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includes metamemory (your knowledge of how your memory works), self-monitoring, goal-setting, time management, etc

Why asking the right questions is so important, and how to do it

Research; study; learning; solving problems; making decisions — all these, to be done effectively and efficiently, depend on asking the right questions. Much of the time, however, people let others frame the questions, not realizing how much this shapes how they think.

This applies particularly to public debate and communication, even to something that may appear as ‘factual’ as an infographic presenting data. But the data that are presented, and the way they are presented, govern the conclusions you take away, and they depend on the question the designer thought she was supposed to answer, not on the questions you might be interested in. But so much of the time, our thoughts are shaped by the presentation, and we come away having lost sight of our questions.

In research and study, decision-making and problem-solving, the difficulty can be even more insidious, because we ourselves may think we came up with the questions. But asking the right question is crucial, and it should be no surprise that getting it right on the first attempt is not something to be assumed! Moreover, what might be the right question at the beginning of your task may not still be the right question once you’ve acquired more understanding.

In other words, framing questions is not only a first crucial step — it’s also something you need to revisit, repeatedly.

So how do you know if your questions are the most effective ones for your task? How do you test them?

To assess the effectiveness of your questions, you need to be consciously aware of the hierarchy to which they belong. Every question is, explicitly or implicitly, part of a nested set of questions and assumptions. Your task is to make that nesting explicit knowledge.

Here are two examples: an everyday decision-making task, and a learning task.

Because it’s that time of year, let’s look at the common question “Should I go on a diet?” This might be nested in these beliefs (do note I’m simplifying this decision considerably):

  • I’m overweight
  • It’s dangerous to be overweight / Fat is ugly / Other people hate overweight people / I’ll never get that promotion/a job unless I lose weight / I’ll never get a date unless I lose weight …

We’ll ignore the first assumption (“I’m overweight”), because that should be a matter of measurement (although of course it’s not that simple). (I’m also ignoring the issue of whether going on a diet is a good way of losing weight — this is a cognitive exercise, not an advice column!) Let’s instead look at the second set of beliefs. If your question is predicated on the belief that “I’ll never get that promotion/a job unless I lose weight”, then you can see that your question would be better phrased as “Will losing weight improve my chances of getting a job/being promoted?”. This in turn spins off other questions, such as: “How much weight would I need to lose to improve my chances?”; “Is losing weight a better strategy than other strategies that might improve my chances?”; “What other things could I do to improve my chances?”

On the other hand, if your question comes out of a belief that “It’s dangerous to be overweight”, then the question would be better phrased as “Is the amount of excess weight I carry medically dangerous?” — a question that leads to a search of the medical literature, and might end up transforming into: “What are the chances I’ll develop diabetes?”; “What is the most effective thing I can do to reduce my chance of developing diabetes?”

If, however, your question is based on a belief that “Other people hate overweight people”, then you might want to think about why you believe that — is it about societal attitudes that you read about in the media? Is it about the way you think people are looking at you in public? Is it about comments from specific individuals in your life? This can end up quite a deep nesting, leading right down to your beliefs about your self-worth and your relationship with the people in your life.

Let’s look at a learning task: you’ve been asked to write an essay on the causes of the Second World War. This might appear to be a quite straightforward question — but like most apparently straightforward questions, it is an illusion generated by lack of knowledge. The more you know about a subject, the fewer straightforward questions there are!

Any question about causes should make you think of the distinction between proximate causes and deeper causes. The proximate cause of WW2 from the European point of view might be Hitler’s invasion of Sudentenland; for Americans, it might be the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — but these are obviously not the sole cause of the War. There is obviously a long chain of events leading up to the invasion of Sudentenland, and most will date this chain back to the Versailles Treaty, which imposed such harsh penalties on Germany after they lost the First World War. But that, of course, takes us back even further, to the causes of WW1, and so on. Ultimately, you might want to argue that the way civilization rose and developed in ancient Mesopotamia led to the use of war as the principal means of establishing state dominance and power. You might even want to go back further, to primate evolution.

The distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, while useful, is of course a fuzzy one. These are not dichotomous concepts, but ones on a continuum.

All this is a long way of saying that any discussion of causes is always going to be a selected subset of possible causes. It is your (or your teacher’s) decision what subset you choose.

So, given that massive tomes have been written about the causes of WW2, how do you go about writing your comparatively brief essay?

Clearly it depends on the larger goal (we’re back to our nested hierarchy now). Here we must distinguish between two points of view: the instructor’s, and your own.

