in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: September 24, 2023

Podcast #927: Beyond Lazy Learning — The Keys to Gaining and Retaining Knowledge

Ever wondered why, after hours of reading and highlighting, you still feel unprepared for that big test? Or why, shortly after a work training, you can’t remember much of what was said and how to apply it? Or why you have trouble comprehending a difficult book?

Whether you’re a student studying for exams, an employee trying to learn the ropes at a new job, or someone who’s into personal study, learning effectively is hugely important in increasing your capacity and knowledge. Unfortunately, most of what people do to learn simply doesn’t work.

Here to unlock the superior, research-backed strategies that will help you harness the potential of your brain is Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology and the author of Outsmart Your Brain. Today on the show, Daniel explains why the default way that our brains want to learn doesn’t work, and how to approach learning by both reading and listening more effectively. We discuss how to get more out of your reading, including whether you should highlight, whether speed reading is effective, the optimal method for taking notes during a lecture, the best way to cement things into memory, and much more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Ever wondered why after hours of reading and highlighting, you still feel unprepared for that big test, or why shortly after a work training, you can’t remember much of what was said and how to apply it, or why you have trouble comprehending a difficult book. Whether you’re a student studying for exams, an employee trying to learn the ropes at a new job, or someone who’s into personal study, learning effectively is hugely important in increasing your capacity and knowledge. Unfortunately, most of what people do to learn simply doesn’t work. Here to unlock the superior research back strategies that will help harness the potential of your brain is Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology and the author of “Outsmart Your Brain.” Today on the show, Daniel explains why the default way that our brain wants to learn doesn’t work, and how to approach learning by both reading and listening more effectively. We discuss how to get more out of your reading, including whether you should highlight, whether speed reading is effective, the optimal method for taking notes during a lecture, the best way to cement things into your memory and much more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Daniel Willingham, welcome to the show.

Daniel Willingham: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of psychology who has published a book on learning better, and it’s called “Outsmart Your Brain.” And you start the book off by arguing that to learn how to learn better, you first need to understand the default way our brain wants to learn, and why that’s not effective. So how does our brain wanna learn things and why doesn’t that work?

Daniel Willingham: Even before you start thinking about the default way your brain works, you have to recognize that learning is actually a multiple stage process. This is something a lot of people don’t think about, but it’s self-evident when it’s explained. When you’re learning something and you fail to learn, the problem may not be in terms of getting things into memory, that’s where people usually lay the blame, but it could be you were trying to learn something by reading and your reading wasn’t very effective, or you were are trying to learn… Someone was explaining something to you and you weren’t… Your listening, wasn’t very effective, and so on. There are a bunch of little sub-steps to learning.

So that’s the first thing I always encourage people to do, especially people who say, “Oh, I’m terrible at learning.” What I point out is there maybe a lot of it that you’re doing pretty well, and then there’s just one little piece that needs some tweaking, and so it may be easier to address than you think. But in terms of that stage of trying to get things into memory, the big mistake that people tend to make is they tend to do something that feels easy and that also feels in the moment like it’s working well. So students, when they’re studying, do a lot of re-reading of their notes and a lot of re-reading of the their text book. And as they’re doing that, the content becomes more and more familiar to them. It’s the same feeling you get when you see a movie for the second time, you’re like, “Yep. I know all of this, I’ve seen all this. Very familiar.”

And so it feels like you know it, but that’s actually not the kind of knowing that the student is gonna need for the test. They need to not only say, “Yes, I’ve seen this before.” They need to actually be able to explain it. So that’s one example of a way that people approach learning tasks that feels easy and also it feels in the moment like it’s doing you some good, but is not really optimal.

Brett McKay: I like the analogy you give in the book, the way we often approach learning is sometimes how we approach push-ups. We know that if we want to get better at push-ups we need to do more push-ups, but what we typically do is like, “Well, I’ll do push-ups from my knees.” And it feels like I’m doing push-ups and I’m getting stuff done, and it’s easy, but you’re actually not gonna get stronger just doing knee push-ups.

Daniel Willingham: Exactly. It’s just as you say, a lot of times we recognize in physical exercise you need that challenge. And even at the time, it feels hard, it’s not going well, but you know in the long run this is the right thing to do. Same thing applies when you’re trying to learn, you need to have the right kind of challenge in order for your brain to get exercise and to benefit.

Brett McKay: Okay. So learning is hard. If you wanna actually learn and know the information, and then be able to apply the information in a meaningful way, but our brain wants to do knee push-up versions of learning. And so let’s dig into how we can learn better and overcome our brain’s natural tendency to wanna do knee push-ups versions of learning. And a big way a lot of people learn is through reading, so what’s the lazy way our brain wants to approach reading to learn.

