Mempowered books, this book doesn't re-hash the same tired advice that's been peddled for so long, but uses the latest cognitive and educational research to show you what to do to maximize your learning.

This book is for students who are serious about being successful in study, and teachers who want to know how best to help their students learn.

Table of Contents


1. What you need to know about memory

The 8 basic principles of memory

How neurons work

Working memory — a constraining factor

The role of consolidation in memory

2. What should you practice?

Some examples

3. Retrieval practice

Comparison of retrieval practice with other strategies


Keyword mnemonic

Concept maps

Benefits for related information

Errorless learning

Forced guessing

4. How often should you practice?

Criterion levels set the number of correct retrievals

Task difficulty affects optimal criterion level

Individual items may demand different criterion levels

Individual differences matter

How many times should you review?

Session spacing may be a factor

Recommended schedule

5. Spacing your practice

The advantage of spreading out your practice

Optimal spacing

The need for review

Stretching the review interval

Distributing your reviews

How type of material & task may affect spacing's benefits

6. Spacing within your study session

The importance of interleaving for category and type learning

Why should interleaved practice be more effective than massed practice?

Why people persist in believing massed practice is better

Preventing interference

Consolidation during rest

Children's brains may work differently

Aging also affects consolidation & interference

Spacing & interleaving for complex material

7. Putting it all together

Why is spaced retrieval practice so effective?

The ten principles of effective practice

8. Specific strategies


When to drop a card from the stack

How many cards in a stack

Best practice for flashcards

Flashcard variant

Keyword mnemonic

Using mnemonics for complex information

Using a mnemonic effectively


How to display your questions

Concept maps

9. Skill learning

Skill learning begins with instruction


Automating action sequences is the heart of motor skill learning

How ‘muscle memory’ is different from information memory

Deliberate practice

Breaking down a skill

Varied repetition


Self-monitoring and goal-setting

Metacognition and self-monitoring

Not all practice is, or should be, deliberate practice

Mental practice

Cognitive skills

Worked examples provide models for cognitive skills

Automatization is the core attribute of all skills

Approach skill learning like an expert

The 10 principles of effective skill practice

10. Putting all this into practice

Beliefs that stand in the way of effective learning

Test anxiety

Habits can break or make you

Scheduling your reviews

Bottom line



Strategy use more important than IQ for academic achievement

Apsam Academic Race photo

Nice review in Scientific American of some of the research showing that the active use of a wide array of effective learning strategies is more important for academic achievement than ‘ability’.

Maybe it has nothing to do with self-control

Academic and career success have been linked to self-regulation abilities early in life.

However, new research suggests a re-thinking of the meaning of the classic 'marshmallow test'.

Failure to delay gratification may reflect a perfectly rational response to the situation rather than a lack of 'will-power'.

Three critical variables may determine your willingness to delay gratification in a situation: temporal beliefs, reward difference, and temporal discount rate (the value you put on shorter waiting times).

We may be better off paying more attention to perceived reward and temporal discount rate - factors that are situational as well as personal - than to any 'character' assessments of 'self-control'.

I recently reported on Mynd about a finding that refines a widely-reported association between self-regulation and academic achievement. This association relates to the famous ‘marshmallow test’, in which young children were left alone with a marshmallow, having been told that if they could hold off eating it until the researcher returns, they would get two marshmallows.

Brain training helps cognitive decline in many cancer survivors

A pilot study found that both training in memory strategies and processing speed training had significant benefits for breast cancer survivors with concerns about their memory and cognition.

Cancer survivors who underwent chemotherapy often suffer long-term cognitive problems. Until now, most research has been occupied with establishing that this is in fact the case, and studies investigating how to help have been rare. I recently reported on studies suggesting that help with sleep problems and stress can be beneficial. It has also been suggested that exercise can help. None of these suggestions are special to cancer survivors (although cancer survivors may well be one of several groups that derive particular benefit). Similarly, a new study investigates another familiar approach to improving cognitive decline.