For example, the instructor might want you to write the essay to show:

  • your grasp of a few essential points covered in class or selected texts
  • your understanding of the complexity of the question
  • your understanding of the nature of historical argument
  • your ability to research a topic
  • your ability to write an essay in a particular format

The tack you take, therefore (if you want good grades!), will depend on what the instructor’s real goal is. It is likely, of course, that the instructor will have more than one goal, but let’s keep it simple, and assume only one.

But the instructor’s purposes aren’t the whole story. Your own goals are important too. As far as you’re concerned, you might be writing the essay:

  • Because the teacher asked for it (and no more)
  • Because you’re interested in the topic
  • Because you want to do well in the class.

Each of these, and the latter two in particular, are only part of the story. Why are you interested in the topic? Because you’re interested in history in general? because you’re interested in war? because a family member was caught up in the events of WW2? Perhaps your interest is in Japan and how it came to that point, or perhaps your interest is in how a society can come to believe that their best interests are served by invading another country.

And these are only some of the possible ways you might be interested. Obviously, there are many many aspects of this very broad question (“What are the causes of WW2?”) that could be discussed. So you need to consider both the instructor’s goals and your own when you re-frame the question in your own words.

Let’s assume that your instructor is interested in your understanding of the complexity of the topic, and you yourself are keen to get good grades although you have no personal interest to shape your approach. How would you frame your initial question?

The simplest question, for the simplest situation, is: What were the causes of WW2 covered in the text?

But if your instructor wants you to reveal your understanding of the complexity of the topic, you’ll probably want to come up with a number of specific questions that can each form the basis for a different paragraph in your essay.

For example:

  • What were the proximate causes of Britain declaring war on Germany?
  • What was the immediate chain of events leading to Germany’s invasion of Poland?
  • What role did the Versailles Treaty play in providing the conditions leading to Germany’s invasion of Poland?
  • What was the immediate chain of events leading to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria?
  • What did the League of Nations do when Japan invaded Manchuria, and how did this affect Germany’s re-occupation of the Rhineland and later invasion of Poland?

Depending on your knowledge of the topic at the beginning, many of those questions may only be revealed once you have answered an earlier question.

If you do, on the other hand, have an interest in a specific aspect of the multiple causes of WW2, you can still satisfy both your teacher’s goals and your own by briefly describing the ‘big picture’ — covering these same questions, but very briefly — and then pulling out one set of questions to answer in more detail, as a demonstration of the complexity of the issue.

Okay, these are bare bones examples (and have still gone on long enough - demonstrating how long it takes when you try and spell out any process!), but hopefully it's enough to show how understanding the questions and assumptions behind the ostensible question helps you frame the right question (and note that questions and assumptions are often just the same thing, framed differently). You can read more about asking questions as a study strategy in my older articles: Asking better questions and Metacognitive questioning and the use of worked examples. I also have a much longer example in my book Effective notetaking, which goes into considerable detail on this subject.

This post has gone on long enough, but let me end by making two last points, to emphasize the importance of asking the right questions. First, the question that starts you off not only shapes your search (for the answer to the problem, or for the right information, or the right decision), it also primes you. Priming is a psychological term that refers to the increased accessibility of related information when a particular item has been retrieved. For example, if you read ‘bread’, you are primed for ‘butter’; if you’ve just remarked on a pastel pink car, you’re more likely to notice other pastel-colored cars.

Second, questions are also an example of another important concept in memory research — the retrieval cue. As I discuss at some length in Perfect Memory Training, your ability to retrieve a memory (‘remember’) depends a lot on the retrieval cue. Retrieval cues (whatever prompts your memory search) are effective to the extent that they set you on the right path to the target memory. For example, the crossword clue “Highest university degree (9 letters)” immediately brought to my mind the answer “doctorate”; I didn’t need any letter clues. On the other hand, the clue “Large marine predator (9 letters)” left me stumped until I generated the right initial letter.

As I say in Perfect Memory Training, when you’re searching for specific information, it’s a good idea to actively generate recall cues (generation strategy), rather than simply rely on a passive association strategy (this makes me think of that, that makes me think of that). Asking questions, and repeatedly revising those questions, is clearly a type of generation strategy, and in some situations it might be helpful to think of it as such.

As in every aspect of improving memory and learning skills, it helps to know exactly what you're doing it and why it works! This is a large topic, but I hope this has helped you understand a little more about the value of asking questions, and how to do it in a way that is most effective.