Daniel Willingham: So if you think about how you learn to read, you learn to read… Most people learn to read in the very early grades of school, and you learn to read with the material that is intended to be very easy to comprehend. And when you do leisure reading, it’s also intended to be pretty easy to comprehend. Leisure reading by definition is reading that you choose to do. If it’s very difficult, you’re just gonna drop the book. So it’s usually in narrative form, the author is sort of coming to you to lead you along. The reading we do to learn is usually not organized that way, it’s organized hierarchically rather than in story format. And you’re of course reading for a different purpose, you’re not reading for the sake of being entertained, you’re reading new content that’s probably challenging, and you’re reading it for the purpose of learning. So the thing that your brain does is it falls into the same reading mode that you were in when you’re reading a story.

I’ll sometimes ask my students who struggle with difficult reading, “Well, tell me what you do to read. How do you begin?” And they just look at me like it’s a very… Like, “I sit down and open the book. What are you talking about?” And that’s what you do when you’re reading a story, there’s no need to prepare. But when you’re reading something difficult, you should prepare a little bit and deploy some strategies.

Brett McKay: Okay. So what are some reading strategies that you can do to get more out of your reading to learn?

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. So the first thing you wanna do in terms of preparation is think about what your goal is. There’s research showing people really do read differently when they do this little preparation to think about, “What am I hoping to get out of this?” Then the second thing you can do is look at the headings and sub-headings of whatever it is that you’re gonna read. That’ll give you some sense of what it’s about. And then generate a few questions based on that quick skim that you’re doing. And then as you’re… So that’s the preparation. This shouldn’t take… If you’re reading a chapter, this should be less than five minutes, probably less than three minutes, really. It’s not a big deal, but you’re setting yourself up in this way.

The second thing you wanna do is as you’re reading, we all know it’s hard to focus attention, especially when something is complicated. Just as your brain doesn’t respond well to, “Here, you have to remember this.” Your brain doesn’t respond really to the command you give it, “Now, I want you to understand what you’re reading and I want you to continue to pay attention.” Your mind drifts, and so instead of giving it the command, “Now, listen, pay attention,” give it a concrete task to do. You’re much more likely to stay with it if you’re trying to do something like answer a question. So in that quick skim that you did looking at the headings and sub-headings, you’re thinking about your goal, and then you’re also thinking, “Here are some questions I expect to be answered by the time I’ve finished this chapter.”

Then as you’re actually reading the chapter, you can think to yourself, “Okay. Am I finding the answer to those questions?” Those may turn out to be bad questions, so like, “Should I revise them? What’s a better question? And what’s the answer to that one?” That’ll help you stay on task, and especially it will help you sort of think about the deeper meaning. A lot of times when people read they’re kind of reading one sentence at a time, and they’re not really coordinating the meaning of the different sentences and paragraphs to put it all together into a bigger picture. That’s what answering those questions is gonna help you do.

Brett McKay: As you’re talking, this reminded me of Mortimer Adler’s, “How To Read a Book” approach. He has these different types of reading, there’s inspectional reading. Or is that what you’re talking about? You look at the chapter, you look at the headings, get an overview of what it’s like, and then you get into the deeper analytical reading where you have the framework. With that inspectional reading, you’ve developed questions that you’re gonna have and then you can dig into that analytical reading and then the synoptical reading, where you try to figure out the main thesis and try to compare and contrast.

Daniel Willingham: There are lots of versions of this. So for school children, SQ3R may have been something that some of your listeners are familiar with. But whatever they are, most of the reading strategies have these two main elements where you do some sort of a preview to get a big picture idea, and then as you’re reading, you’ve got something to keep you engaged and it’s usually bearing questions in mind and trying to find the answers to them.

Brett McKay: Something you highlight in the book, is that highlighting; that’s a typical approach people will use when they’re reading to learn, highlighting doesn’t work. What’s going on there?

Daniel Willingham: So to be clear, highlighting is okay if you’ve got a lot of expertise in the topic. So if you already… When I’m reading cognitive psychology, for example, I will often highlight, and it’s fine because the main problem with highlighting is if you’re new to the subject, you’re probably not highlighting the right stuff. And one of the really clever experiments they did on this with college students, the researchers went to the college bookstore and they bought multiple copies of some textbooks in some big classes like POLSC101 and Economics 101. And they bought multiple copies of the textbook and then they were used copies, and they just looked at what people had highlighted. And what they found was students were highlighting completely different things. So the original intent of the study was, “We’re gonna look at what students highlight and then we’re gonna ask the their professor, are the students highlighting the right things?”

