How to Cut Useless Studying and Improve Your Learning

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso

The Not So Model Student

Jack is a model student. He attends all his classes and takes notes in them. He reads all the textbook chapters he’s assigned and highlights the key passages. But when he gets his results back from his end of term exam, he’s shocked to find that he’s failed. Jack runs to his teacher’s office in distress and asks her what happened.

“How did you study for the test?” she asks.

“Well I went back and highlighted all my notes, then reviewed them along with the highlighted passages of my textbook until I felt I understood the material.” he says.

Jack sees himself as a model student, but he is far from it – he doesn’t know how to learn effectively and is totally unaware of it.

We can all identify with this story, whether it’s from rereading French vocabulary that vanishes from our memory on test day or reviewing Economics definitions and forgetting crucial words in the exam.

What’s so frustrating when this happens is that, like Jack, we think we’ve done everything right. We start to question ourselves – maybe we didn’t work hard enough or we’re just not that good at languages or test taking. But these explanations are almost always false.

The real problem comes from our tendency to fool ourselves through what cognitive scientists call “illusions of knowing.” Strategies like rereading and highlighting create fluency, the belief that facts and formulae that are easy to remember now will be easy to remember tomorrow or next week. We feel we’ve mastered the material when we haven’t – all we’ve done is move it into our short term memory, which means we end up forgetting most of it.

Improving learning with self-testing

The best way to overcome our illusions is an effective studying technique in itself. That technique is testing or “retrieval practice” and the research proves that it’s highly effective in making learning deeper and more durable. Plus, when you test yourself, you find out whether you can actually recall what you’ve learnt or not.

In a 2006 study by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke of Washington University, 120 students were given two scientific texts to study – one on the sun and the other on sea otters. They studied one of the passages twice in separate seven-minute sessions. They then studied the other passage in one seven-minute session but in the second session, they were asked to write down as much as they could recall without looking.

The students were then split into three groups, one which took a test five minutes after the study sessions, one two days later and one a week later. While studying or rereading was marginally more effective in the five-minute test, testing was far superior when it really mattered, in the two-day and one-week tests.

How testing improves retention
How testing improves retention

Tests are more than just a measurement tool. They change what we remember and how we organize information in our minds by making us engage in more “effortful” learning.

Elizabeth and Robert Bjork’s “desirable difficulty” principle tells us that the harder our brains work to dig out a memory the more effective our learning will be. When the brain is retrieving texts, formulas, skills or anything else, it’s working harder than when it just sees the information again. That extra effort increases the resulting storage and retrieval strength.

In his book Make It Stick, Roediger highlights another benefit of self testing. When we successfully retrieve a fact, we re-store it in memory in a different way as it becomes linked to the other facts we’ve retrieved, making us even more likely to retain it.

So whether it’s in the form of recitation, rehearsal or self-examination, testing is something that we should all be using regularly in our learning for any subject or skill.

The Takeaway

Commonly used learning strategies like rereading and highlighting may feel effective due to the feeling of fluency they cause but they are largely useless. Effective learning techniques are effortful – the harder they feel, the deeper and more durable learning will be. Testing or retrieval practice is an example of one such strategy and we should use them regularly in our learning schedules in place of rereading.


1) Quiz yourself

After reading an article or text, pause and ask: what are the key ideas here? What message is the author is trying to communicate? Then try and write down as much as you can remember, without looking.

2) Teach someone

After reading an idea for the first time, try to explain it to a friend or family member as soon as possible. If nobody’s around explain it out loud to yourself. You’ll quickly see where your knowledge falls short and what you need to go back and review.

3) Take a test before you’re ready

Instead of waiting for the perfect moment, test yourself before you feel comfortable. If you’re learning a language, find a native to practice as soon as possible. If it’s a subject, do a past paper before you’re comfortable with the material.

Up Learn

At Up Learn, we’ve taken insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience and implemented them in a learning system for achieving A* at A Level. We’ve designed retrieval practice and self-testing into our courses. Find out more at Up Learn.