Why it’s important to work out the specific skills you want to improve

I have spoken before, here on the website and in my books, about the importance of setting specific goals and articulating your specific needs. Improving your memory is not a single task, because memory is not a single thing. And as I have discussed when talking about the benefits of ‘brain games’ and ‘brain training’, which are so popular now, there is only a little evidence that we can achieve general across-the-board improvement in our cognitive abilities. But we can improve specific skills, and we may be able to improve a range of skills by working on a more fundamental skill they all share.

The modularity of the brain is emphasized in a recent study that found the two factors now thought to be operating in working memory capacity are completely independent of each other. Working memory capacity has long been known to be strongly correlated with intelligence, but the recent discovery that people vary not only in the number of items they can hold in short-term memory but also in how clear and precise the items are, has changed our conception of working memory capacity.

Both are measures of information; the clarity (resolution) of the items in working memory essentially reflects how much information about each item the individual can hold. So should our measures of WMC somehow encapsulate both factors? Are they related? It would seem plausible that those who can hold more items might hold less information about each of them; that those who can only hold two or three items might hold far more information on each item.

But this new study finds no evidence for that. Apparently the two factors are completely independent. Moreover, the connection between WMC and intelligence seems only to apply to the number of items, not to their clarity.

Working memory is fundamental to our cognitive abilities — to memory, to comprehension, to learning, to reasoning. And yet even this very basic process (basic in the sense of ‘at the base of everything’, not in the sense of primitive!) is now seen to break down further, into two quite separate abilities. And while clarity may have nothing to do with intelligence, it assuredly has something to do with abilities such as visual imagery, search, discrimination.

It may be clarity is more important to you than number of items. It depends on what skills are important to you. And the skills that are important to you change as your life circumstances change. When you’re young, you want as broad a base of skills as possible, but as you age, you are better to become more selective.

Many people die with brains that show all the characteristics of Alzheimer’s, and yet they showed no signs of that in life. The reason is that they had sufficient ‘cognitive reserve’ —a brain sufficiently well and strongly connected — that they could afford (for long enough) the losses the disease created in their brain. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have eventually succumbed to the inevitable, of course, if they had lived longer. But a long enough delay can essentially mean the disease has been prevented.

One of the best ways to fight cognitive decline and dementia is to build your brain up in the skills and domains that are, and will be, important to you. And while this can, and should, involve practicing and learning better strategies for specific skills, it is also a good idea to work on more fundamental skills. Knowing which fundamental skills underlie the specific skills you’re interested in would enable you to direct your attention appropriately.

Thus it may be that while increasing the number of items you can hold in short-term memory might help you solve mathematical problems, remember phone numbers, or understand complex prose, trying to improve your ability to visualize objects clearly might help you remember people’s faces, or where you left your car, or use mnemonic strategies.

Have benefits of a growth mindset been overstated?

  • A review of growth mind-set research has found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak, and may be restricted to some groups of students.

In the education world, fixed mind-set is usually contrasted with growth mind-set. In this context, fixed mind-set refers to students holding the idea that their cognitive abilities, including their intelligence, are set at birth, and they just have to accept their limitations. With a growth mind-set, however, the student recognizes that, although it might be difficult, they can grow their abilities.

A growth mind-set has been associated with a much better approach to learning and improved academic achievement, but new research suggests that this difference has been over-stated.

A recent meta-analysis of growth mind-set research found that

  • over half the effect sizes weren't significantly different from zero (157 of 273 effect sizes),
  • a small number (16) actually found a negative association between growth mind-set and academic achievement, and
  • a little over a third (100) were significant and positive.

Overall, the study found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one important factor was age — children and teenagers showed significant effects, while adults did not. Interestingly, neither academic risk status nor socioeconomic status was a significant factor, although various studies have suggested that growth mind-set is much more important for at-risk students.

A second, smaller meta-analysis was carried out to investigate whether growth-set interventions made a significant impact on academic achievement. Such interventions are designed to increase students' belief that intelligence (or some other attribute) can be improved with effort.

The study found that

  • 37 of the 43 effect sizes (86%) were not significantly different from zero,
  • one effect size was negative, and
  • five were positive.

Age was not a factor, nor was at-risk status. However, socioeconomic status was important, in that students from low-SES households were significantly impacted by a growth mind-set intervention, while those from higher-SES households were not.