But they couldn’t even do that because there was no consistency in what the students highlighted. Actually, I take that back, the one consistency in that study was if a word was bold faced, everybody highlighted it. [laughter] So they sort of doubled down on the emphasis the author put in there. So, yeah, you don’t wanna highlight. And the alternative strategy is taking notes. Taking notes has a couple of advantages, one is that you can edit them later and you can go back and as your understanding gets deeper, you can revise what you’ve taken notes on. The other thing is that notes are much better suited to answering those deep questions, thinking about those deep questions, because you can pull together things that were a couple of pages away. And this often happens when there’s something complicated, the author is bringing multiple points of view and different types of evidence to something, and so you may want to relate something that was on page 75 to something that’s on 78. And of course, that’s easy to do when you’re taking notes, but highlighting is very poorly suited to drawing those sorts of connections.

Brett McKay: So I do a lot of reading for my work. I read all the books to prep for the podcast, and I highlight, I do highlight. I have my own little system, where if something’s really important, I’ll put a star by it. But I think the thing that helps a lot that I do, that’s beyond just highlighting, is after I’m done with the book, I’ve got to create the outline for the conversation. And so I go through and I synthesize those highlights and that takes some time. And that’s how I remember this stuff, I think it’s that trying to craft the conversation for the podcast that allows me to digest the information.

Daniel Willingham: And the other thing, Brett, that I would point out is that you have a lot of experience and have developed, I’m imagining, a lot of expertise in figuring out from an unfamiliar text what is really gonna be important, what’s the main message here? What’s gonna be interesting to my listeners? It’s a little bit like magazine fact checkers. Most of us are not very good at fact-checking, that’s why fake news proliferate on the internet. Fact checkers are really good at this, and they’ve developed strategies through experience that makes them so good at it. So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that a novice try to do what you do, because in general, experts do something different than what beginners are capable of doing.

Brett McKay: Another tactic people use when it comes to reading is speed reading, ’cause they wanna get a lot of information in. Is speed reading effective?

Daniel Willingham: Speed reading is skimming. There’s been research on this for years and years and years. And virtually any task, you can do it faster and not do it as accurately, or you can take a whole lot more time and do it more accurately. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about throwing clay pots or reading or driving or anything else, this is pervasive. In psychology it is called speed accuracy trade-off, and so that’s what people are doing when they’re speed reading, they’re skimming.

Brett McKay: And I think you can use that as a strategy, on and off, depending on the situation. So in my experience, if I get one of those airport pop non-fiction books, the business books where everything is formatted for skimming. So you can read the headline and the bullet points, and then you can decide whether or not you wanna dig deep into the anecdotal stories that they put in there. I think those group of books are great for that skimming approach, but then if it’s a really hard philosophical treatise, you can’t do that. Like I just got done reading Kierkegaard’s, “Unscientific Postscript.” You cannot speed read that thing because you’d miss it. So I think you can… You gotta be strategic about when you do the skimming.

Daniel Willingham: Yeah, absolutely. And another function of skimming, sometimes you’re looking at a book, you don’t want the whole message, there’s… You’re doing research on something and there’s a particular nugget that you want and that you think you’re gonna find in this book. And that’s another time skimming would make a lot of sense.

Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s do a recap here. The lazy way to approach reading for learning is to approach reading like you’re reading for pleasure on a Saturday afternoon, where you just jump in and think you can just follow it like you’re following a story. But when you’re reading for learning, you need to do a little bit more prep work. You wanna figure out what you wanna get out of the reading, maybe formulate some questions, look at the headings and the sub-headings of the chapter you’re about to read. You just gotta engage with it more. But another way we learn is by listening, and here too, there’s also a lazy way that we typically approach learning by listening. What does that look like?

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. It’s very similar to what I was saying about reading, that you figure, “I’m listening… I can listen the way I always listen.” But listening, usually when you’re having a conversation, listening is not that demanding, because one of the conversational conventions, it is sort of understood that if I’m talking with someone, first of all, there’s usually not very much planning on the part of the person I’m talking to, they’re sort of thinking of things as they come to mind. And if they do refer back to something that they mentioned 10 minutes ago, they’ll usually remind me of it. So the demand that’s placed on my working memory, how much stuff I have to keep in mind at once, how much I have to juggle that stuff, is pretty minimal. And again, most of the time when you’re listening to a conversation, it’s pretty light, you’re not trying to learn anything new.

The same is true even in a movie, again, like reading a narrative, when you’re watching a movie, it’s designed to be entertaining and easy to digest. When you go to a presentation, when someone is trying to teach you something, it can feel like a movie. It feels like a… You may be in an audience, and so it feels like a performance. But it’s very likely if you’re there to learn something serious, the person who’s speaking is not an expert in communication. This hasn’t been carefully crafted the way a movie has been crafted, and it also doesn’t have the characteristic of the person who is just talking off the top of their head. It is planned and organized, but it’s not planned and organized in a way that’s terribly effective for learning. And so listening in these circumstances really takes a lot of work. Once again, just as with a textbook chapter or with a chapter that’s meant to teach you something, there is an organization. That organization carries meaning.