This post was written by Nasos Papadopoulos from

How To Be Smarter

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right.”
– Henry Ford

What is it you’ve always struggled to learn? Whether it’s an apparent incompetence with languages, ineptitude with numbers or inability to recall the details of an insightful book, we’ve all experienced frustrations with learning. If only more people knew that the first and most important step to solving these problems is surprisingly simple.

When we struggle to learn something, we often attribute it to a lack of innate ability. At some point, many of us have justified our difficulties with explanations like the one I occasionally told myself at school when wrestling with a difficult maths problem – “I’m just not good with numbers.” This perspective frames our capacity to learn as something that’s outside of our control, when in reality it’s influenced heavily by our own attitude and beliefs.

If learning is a journey from a destination of knowing less to one of knowing more, then trying to learn something when we don’t believe we can do it is like trying to drive with the handbrake on.

The idea that we need believe we’re capable to succeed isn’t new and often appears in children’s stories like The Little Engine That Could and in motivational quotes and personal development books. Consider Henry Ford’s old adage or one of Muhammad Ali’s most cited quotes – “If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.”

It turns out that there’s more than just wit and rhythm to these statements. The work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that there is scientific substance to this idea that mindset matters: our belief systems directly affect our behaviour, which in turn affects our success in learning.

Fixed and Growth Mindsets

In 20 years of research with children and adults, Dweck placed learners into two categories: those with a fixed mindset, who believe their abilities are set in stone; and those with a growth mindset, who believe that their abilities are malleable and can be developed through consistent effort. Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean we have to believe that anyone can become the next Einstein, Mozart or Da Vinci. We only have to acknowledge that a person’s potential to learn is unbounded and that the power to increase our own abilities is within our control.

Approaching things from this perspective creates a real passion for learning, and makes us more likely to apply the discipline and grit we need to succeed. We become less discouraged by failure and more attentive when we’re struggling. We start to recognize difficulty as an opportunity to stretch ourselves rather than trying to avoid it. All these characteristics not only make us more likely to learn new things but they also increase our chances to achieve what we want in our school, career and personal lives.

The Research

Dweck and her colleagues have consistently produced results that prove the positive impact of a growth mindset on learning performance. In one of her early experiments, she ran a workshop for a 7th grade class at a New York City junior high school. Half the students were given a presentation on memory and effective study techniques, while the other half were given an introduction to Dweck’s ideas about mindset and were told that their intelligence largely depended on their own effort.

After the workshop both groups of children went back to their classrooms, with their teachers unaware of the difference between what they had been taught. As the school year unfolded, the students from the second group developed a growth mindset and became better learners and higher achievers than the students from the first group, who retained a conventional fixed mindset. Dweck’s team has replicated these results across different locations, age groups and subjects with remarkable degrees of success.

The Takeaway

Our mindset is a fundamental. It’s more important than inherent ability in learning performance and has a huge impact on the other areas of our life such as our career and relationships. All learning strategies, tools and techniques are almost useless if we don’t combine them with a strong, growth based learning mindset – the simple belief that the power to improve our learning abilities lies in our own hands.

A growth mindset is something you need to practice consistently over time, like anything else. If your limiting beliefs pop up again in your mind, remind yourself that your ability is under your control. If you hear yourself saying “I can’t do it”, add the word “… yet”.

Up Learn

At Up Learn, we’ve taken insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience and implemented them in a learning system for achieving A* at A level. Find out more at Up Learn.

This post was written by Nasos Papadopoulos from

Why You’re Learning the Wrong Way and What To Do About It

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein

You’re doing it wrong

For most of my life I’ve been learning the wrong way and the chances are you have too. For me, studying at school and university mostly involved long periods of time reading textbooks, highlighting and underlining them and writing out notes. I even transferred this high volume philosophy to the sports I played, believing that persistent practice of my skills would lead to higher performance.