The type of intervention was important: just reading about growth mind-set didn't help; doing something more interactive, such as writing a reflection, did. The number of sessions didn't have an effect. Oddly, the way the intervention was presented made a difference, with materials presented by computer or by a person not being effective, while print materials were. Interventions administered during regular classroom activities were not effective, but interventions that occurred outside regular activities did have a significant effect.

Taken overall, the depressing conclusion is that mind-set interventions are not the revolution some have touted them as. The researchers point out that previous research (Hattie et al 1996) found that the meta-analytic average effect size for a typical educational intervention on academic performance is 0.57, and all the meta-analytic effects of mind-set interventions in this study were smaller than 0.35 (and most were null).

All this is to say, not that mind-set theory is rubbish, but that it is not as straightforward and miraculous as it first appeared. Mind-set itself is more nuanced than has been presented. For example, do we really have a definite fixed mind-set or growth mind-set? Or is it that we have different mind-sets for different spheres? Perhaps we believe that our math ability is fixed, but our musical ability is something that can be developed. That we can develop our problem-solving ability, but our intelligence is set in stone. That our 'natural talents' can be grown, but our 'innate weaknesses' cannot.

Why would low-SES and high-risk students benefit from a growth mind-set intervention, while higher-SES students did not? An obvious answer lies in the beliefs held by such students. For example, it may be that many higher-SES students are challenged by the idea of a growth mind-set, because they're invested in the idea of their own natural abilities. It is their confidence in their own abilities that enables them to do well, just as other students are undermined by their lack of confidence. Given this different starting point, it would not be in any way surprising if such students responded differently to mind-set interventions.


Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571.

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99–136.



Knowing a number of effective strategies for reading and note-taking, practicing and memorizing, is vital, but it's not the whole story. There is also a category of strategies we might term 'support' strategies. These include strategies aimed at setting goals, managing time and effort, and monitoring your performance and progress. In study, these come under the concept of self-regulation, which is related to the more general concept of metamemory.

Self-regulation is crucial to successful study.

Self-regulation isn't simply about 'self-control', although that's one aspect of it. Self-regulation skills include manipulating your environment, your emotions and attitudes, and your social interactions.

Assessing strategy

When you evaluate any specific study strategy the critical questions are:

  • Does it help you understand the information?
  • Does it help you select the important information?

To choose a strategy, you must assess the situation. In this case, this may mean an evaluation of a written text. Let's look at how you might evaluate text.

We can classify text at one of three different levels, according to its structure and density1:

  1. simple (straightforward text with clear connections)
  2. complex (characterized by many changes of topic and more than one level of information)
  3. difficult (dense text with many topic changes, often unclear, inconsistent and/or abstract)

These different types of text require progressively more complex strategies.

Textual strategies can be classified into six broad processes1:

Broad processes

Specific strategies

Re-stating paraphrasing; visualizing; transformational elaboration
Selecting underlining, highlighting, boxes, lists
Abstracting themes headings, summaries
Perceiving structure outlines, graphic organizers
Making sense of information elaborative interrogation, analogies, maps, multimedia summaries, re-structuring, charts & tables, integrating sections of text.
Monitoring comprehension constructing and testing theories about the meaning of the text, seeking additional information

Matching these processes against our classes of text (noting that processes listed beside text levels indicate additional processes required - including processes used at lower levels of difficulty), we get1:

Simple text re-statement
Complex text selecting
abstracting themes
perceiving structure
making sense of information
Difficult text monitoring comprehension



Successful Learning Simplified

  1. Jones, B.F. 1986. Text learning strategy instruction: guidelines from theory and practice. In C.E. Weinstein, E.T. Goetz & P.A. Alexander Learning and study strategies. New York: Academic Press.
  2. 1. Taken from The Memory Key.

Using strategies effectively

You can predict how well a student will do from their use of study strategies. Forget intelligence. Forget hours put in. What’s important is the effective use of good study strategies.

To use a strategy effectively, you need to understand why it works, how it works, when it works and when it doesn’t.

For example, all students take notes — not everyone knows how to do it well. Research into the effectiveness of note-taking has found — surprise, surprise — that sometimes note-taking helps you remember information, and sometimes it doesn’t1.

Effective note-taking is more complex than simply knowing some strategies. Every learning situation is different. Every piece of text is different. Every lecture is different. It’s not enough to have a stock way of organizing your notes, and to try and push all the information that comes your way into that format. Sometimes a matrix structure might be best; sometimes a multimedia summary, sometimes a map, sometimes standard old linear notes. It depends on the information and it depends on how it is packaged.