But in a presentation, the organization is frequently not very obvious. So it’s organized hierarchically, there’ll be maybe three to seven main points. And then under each of those main points, there are several types of evidence, there’s a couple of examples and so on. And it’s up to you to sort of figure out that organization, “Why is the person talking about this now? Oh, this is supposed to help me understand this key conclusion.” So listening is actually, when someone is trying to teach you something, listening is actually quite challenging, but the brain goes to that place of, “I’m just listening, there’s no… What’s hard about that?”

Brett McKay: Okay. So what you need to do is, as you’re listening figure out the hierarchy that the presenter has in his head. Maybe he’s not presenting it very well in a hierarchy, but there is a hierarchy going on, and you gotta figure that out.

Daniel Willingham: That’s exactly the way I think of it. Yeah. It’s like when you’re this… And maybe your listeners have experienced this, when you’re trying to teach something to a group and you’ve prepared a presentation, it’s obvious to you because you know this stuff, and so you’ve got this organization in your head, but it’s very hard to communicate that organization. One of the things that makes a good speaker a good speaker, is if they are sort of leading you along and doing things like saying, “Remember I said there were gonna be three reasons this is true? Okay. Now we’re done with reason number two, now we’re gonna move on to reason three.” That kind of sign posting when you’re a speaker, lots of evidence indicating, that really helps your listeners understand. But if you’re listening to somebody who’s not doing that, it’s up to you to make the inferences that are gonna help you understand the organization.

Brett McKay: And so it sounds like when you’re asking questions in a lecture setting, the most useful questions are gonna be clarifications about the hierarchy. So maybe you’re trying to figure out the presenter’s hierarchy that he’s got in his head, maybe something’s not translating and so you could ask a clarifying question.

Daniel Willingham: Right. Yeah.

Brett McKay: So one thing that people do during lecture settings to learn is take notes. But again, there’s a lazy way our brain wants to take notes when we’re listening to a lecture. What is that typical approach?

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. The lazy way is just writing down word for word snippets of what the speaker has said, because you sort of figure, “I’m getting their exact words and that’s got to be good.” But what this does is it really saves you having to listen deeply and process what they’re saying, because… We all know if you’re an adept typist, you can essentially turn into someone taking dictation and you’re really not thinking deeply about what the meaning is of what you’re writing down. You’re just writing down what appear to you to be key phrases. And it’s tempting to go into that mode because when you’re listening and you’re trying to take notes at the same time, that’s very difficult. You’re really in… And we’ve all felt it. When you’re taking notes, you usually feel like you’re in mental overload and you can’t really keep up. And so ideally what you would do is you would listen, think carefully, and then paraphrase what’s being said. Write it down in your own words. Write down your own understanding. That’s gonna lead to much better notes, but that’s much more demanding than just writing down what the speaker said.

Brett McKay: Okay. And that’s a hard skill to develop.

Daniel Willingham: It is.

Brett McKay: It is. So it’s just with practice, you have to do it. And I think one of the bits of advice you give is when you go into a lecture, you have to decide what’s your strategy going to be for this lecture. Is it gonna be more, “I’m just gonna get facts down,” ’cause maybe it’s a class where it’s very fact-based and that’s important to get all… As many facts as possible. But then the class might be more you making connections and that would require you to think more about what you write instead of trying to get everything down.

Daniel Willingham: Absolutely. Yeah. Think about what your goal is. If you’re there, you’re at a training or something, you know, “I’m here to learn this specific skill.” And that should really guide how you’re thinking about the content and the notes that you take. We’ve all also found ourselves at meetings where you’re asking yourself, “Why am I here? Why am I supposed to listen to this presentation? Here’s an accounting guy and I’m in operations.” But it’s worth thinking about that, “What… And it’s actually worth asking in advance, “What am I bringing to the table here? What do you want me to take back to my group?” And then think about note-taking through that lens. It could be a lot of what this person is saying is not relevant, but you really better be alert, because at minute 22, he’s gonna talk about stuff that does bear on your group, and you wanna be there and be present for it and be ready to take good notes on it.

Brett McKay: If someone’s taken like a study skills class, one thing you’ve probably encountered with note-taking, there’s these different note-taking systems that are out there. And you say actually they’re probably not that useful.

Daniel Willingham: They’re okay. So what the research literature on this looks like is, in the end not that helpful, because there are lots of these different systems and they typically compare use of the system. Like you instruct students in how to take notes with the Cornell system or whatever it is, and then the comparison group is students who have received no instruction in note-taking at all. And what you consistently find is some instruction is better than no instruction at all.