The pilot study involved 82 post-menopausal breast cancer survivors (average age 56) who had received chemotherapy and who were worried about their cognitive abilities. The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group received memory training adapted from the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) trial; another received processing speed training using Posit Science’s Insight program (commercially available); the third was a wait-listed control group.

Training consisted of ten 1-hour small-group (3-5 people) sessions over 6-8 weeks. Memory training involved learning strategies and applying them to word lists, sequences, and texts. Strategies included mnemonic techniques, as well as instruction in principles of meaningfulness, organization, visualization, and association. Strategies were taught and practiced in the first five sessions, and further practiced in the remaining sessions.

In the Insight program, stimulus duration is progressively shortened during a series of progressively more difficult information-processing tasks, such as time-order judgment, discrimination, spatial-match, forward-span, instruction-following, and narrative-memory tasks. Exercises automatically adjust to maintain an 85% correct rate.

Both programs proved beneficial. The memory training group showed significant improvement in immediate and delayed memory, which was maintained at the two-month follow-up. There was of course individual variability: 39% showed significant improvement on immediate memory (compared to 18% of controls) and 42% on delayed memory (compared to 11% of controls). While the group as a whole didn’t show significant improvement in processing speed, some 73% of the group showed reliable improvement at the two-month follow-up.

The Insight group showed significant improvement on both memory and processing speed. Some 68% improved processing speed (compared to 43% of controls). But note that at the 2-month follow-up, the 67% of the Insight group is not that much greater than the 61% of the controls (demonstrating very clearly the benefits of even the small amount of practice received in testing) and is in fact less than the 73% of the memory group.

The Insight group also showed significant improvement in memory. At two-month follow-up, some 30% of the Insight group had improved immediate memory (compared to the 18% of controls), and 33% had improved delayed memory (vs 11%).

Both training programs had a positive effect on perceived cognitive functioning and symptom distress (mood, anxiety, fatigue), and there was no difference between the groups in terms of satisfaction with the training (both groups were very satisfied).

The researchers concluded that, while both training programs were promising, the dual effect of processing speed training (on memory as well as processing speed) argued for its broader benefits.

However, I note that, although the size of the effect of memory training on processing speed was too small to reach statistical significance, the fact that the number of participants showing reliable improvement was greater than that of the Insight group points to an equally broad effect of memory training. If the memory training was supplemented by a small amount of practice on tasks designed to boost processing speed, it would seem to me that this might produce greater cognitive benefits than the processing speed training. Indeed, the Insight program was, I believe, first developed in the context of the ACTIVE program, and I have, of course, talked before about the value of training that includes multiple domains.

Still, the main message of this study should not be overlooked: it demonstrates that many cancer survivors suffering from cognitive decline can improve their cognitive performance through training and practice.

Should ‘learning facts by rote’ be central to education?

Being able to read or discuss a topic requires you to have certain concepts well-learned, so that they are readily accessible when needed.

Rote memorization is a poor tool for acquiring this base knowledge.

‘Core’ knowledge is smaller than you might think.

Building up strong concepts is best done by working through many, diverse examples.

Education is not solely or even mainly about stuffing your head with ‘facts’. Individualized knowledge, built up from personally relevant examples illuminating important concepts, needs to be matched by an equal emphasis on curating knowledge, and practice in replacing outdated knowledge.

Michael Gove is reported as saying that ‘Learning facts by rote should be a central part of the school experience’, a philosophy which apparently underpins his shakeup of school exams. Arguing that "memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding", he believes that exams that require students to memorize quantities of material ‘promote motivation, solidify knowledge, and guarantee standards’.

Desirable difficulty for effective learning

The right kind and level of confusion, properly supported, can benefit learning.

This may be an example of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty’.

Achieving the right level of difficulty may be the key to managing the information stream for optimal learning.

When we are presented with new information, we try and connect it to information we already hold. This is automatic. Sometimes the information fits in easily; other times the fit is more difficult — perhaps because some of our old information is wrong, or perhaps because we lack some of the knowledge we need to fit them together.

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