The only way to know which strategy to use when, is to understand how they work.

For example, the primary value of note-taking is to select out the important information and connect it to other pieces of information. If you think the function of note-taking is simply to record what someone has said, or what you've read, then your note-taking will be far less effective.

Successful Learning Simplified

  1. Baine, D. 1986. Memory and instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.


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 — 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.

Successful Transfer

  • Transfer refers to the extent to which learning is applied to new contexts.
  • Transfer is facilitated by:
    • understanding
    • instruction in the abstract principles involved
    • demonstration of contrasting cases
    • explicit instruction of transfer implications
    • sufficient time
  • Learning for transfer requires more time and effort in the short term, but saves time in the long term.

Transfer refers to the ability to extend (transfer) learning from one situation to another. For example, knowing how to play the piano doesn’t (I assume) help you play the tuba, but presumably is a great help if you decide to take up the harpsichord or organ. Similarly, I’ve found my knowledge of Latin and French a great help in learning Spanish, but no help at all in learning Japanese.

Transfer, however, doesn’t have to be positive. Your existing knowledge can hinder, rather than help, new learning. In such a situation we talk about negative transfer. We’ve all experienced it. At the moment I’m experiencing it with my typing -- I've converted my standard QWERTY keyboard to a Dvorak one (you can hear about this experience in my podcast, if you're interested).

Teachers and students do generally hope that learning will transfer to new contexts. If we had to learn how to deal with every single possible situation we might come across, we’d never be able to cope with the world! So in that sense, transfer is at the heart of successful learning (and presumably the ability to transfer new learning is closely tied to that elusive concept, intelligence).

Here’s an example of transfer (or lack of it) in the classroom.

A student can be taught the formula for finding the area of a parallelogram, and will then be capable of finding the area of any parallelogram. However, if given different geometric figures, they won’t be able to apply their knowledge to calculate the area, because the formula they have memorized applies only to one specific figure — the parallelogram.

However, if the student is instead encouraged to work out how to calculate the area of a parallelogram by using the structural relationships in the parallelogram (for example, by rearranging it into a rectangle by moving one triangle from one end to the other), then they are much more likely to be able to use that experience to work out the areas of a different figure.

This example gives a clue to one important way of encouraging transfer: abstraction. If you only experience a very specific example of a problem, you are much less likely to be able to apply that learning to other problems. If, on the other hand, you are also told the abstract principles involved in the problem, you are much more likely to be able to use that learning in a variety of situations. [example taken from How People Learn]

Clearly there is a strong relationship between understanding and transfer. If you understand what you are doing, you are much more likely to be able to transfer that learning to problems and situations you haven’t encountered before — which is why transfer tests are much better tests of understanding than standard recall tests.

That is probably more obvious for knowledge such as scientific knowledge than it is for skill learning, so let me tell you about a classic study [1]. In this study, children were given practice in throwing darts at an underwater object. Some of the children were also instructed in how light is refracted in water, and how this produces misleading information regarding the location of objects under water. While all the children did equally well on the task they practiced on — throwing darts at an object 12 inches under water — the children who had been given the instruction did much better when the target was moved to a place only 4 inches under water.

Understanding is helped by contrasting cases. Which features of a concept or situation are important is often only evident when you can see different but related concepts. For example, you can’t fully understand what an artery is unless you contrast it with a vein; the concept of recognition memory is better understood if contrasted with recall memory.

Transfer is also helped if transfer implications are explicitly pointed out during learning, and if problems are presented in several contexts. One way of doing that is if you use “what-ifs” to expand your experience. That is, having solved a problem, you ask “What if I changed this part of the problem?”

All of this points to another requirement for successful transfer — time. Successful, “deep”, learning requires much more time than shallow rote learning. On the other hand, because it can apply to a much wider range of problems and situations, is much less easily forgotten, and facilitates other learning, it saves a lot of time in the long run!

  • National Research Council, 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

1. Scholckow & Judd, described in Judd, C.H. 1908. The relation of special training to general intelligence. Educational Review, 36, 28-42.

Regulating your study time and effort

  • Knowing how well or how poorly you know something is critical to effectively allocating your study time and effort.
  • The more difficult the material being learned, the worse we tend to be at estimating how well we know it.
  • Various learning strategies improve our awareness of how well we know something.
  • Learner attributes are also important, particularly our attitudes to learning and beliefs about our abilities.