And I think that what the… The comparison I’d like to see is just a few words to students about how to help them be mindful about how to take good notes. My concern with systems like the Cornell system and so on, is they’re very demanding of attention. It gives you one more thing to think about. “Okay. Now, so this is a summary, in the system I’m supposed to write those at the bottom of the page or whatever.” So I think there’s a steep learning curve and I think of course people can learn it, but I think you’ll probably get more bang from your buck just being thoughtful about what notes are for and having a few tricks up your sleeves about how to take good ones.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Okay. So the easy way or the lazy way to listen when you’re learning is to listen to a lecture like you’re listening to a conversation with a friend. Instead, what you’re saying is, we gotta do… You gotta think about the organization of what the person or the lecturer is trying to say and try to figure out how things fit together. And then also the lazy way to take notes is to just jot everything down verbatim. And a better way is to actually think about what’s being said and paraphrase what’s being said in your own words. And like you said, you don’t recommend a specific note-taking system, but there’s a few tactics you recommend to make note-taking more effective or more efficient. You recommend developing a shorthand system for your notes, so abbreviations you’re gonna use in all your note-taking so it can allow you to focus on what’s being said and not so much on what you’re writing. You just use that shorthand. Here’s a common debate. What does the research say about typing your notes on your computer versus handwriting them? Is one method better than the other?

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. A very complicated topic because it’s a little [chuckle] bit like trying to figure out whether smoking causes cancer. It seems straightforward at first, but the straightforward thing to do is just look at students who hand write their notes, look at students who type their notes, and then see who’s doing better on tests. But of course that’s gonna be correlational evidence. And so you don’t know whether students who are just good students prefer one method or another. So that’s not wholly satisfactory. The other thing you can do is you can make people type notes or hand write notes, but then I maybe am doing something I don’t really wanna do and that’s messing things up. So the data are kind of squishy right now.

The dominating factor, and what I end up recommending in the book, is that I think the potential for distraction if you’re typing notes overwhelms everything. If you’re on a laptop, you have access to the internet. Most students are not able to resist checking email, checking social media, whatever, doing other things during moments that they perceive to be a little bit boring or something. And that’s why I went to a no devices policy in my classes about seven years ago. And I’ll say things have changed a little bit. When I first instituted this policy, my students were initially kind of angry, [laughter] at me, wanted to hurt me. But then by the end of the semester they were saying, “Okay. Actually I see why you did this. I get it.” More recently, my students have… They get it immediately. And in fact, a few have said to me, “You know what? I am on my phone all the time. And so having someone in a position of authority say to me, “You may not be on your phone for the next 75 minutes,” I actually kind of welcome that.”

Brett McKay: And so we’ve taken our lecture notes, we’ve taken notes while reading, but our note-taking doesn’t stop there. And you argue that you have to organize those notes. So what does a good organizational process look like?

Daniel Willingham: I think what you wanna… This just goes back to what we were talking about. Before the presentation that you’re, whether it was a college lecturer or something else, the presentation that you were present for was almost certainly organized hierarchically. And so you wanna go back and recover that organization. And the strategy I recommend is very simple. When you’re in a lecture, try to put a star, as I think you said you do when you read, put a star next to major points. And this… Usually the speaker’s gonna make this clear. You can tell from their body language, you can tell from, they’re probably going to repeat it. It’s the kind of thing that would be on a slide. So you put a star next to it, and then later when you’re at home, look and see each point that’s in your notes. Think about which of the main points of the lecture it relates to and consider how it relates. And that’s how you can recover this hierarchical organization.

The other thing that this process… So one thing this is really good for is to make sure that you’re understanding. It’s also very good for memory. Thinking about meaning is very helpful for memory. And this is really gonna get you thinking deeply about meaning and will also reveal to you if there are any holes in your notes. So you may realize like, “Oh, I’m pretty sure he said there were gonna be three reasons that thus and so is true. I’ve only got two of them.” And that alerts you, “I need to go back and talk to the speaker, or whoever, and see if I can find out what that third missing piece is.”

Brett McKay: The strategy I used when I was in law school… In law school I really learned how to study, I learned how to read, I learned how to listen, I learned how to synthesize notes. So I go to my lecture, you’d have to do your reading before the lecture, listen to the lecture, take notes. And then immediately after the class, I would go to my study cubby in the library, and then I would put those notes into my outline. I’d be creating an outline as the semester went on. And that outline creation was really how I learned the material. And as you said, when you create that outline… When I was creating that outline, it helped you synthesize information, see how things connect, but then it also allowed you to see where you had holes in your knowledge. And so you’d be like, “Well, I’m missing something in this point here, this element of this crime. I need to learn more about that and go talk to the professor.”

