Author: Benedict Carey

ISBN: 978-0812993899

I wish I read this book before (or at least) during law school! A book about optimizing learning with hands-on advice.


Part One: Basic Theory

Memory improved in the first few days without any further study, and only began to taper off after day four or so, on average.

The brain doesn’t hold on to nonsense syllables for long, then, because they are nonsense.

Forgetting, remember, is not only a passive process of decay but also an active one, of filtering.

The first principle theory is this: Any memory has two strengths, a storage strength and a retrieval strength .

Retrieval strength, on the other hand , is a measure of how easily a nugget of information comes to mind. It, too, increases with studying, and with use. Without reinforcement, however, retrieval strength drops off quickly, and its capacity is relatively small (compared to storage). At any given time, we can pull up only a limited number of items in connection with any given cue or reminder.

The harder we have to work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength (learning).

Part Two: Retention

We can easily multiply the number of perceptions connected to a given memory — most simply, by varying where we study.

People learn at least as much, and retain it much longer, when they distribute — or “space” — their study time than when they concentrate it.

Studying a new concept right after you learn it doesn’t deepen the memory much, if at all; studying it an hour later, or a day later, does.

“To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something,” Wiseheart and Pashler’s group wrote. The optimal interval ranges can be read off a simple chart:

Time to test and corresponding first study interval:

  • 1 week -> 1-2 days
  • 1 month -> 1 week
  • 3 months -> 2 weeks
  • 6 months -> 3 weeks
  • 1 year -> 1 month

“Achievement tests or examinations are learning devices and should not be considered only as tools for measuring achievement of pupils.”

The act of guessing engaged your mind in a different and more demanding way than straight memorization did, deepening the imprint of the correct answers. In even plainer English, the pretest drove home the information in a way that studying - as - usual did not.

One very effective way to think of self - examination is to say, “Okay, I’ve studied this stuff; now it’s time to tell my brother, or spouse, or teenage daughter what it all means.”

Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten — and fast.

Part Three: Problem Solving

“Happy ideas come unexpectedly, without effort, like an inspiration. They have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table."

The crucial insights came after the person had abandoned the work and was deliberately not thinking about it.

In a sense, the letting go allows people to get out of their own way, giving the subconscious a chance to toil on its own , without the conscious brain telling it where to go or what to do.

They also emphasized that people don’t benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse. Their definition of “impasse” is not precise, but most of us know the difference between a speed bump and a brick wall.

Basic needs and motives cause a heightened perceptual readiness to register environmental cues that are instrumental to satisfying those needs”

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting.

Transfer is what learning is all about, really. It’s the ability to extract the essence of a skill or a formula or word problem and apply it in another context to another problem that may not look the same, at least superficially.

Whenever researchers scrambled practice sessions, in one form or another, people improved more over time than if their practice was focused and uninterrupted. One way to think about this is in terms of practice versus performance. During practice we have a measure of control. We can block out or avoid distractions, we can slow down if needed, and most important, we decide which skill or move or formula we want to rehearse before actually doing it. We’re in charge. Performance is another story. Growing up, all of us knew kids who were exceptional in practice but only mediocre come game time. And vice versa, kids who looked awkward in drills and then came alive when it mattered, during competition, or performing in front of an audience.

Interleaving accelerates math learning. Interleaving simply means mixing related but distinct material during study.

Mixing problems during study forces us to identify each type of problem and match it to the appropriate kind of solution.

The evidence so far suggests that interleaving is likely applicable not just to math, but to almost any topic or skill.

Part Four: Tapping the Subconscious

Sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before. [Read more in Why We Sleep]


Learning consists of storage and retrival.

Failure to recall something from the memory is usually a problem of retrival.

To optimize memory:

  • Learn in intervals; the longer you wish to retain something in the memory, the longer the intervals between repetitions shall be,
  • Learn by testing; by testing the memory (e.g. by trying to asnwer exam questions, presenting the learned materials to others or yourself) the memory is solidified much more than by a regular repetition (re-reading),
  • Experiment by changing the environment; learn some materials at home, at university, in a bar etc. [this one definitely doesn't work for me!],
  • Incorporate anchoring technique; while learning, listen to certain music, smell a certain perfume/ fruit/ chew a gum of certain taste, use markers of different colors etc. Before or even during the exam play youself the music, smell appropriate substance, see certain color etc. [this one is hard to implement in real life],
  • We learn much better if we learn with a purpose; we shall know how knowledge will benefit us.

With problems that we cannot crack during a prolonged effort we will often come up with the solution (or recall something), if we will take the focus away from the problem (after a night of sleep, walk in the park etc.).