In general, the weight of the research evidence suggests that college students tend to have a poor sense of how prepared they are for testing, and having been tested, they have a poor sense of how well they did! (This, of course, is even more true of younger students).

Does it matter?

Well, yes, it does. Being able to accurately estimate how well you've learnt something (monitoring) allows you to better allocate your time and energy (self-regulation). You don't want to spend more time than you need on particular topics; you also don't want to short-change topics that need more work.

We tend to be better at regulating our time and effort when the material to be learned is simple.

Obviously, also, some people are much better than others at knowing how well they know something. What distinguishes those people who have a good metacognitive sense and those who don't?

Well, partly, it's about the strategies used in learning. Taking notes, for example, tends to make you more aware of what you know and what you don't know.But not only note-taking; any strategy that causes you to process the material more thoroughly should have this result.

Studies have found that your monitoring accuracy can be improved:

  • when you monitor your learning after a short delay, rather than immediately after studying the material [1]
  • when items are actively generated and not simply passively read [2]
  • by having practice tests of the material [3]
  • by summarizing the material [4]
  • by generating keywords -- but only if, again, you delay a little while before generating them [5]

In general, it seems that students tend to be better at predicting their ability to recall information than their understanding -- as evidenced by their ability to apply the information and make inferences about it. It is of course easier to test your memory than your understanding, and it may well be that students tend not to clearly distinguish between these two aspects of learning. However, certain strategies, such as taking notes (although it depends on the nature of the notes!), do lend themselves to helping develop understanding more than memory.

One final thing is worth noting. It's not only about strategies. Monitoring accuracy is also affected by learner attributes — which doesn't mean you can excuse yourself on the grounds you're "not smart enough"! Studies have found that IQ rarely is a significant factor once background knowledge and other factors (such as socioeconomic status) are accounted for [6]. What looks like being of importance is the student's chronic dispositional status toward learning -- that is, their general attitude to it. For example, those who believe intelligence is malleable and can be increased are more likely to work on increasing their skills, compared to those who believe intelligence is fixed, who tend to focus more on demonstrating good performance, often by choosing only those sort of tasks at which they can do well [7].

  • Peverly, S.T., Brobst, K.E., Grahan, M. & Shaw, R. 2003. College adults are not good at self-regulation: A study on the relationship of self-regulation, note taking, and test taking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95 (2), 335-346.
  • Thiede, K.W., Anderson, M.C.M. & Therriault, D. 2003. Accuracy of metacognitive monitoring affects learning of texts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 66-73.
  1. Dunlosky, J. & Nelson, T.O. 1992. Importance of the kind of cue for judgments of learning (JOL) and the delayed-JOL effect. Memory & Cognition, 20, 374-380.
  2. Mazzoni, G. & Nelson, T.O. 1993. Metacognitive monitoring after different kinds of monitoring. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 21, 1263-1274.
  3. King, J.F., Zechmeister, E.B. & Shaughnessy, J.J. 1980. Judgments of knowing: The influence of retrieval practice. American Journal of Psychology, 93, 329-343.

    Lovelace, E.A. 1984. Metamemory: Monitoring future recall ability during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 10, 756-766.

    Shaughnessy, J.J. & Zechmeister, E.B. 1992. Memory monitoring accuracy as influenced by the distribution of retrieval practice. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30, 125-128.

    Ghatala, E.S., Levin, J.R., Foorman, B.R. & Pressley, M. 1989. Improving children's regulation of their reading PREP time. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 14, 49-66.

    Pressley, M., Snyder, B.L., Levin, J.R., Murray, H.G. & Ghatala, E.S. 1987. Perceived readiness for examination performance (PREP) produced by initial reading of text and text containing adjunct questions. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 219-236.
  4. Thiede, K.W. & Anderson, M.C.M. 2003. Summarizing can improve metacomprehension accuracy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28,
  5. Thiede, K.W., Anderson, M.C.M. & Therriault, D. 2003. Accuracy of metacognitive monitoring affects learning of texts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 66-73.
  6. Bjorklund, D.F. & Schneider, W. 1996. The interaction of knowledge, aptitude, and strategies in children's memory performance. In H. Reese (ed.), Advances in child development (vol. 26, pp. 59-89). New York: Academic press.

    Ceci, S.J. 1996. On intelligence: A bioecological treatise on intellectual development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press.
  7. Dweck, C. 1999. Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.