Daniel Willingham: Absolutely. And I’ll say that when students come to me saying, 2I’m really frustrated. I’m putting a lot of work in, and I can’t figure out what’s going wrong.” I’ll say, “Okay. Let’s look at your notes. Let’s talk about what you’re doing and so on.” When they’re studying for tests, going back to earlier in the conversation, almost always their strategy, “I was reading over my notes.” We’ve gone over why that isn’t effective. And so one of the things I encourage them to do is do this note reorganization, just as you’ve described Brett, the strategy you use is very similar to what I was describing. And what my students say is, they’ll come back later in the semester and they say, “I did that note reorganization thing and I found I almost didn’t need to study for the tests.” Because this again, goes back to, you don’t need to be trying to learn something for something to get into memory. The process of doing that deep thinking and organization is so good for memory that when the test came around they found they were already 80% of the way there.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So creating your own study guide, creating your own outline, is the plyometric version of push-ups. It’s where you explode off the ground.

Daniel Willingham: Exactly.

Brett McKay: It’s gonna pay off in the end.

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. I love that.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about studying again. So I think we talked about if you wanna study for a test, one thing to do is you’re studying throughout the semester or throughout the whatever it is you’re doing, and putting together your own outline. But then you also argue that you don’t just wanna review your outline when you’re actually studying for that exam, or whatever it is, you need to test yourself. So walk us through the research about testing yourself to prepare for a test.

Daniel Willingham: Yeah. There are a couple of things at work here. One is probing memory is actually one of the really best ways, if not the very best way, to cement information that’s in memory but is fragile. So the way the research on this goes, this is called retrieval practice, it’s also called the testing effect, if anybody wants to look it up for more information. So the way these experiments typically work is you’ve got two groups of people, everybody has some exposure to some new information. They read something or they watch a video or something. Then one group has a second session a few days later where they get the chapter again and reread it or they rewatch the video. They know that a test is coming up, so they’re trying to study.

The second group, their second session is not re-exposure to the content. They actually take a quiz on the content and they get immediate feedback about what they got right and what they get wrong. And then a few days after that, both groups take a test. So this is a new test. Nobody’s seen the questions before, so it’s different questions than the group that took a test in session two. It’s different questions for them. And what you find is usually about a 10 or 15% advantage for the people who took a test or a quiz in that second session, compared to people who studied a second time. So there are different theories about what’s going on in memory, but the phenomenon is not debated at all. It’s been shown to work with people of all ages and all sorts of different content. There’s something about going into memory, rummaging around looking for something, that is really effective in cementing that information in. I wanna emphasize, you actually get the effect even if you don’t get immediate feedback, but it works much better if you do get that immediate feedback.

Brett McKay: Okay. So flashcards could be a useful tool there.

Daniel Willingham: Flashcards are by far the easiest way to organize it. And the other aspect of this, I wanna sort of go back to what we were talking about earlier. That the comparison is reading over your notes. And one of the things we emphasize reading over your notes, you’re not necessarily thinking very deeply about it. You can sort of skim over, it’s becoming more and more familiar, but again, it’s gonna feel like, “Things are going great. I’m really effective.” And that’s not what’s gonna happen with flashcards. With flashcards, you’re sort of confronting yourself with whether or not you actually know the content. So you’re really getting two things from flashcards. One, you’re getting this memory boost that I described, but you’re also testing yourself and providing yourself with a chance to evaluate, “How’s this going? Do I know this content yet or not?” And that’s the type of self-testing to prove to yourself whether or not you know it, that’s gonna be much more effective.

Brett McKay: The other thing I did when I was in law school is I would take practice exams. In the weeks leading up to the final exam, you have three hours to take an exam. I would actually, like on a Saturday, would three hours to do a practice test. And I found that to be the most useful because those tests, oftentimes they were closed book, and so I had to know. If I didn’t know the stuff, then I couldn’t answer the essay question. In the process of, as you said, confronting what you don’t know and working to try to retrieve it, that’s how that stuff got cemented in my head.

Daniel Willingham: The only… And I agree with you, it has those advantages. The things that listeners should think about with practice test, the dangers of practice test. One is that the practice test you have may not be really representative of what the actual test is gonna be.

Brett McKay: Sure.

Daniel Willingham: You wanna be really convinced it is. And when people look to things like Quizlet… I’ve looked at the Quizlet stuff that’s available for my courses, it’s frequently out of date, frequently some of it is just wrong. So you do wanna be careful about sources that you’re finding on the internet that are supposed to help with a particular course. And the other thing to keep in mind is that when you’ve got a practice test, you aren’t just looking at a subset of the information that you’re supposed to know. So it might be 40 items or something, and you could generate 400 items.

And so it could be that you got lucky and that the 40 items that on the practice test were ones that you happen to know and you’ll end up with a little bit of an overestimate. So I think practice tests are great, especially for, as you said, sort of giving you a sense in realistic testing conditions, “How am I doing?” And they’re also useful if you get them from the instructor to get a sense of, “What type of questions should I expect?” But I think in terms of evaluating, “Is my knowledge really complete?” Test yourself on your entire study guide and let that be your guide as to whether or not you’re really ready.