It’s not that this strategy didn’t work at all – I achieved a measure of academic success and was competent in the sports I played. But the truth is that I was doing a lot wrong and I wasn’t the only one. The tools that my friends and I used to improve learning all involved working more – reread the chapter, hit more forehands, write more detailed notes.

Fortunately, research in cognitive science has now provided insights that are helping us build new models of the learning process. We can now use more effective strategies to replace the standard practices that are used by most learners around the world.

What’s wrong with our ideas?

Most of our ideas about learning are taken on faith and shaped by our own intuition about what works well. Two common beliefs that many of us hold are:

1) Repeated exposure ‘burns’ material into your memory and is the most effective way to memorise – the belief that if I reread my notes or repeat my lines enough, they’ll stick eventually.

2) Massed practice is the best route to mastery – the belief that the best way to gain mastery in a skill or field of knowledge is through single-minded, rapid-fire repetition or “practice-practice-practice.”

These beliefs are so widely held that they permeate every dimension of our beliefs about learning and education. Cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel have compiled a series of research studies to counter these beliefs and recommend alternative methods. In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, they find that:

1) Rereading is more time consuming and less effective than other strategies.

2) The gains from massed practice are temporary. Most of us see fast improvement during the initial learning phase of massed practice, but these benefits are short-lived.

Our ideas about learning are so appealing because of their familiarity, and because we suffer from “illusions of knowing” which make us poor judges of when we’re learning well and when we’re not. Strategies like rereading notes and massed practice in sports feel effective because we’re getting comfortable with a text or skill and improving our fluency in it. But for real permanent gains, these strategies are largely a waste of time. Fluency is not learning and it’s certainly not mastery.

“But of course it takes hard work and practice to learn something,” I hear you shout. That’s true – the fundamental building blocks of learning are a strong learning mindset and consistent deliberate practice. But deliberate practice does not have to involve rote learning and repetition. There are many ways to get from A to B and some are better than others.

Using different tools

More effective learning strategies are like technology that allows us to do more with less. Before 1440, all books were produced by hand – works of law, science and philosophy were painstakingly copied onto papyrus and parchment. But when Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press, book making was mechanised. Now the same amount of labour could be used to produce many more books.

Using standard learning strategies such as rereading is like trying to produce books by hand when a printing press is available. Science has provided us with a deeper understanding of how we learn, so it’s time to replace some of our old tools with new ones, or at the very least, to experiment with what seems to be working better.

What are these new tools? I discuss each of them in depth in separate posts but they centre on the principles of self-testing, spaced retrieval and mixed practice. Self-testing allows us to tackle our illusions of knowing by showing us what we’ve actually learned.

Spaced retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting, which makes learning deeper and more durable. Mixed practice involves the interleaving of different components of a subject or skill, which makes you better at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.

The Takeaway

People generally go about learning the wrong way. Methods such as rereading and massed practice are by far the most popular but the research tells us that the gains from them are limited. Although it may feel like these methods of learning are productive, gaining familiarity with a subject or skill is not the same as mastering it.

We often spend a lot of time trying to choose the right path or strategy for our learning but we can save a lot of time by eliminating what doesn’t work and experimenting with what’s left.


1) Start Self-Testing

Don’t avoid self-testing until you feel comfortable with the material. Self-testing helps you identify how much you actually know and what you need to work on so do it before you feel ready. You’ll inevitably make mistakes but use those as opportunities for learning.

2) Use Retrieval Practice instead of Rereading

Avoid repeatedly rereading material. Instead try recalling facts or concepts more often using flashcards. You can build your own with free software like Anki or use ready-made decks on Memrise for a wide range of subjects.

3) Use Mixed not Massed Practice

Mix your practice up by practicing different aspects of a skill or subject together rather than repeating the same thing over and over again. If you’re doing maths problems, don’t do 10 calculus problems followed by 10 geometry ones – mix them up randomly instead.

Up Learn

At Up Learn, we’ve taken insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience and implemented them in a learning system for achieving A* at A level. Find out more at Up Learn.

This post was written by Nasos Papadopoulos from