Which Learning Strategies Do & Don’t Work With Expert Dr. Daniel T. Willingham

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”Memory is important to exactly the types of critical thinking skills we want in our students… These are NOT independent skills!”
— Daniel T. Willingham

Greetings, Superfriends, and welcome to this week’s show.

Not too long ago, some of you guys who are also enrolled in my accelerated learning course sent me an interesting article from Scientific American entitled “What Works, and What Doesn’t.” In the study, 5 researchers from Duke, Kent State, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin evaluated a number of different learning strategies to determine which ones actually worked.

Needless to say, I was eager to speak with the researchers and compare notes, share some of my findings, and learn more than the short article had to tell. Well… today, we have the privilege of doing that. We’re joined by Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Daniel T. Willingham earned his Ph.D in cognitive psychology from Harvard, and he spent about 8 years focusing on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, his research is focused on the cognitive psychology behind K-16 education. He writes for a number of magazine columns and blogs, and has even published a number of books, from Raising Kids Who Read to Why Don’t Students Like School.

Given the topic of my TED talk, which was recorded just two days before this recording, I was very eager to engage with Dr. Willingham, compare our notes, and learn more about him and his research.

We talk about cognitive psychology, techniques that work, techniques that don’t, and some of the challenges facing the outdated education system in most countries. There are a ton of take-homes in this episode, and it is applicable not just to kids or teens or parents, but also to anyone who wants to learn more effectively, at any age.

This episode is brought to you by the all new SuperLearner Academy!

This episode is brought to you by the all new SuperLearner Academy!

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why aren’t we teaching kids how to learn instead of just what to learn?
  • What would a retooling of education to focus on mnemonics look like?
  • Does everyone learn in their own unique way, or are there more commonalities than we think?
  • How Dr. Willingham and his colleagues conducted their study
  • Which study techniques are proven to work, and which ones are not? (with some surprises)
  • Four actionable changes you can make TODAY to make your learning and studying more effective
  • From a cognitive psychology perspective, what differentiates things that work and things that don’t?
  • Why you should do a large part of your studying without your notes or textbooks
  • What is “the retrieval practice effect,” why is it quite surprising, and why should you care?
  • What are Dr. Willingham’s thoughts on Memory Palaces and other mnemonic techniques?
  • The very strong stigma against “memorization” in academia, and why it might be misguided
  • What is the relationship between creativity, experience, critical thinking, and memory?
  • An example of how experience can out-rank memory in a real-world scenario
  • What does the future of education look like, and what will be the roles of memory and technology?
  • Will brain-sensing technology be allowed in classrooms?
  • What books has Dr. Willingham most recommended to others?
  • How could we improve teacher training?
  • What is Dr. Daniel T. Willingham working on next?

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

Favorite Quotes from GUEST:

”[Some] educators think there’s not a whole lot that teachers can really do here, because every child is different. And of course, the learning literature would indicate that that’s not true.”
”What we found is that the techniques that students most often use are really not that effective.”
”Being able to recognize something as familiar is not the same as being able to describe it yourself. It requires a different level of understanding.”
”In terms of memory, you’re much better off distributing your studying.”
”Mnemonics, to me, shouldn’t be off the table in educational situations, but in one sense, they’re kind of a last resort… my go-to strategy is to make this material meaningful to me and connect it to things I already know.”
”Background knowledge is enormously important in being able to evaluate what it is that you find. This is something that educators have been struggling with.”


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