Brett McKay: And I can see this being applicable into the working world. Let’s say you have to give a presentation, to make a pitch, and there’s gonna be questions and answers. You can work with your colleagues to develop potential questions and answers. That’s gonna be your study guide and you just see if you can answer them without looking at your notes. That’s how you can apply this to, I’m trying to move away from just academics, but to the working world.

Daniel Willingham: Of course. And I’ll tell you, the way I think about this is knowing your subject matter, whatever your work is, knowing about the content of day-to-day, what happens in your office and the kinds of problems that you concern you with. That is going to help you. And so having more of that committed to memory is gonna help. So you can apply this principle of testing yourself, not just to very formal situations where I sit down and I’m doing nothing else. You can probe memory at any time. So like you can hang up the phone with somebody and you’ve got… You’ve taken some notes over the course of this conversation with information that you think you need to hold onto. You can quiz yourself on the spot and say, “Okay. So what did this person just say? She just told me how to solve this problem. What is it that she said?” And you’ve got it written down, but you still feel like that would be a good thing for me to just have committed to memory. You can quiz yourself at any time and it takes just seconds. Most people have a very hard time at the office setting aside time to devote to learning. So just do little bits and pieces and sort of work that into your daily workflow.

Brett McKay: Okay. And so do practice exams, practice questions, but you’d also say, I think we’ve already talked about this, don’t just reread your notes ’cause that’s just gonna lead to overconfidence, ’cause you’re like, “Oh, this is familiar.” You’re gonna confuse familiarity with actually knowing the material.

Daniel Willingham: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: That’s a really key takeaway. Well, a lot of learning requires learning from your mistakes, but looking at your mistakes can be very unpleasant. No one likes to do that. So any advice in overcoming the reluctance to focus on our mistakes?

Daniel Willingham: This is… I think everybody struggles with this, and this is something… You don’t grow out of this. [chuckle] This is something that… I’m in the academic world. Professors, we submit articles to professional journals and you get reviews from expert colleagues. And people will get reviews and not read them. They can’t, they just can’t face it because it’s something you’ve worked on all these years and the reviews can be harsh. Most people do develop tricks, and a lot of what they do is sort of taking the bad news in snippets. So telling yourself, “Okay. You know what? The first thing I’m gonna do is I’m not going to do anything about this. I’m just going to look at it and that’s it. That’s all I have to do today, is just look at it as a way of sort of creeping up on the bad feeling that getting this negative feedback is gonna entail.”

And then usually once you can get yourself to break the ice, you realize, “Okay. It’s not as bad as I thought. So the next step is gonna be, I’m gonna record everything that was wrong. Then the next step is I’m gonna think about how to respond to it and so on.” So that’s a very common strategy that I think is effective for a lot of people, is breaking it down into pieces. But I do wanna emphasize that you’re right, the way we learn is through feedback and responding to feedback.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You have in the book, it says, “Going over exam mistakes or just mistakes in your learning may make you feel dumb, and you are gonna feel dumb, but you’re actually doing what smart people do.”

Daniel Willingham: It’s true. The people who people make the fastest progress, and it’s so obvious when you spell it out, the people who make the fastest progress, they’re eager to get the feedback. They don’t wanna hear so much about what they’re doing right, they’ve already got that. They wanna know what they’re doing wrong, and they want you to help them brainstorm ways of fixing it and new things they can try.

Brett McKay: So learning also requires that you manage your time, you have to make time for learning, but you argue instead of planning your learning by task like, “I got to learn X chapter,” or, “I need to write X essay,” you recommend planning your learning by time. So what does that look like?

Daniel Willingham: It really is about making time for learning. Because this is very common with students, they’ll come home at the end of classes and they’ll say, “Okay. So what do I have to do in the next couple of days? Do I have reading to do, do I have whatever?” And there are two problems with this. One is they may conclude, “Well, nothing is that urgent.” And so they just won’t do anything that day. So they’re not really getting ahead of the game, which in calmer moments they would probably recognize, “Oh, it’s probably a good idea to do at least a little something every day.” And then there’s the planning fallacy, which is familiar to most people, the planning fallacy is just that people consistently underestimate how long it’s going to take to get something done. And especially as the project gets more complicated, that becomes more and more true.

There seems to be several reasons for it. One of the most important is that you don’t anticipate that something is actually likely to go wrong, even if it’s a really weird thing. There are lots of weird things that could happen that would interrupt your progress. So we all tend to underestimate how long things will take. And so if you say, “Oh, I’ve got a test on Friday, but it’s Tuesday, so I don’t really need to start studying now.” You may be counting on being able to get it done in a certain number of hours. And that’s really a bad estimate. So instead you wanna plan by time and sort of say to yourself, “Every day from 6 o’clock to 8 o’clock, or whatever it is, that’s my work time.”

And so the question is not whether or not to work, the question is, “What am I working on during that block of time?” I think that’s even more important if you’re in the working world. If you feel like there’s something like, “I wanna learn how to code,” or, “I’ve got… I wanna acquire a new skill,” or, “I wanna learn about a new subject,” or, “I just wanna familiarize myself with aspects of… I work at a big company, there are aspects of this organization that I don’t know as much about as probably would be good,” that’s gonna get shoved aside. There’s no time limit on that of when you need to learn it. Everyone is sort of frantically bouncing from email to phone call. And so the learning’s just never gonna happen.

And so you need to set aside time instead of telling yourself, “I’m gonna learn about what’s happening when people fulfill orders, or whatever it is, that I think would be useful for me to know.” You say, “Every day, Mondays from, even if it’s 9:15 to 9:30 or whatever it is, I’m gonna protect that time on my schedule and that’s my learning time.” And then you’re figuring out what you wanna learn during that time.

Brett McKay: Right. So you block out your learning time then create an agenda for your learning schedule before you start.

Daniel Willingham: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Another thing that plays a role in our ability to learn is our self-confidence or how we think of ourselves as a learner. What role does that play, or what does the research say?

Daniel Willingham: The most important thing about that is it, it has an impact on your resilience. So if you see yourself as someone who learns, “I’m pretty good at this. I tend to have success at this.” When you have a setback, when you find something is really hard, or when you’ve tried really hard and thought you were successful and then the evidence come back, “No, actually that didn’t go well at all.” You thought you learned that and you didn’t. If you have this self-image of yourself as, “I’m someone who usually succeeds at learning tasks, you’re not gonna give up.”

If on the other hand, because you’ll think like, “Oh, well. That’s strange that didn’t work. I must not have worked hard enough.” Or, “I have the wrong materials or something.” You’ll come up with some attribution other than, “I just suck at learning.” And so someone who has a bad self-image of themselves as a learner, doesn’t see themselves as a learner, they’re not very resilient as learners, because when they fail they figure, “Yep, this is more evidence of what I already thought was true, which is that I’m not very good at this.” And then likewise, they may not undertake learning tasks ’cause they think, “This is not the kind of thing that I do very well, and so there’s really no reason for me to try.”

Brett McKay: Well, any advice for those adults who have that negative self-image? Maybe they developed it during high school or college where they just realized, “Well, I’m not a good learner, I’m not a good reader.” I’ve seen that a lot when I challenge people or invite… Or encourage people, “Hey, you should read this really cool book, a philosophy treatise by Plato.” And they’re like, “Oh, I can never do that. I just don’t understand.” How can you overcome that negative self-image?

Daniel Willingham: The first thing that I would point out is that a lot of times these self-image are developed very young, surprisingly young. When I first got interested in education, I started just observing classrooms. And I was really astonished when I was sitting in first and second grade classrooms, and I felt like I could already see the children who had already given up on school, who had already concluded, “This is a place where I don’t succeed. This is a place where I just feel shame.” And teachers were telling me, “You see it in first and second grade, we see it in kindergartners.” And so the first thing I would invite people to consider is, you were a really different… At the time this self-image formed, you were a really different person, and it’s possible too that that you didn’t have a very good teacher, but you nevertheless blamed yourself for this problem.

The second thing I would point out is that everybody can learn. This is part of what it means to be human. And it could be that when you were in school, you were making comparisons that weren’t very helpful, like maybe your good friend was really good at reading, or whatever it was, and you were comparing yourself to your friend. That kind of comparison is really not helpful. The only comparison that really matters is comparing yourself to yourself and thinking about, “Am I making progress? Am I moving forward?”

And the final thing I would point out is, as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, it could be that you’re actually already really good at a lot of the sub-steps of learning, and then there’s just one thing that’s troubling you. And so a little analysis, little self-analysis of, “How do I go about learning and what do I need to tweak?” You may find you’ve struggled in the past, but it was for a relatively minor reason, and with a few adjustments, you’re gonna make progress a lot faster than you have been.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s good. And you also encourage people who have that negative self-image about learning, is reminding yourself that you have learned stuff outside of school. Maybe there’s something about the school setting that puts you off from learning, but you’ve learned stuff, you’ve learned how to navigate the world, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for you.

Daniel Willingham: Absolutely. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Well, Daniel, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Daniel Willingham: is my website. It is infrequently [chuckle] maintained, I admit, but I… Everything I’ve written actually, to which I own the copyright, is available free for download on there. So there are a number of articles about learning that people can see there. I’m also on TikTok now, Daniel_Willingham and I’m on Twitter @DTWillingham.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Daniel Willingham, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Daniel Willingham: It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Daniel Willingham. He’s the author of the book, “Outsmart Your Brain.” It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to our resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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