Memory and Learning

As a computing teacher / lecturer, I am constantly surrounded by learners / students. And because of this, I am constantly reviewing how I teach and asking myself “What is the best way they can learn?” “How best can I activate their memory and learning skills?” I recognise that they all learn in different ways and they all have different motivations for learning. For some it’s a reluctant, “I’m here so I might as well” but for others there is a clear career path planned out and this is but the present part in that journey.

So the questions I ask myself:

“How can I help my students learn quicker, faster or in a more effective manner?”

“Is there a systematic way they can learn, but learn and remember the skills?”

Being honest, as a teacher I will probably spend my career trying to answer these questions. If you’re a teacher you probably will too. If you’re not a teacher, then these questions can be asked of yourself, by yourself, to yourself, about yourself. Being able to learn faster than others will be the ultimate competitive advantage you could ever have in your career. So can it be taught?

I’m at the stage in my career where I am researching and writing about things that interest me, but are also connected to the process of teaching systematically – it makes most sense to me. I believe pedagogically, that learning can be systematic and planned. I am also in constant conversation with my wife (who is also a teacher) about the nature of intelligence (IQ) – is it fixed or fluid? Is there a ceiling that we can’t move past, or is there room for us to continually grow, learn and improve. I think sometimes we are discussing different ideas, but that’s OK because I am constantly learning, thinking out and refining my own ideas.

Research has clearly shown that when we teach what we learn, something happens in our minds. We suddenly notice mistakes in our current thinking. We begin to have deeper creative insights. Our ideas become sharper and undergo the refining process. We can remember what we learned for longer. We can identify patterns more effectively and more clearly. We receive feedback and this improves our idea further. This is called the Explanation Effect Mental Model

It can also be applied to ourselves, when we write these concepts down by journaling, mind mapping, or talking out loud we retain them with greater precision and clarity (Blatchford, 2016).

Hovarth (cited in Blatchford, 2016) contrasts what is happening when we write versus typing on a computer:  “There is a real linearity to a computer…when you are typing, you are always going straight, whereas with handwriting, you are circling, you’re going up and down, you are drawing lines backwards — it’s very different. The very nature of handwriting means you have to write and organise as you are thinking, and that kind of organisation affects how you are interpreting the information. It’s the way the hand writing forces you to organise your thoughts that leads to deeper processing.”

I have always found personally, that when I write something down, I remember it – this formed much of my exam revision processes, but it’s interesting to know there is a scientific basis to this – so how can we leverage this in our classroom teaching? Is this the only aspect to focus on?  Especially when there is a momentum around using technology:  iPads, or OneNote (something I use myself) does this improve and activate our learning memories or are we fooling ourselves into thinking that activity equals productivity?

A colleague of mine is a great believer of getting students to write out programming code – this might seem laborious, but the science is behind it, and it does bring results, so is it wrong? I don’t necessarily think this is the case, but it will depend on our intended learning outcome.

The Explanation Effect

You’ve experienced the power of the Explanation Effect mental model if you have ever:

  • Learned something new about what you were teaching as you were preparing for or actually teaching it.
  • Started unconsciously deliberating on (even dreaming about) a presentation days before you actually delivered it.
  • Started explaining an idea to someone else only to realise that you didn’t actually understand the idea as well as you thought you did.
  • Got new ideas from a student, reader, or conversation partner that helped take the idea to the next level.

Here’s what’s happening on a deeper level that creates the magic of the Explanation Effect mental model


Learning is NOT just about taking in information. In my experience coaching hundreds of people on learning how to learn, almost no one has a system for processing information. It’s almost as if people just expect the learning to happen automatically after they read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a lecture, or have a life experience. Looking at text and expecting to learn is not far off from looking at food and expecting to get its nutrients. We need to digest our life experiences just like we digest our food. Without some form of active processing, almost everything we read is lost within weeks.

As the diagram below shows, absorbing information is just the first step in the universal process for learning, which I call the learning loop.

The information we absorb must be transformed in our brains to make it understandable and usable. Then, we must take action in the real world to get results. Finally, feedback from the real world helps us improve the whole learning process before we go through the loop again.

Teaching is powerful because it helps at ALL four stages.

When we incorporate teaching into our daily lives, we exponentially increase our learning potential, build deeper relationships with those around us, and make a bigger impact on the world.

Not only that, teaching is compelling on a whole other level NOW because we live in a digitally connected world…

  • When you give knowledge away, not only do you also keep it, it actually grows stronger in your mind. It’s easy to take this for granted. But, just consider how wonderful it would be if you could get rich by literally handing people money. Yet that’s exactly how knowledge works!
  • The leverage of teaching is almost unfathomable. We can spend years learning a concept and yet transfer it to someone else in minutes. That’s 100x leverage.
  • The Internet allows us to share our knowledge on a whole other scale.Rather than just sharing the knowledge in our head with one person through conversation, we can share it with millions of people instantly at no cost. There is NOTHING more scalable than teaching.
  • Teaching is on track to becoming one of the most lucrative professions. As more people get used to regularly buying online courses and paying for coaching, the number of occupations where people get paid primarily for teaching is exploding. We now have coaches, managers, thought leaders, mentors, authors, investors, advisors, journalists, facilitators, and consultants, to name a few. There is also a small but growing breed of celebrity teachers who generate millions of dollars and impact millions of people. For example, podcaster Joe Rogan’s audience is bigger than any network TV news show and is rumored to be on track to earn $100 million this year. He has done all of this with only a few people on his team. (Note: If you want to become a celebrity teacher, you can get started here.)
  • Teaching may be the future of the sharing economy. Two of the biggest businesses created in the last 10 years are Uber and Airbnb. These sharing economy businesses are based on the idea that the biggest physical assets we own — our house and car — often go unused. Therefore, we can make extra money at minimal cost to us by renting them out. I’d argue that the ultimate unused asset is our brain. It stores the most useful knowledge we have, and most of that knowledge is only shared with a tiny fraction of the people it could be.

At the end of the day, we are ALL each other’s teachers on some level — whether it be as colleagues, friends, mentors, parents, or spouses. As a commenter on this article wisely noted:

The Modern Learning Pyramid

Seneca once stated that, “while we teach, we learn.” Socrates pioneered the Socratic Method which uses dialogue to both teach and learn. Aristotle lauded the power of teaching repeatedly, calling it “the highest form of understanding.”

Despite these case studies and the mounting research, in today’s modern world, the value of teaching is drastically under-appreciated at all levels of society. I can think of no better example than the old saying we’ve all heard before:

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

As a result of the research and case studies on the Explanation Effect, we can reframe this cultural meme toward something much more accurate:

“Smart people do. Wise people do and teach.”

Now that we understand WHY teaching to learn is so powerful, let’s dive into HOW we can actually take action to reap its value.

Average? Or Brilliant?

According to Model Theory, we all always use mental models in our thinking. “Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations,” according to the formal definition. Less formally, a mental model is a simplified, scaled-down version of some aspect of the world: a schematic of a particular piece of reality. A model can be represented as a blueprint, a symbol, an idea, a formula, and in many other ways. We all unconsciously create models of how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on.

The more effective the model, the more effectively we are able to act, predict, innovate, explain, explore, and communicate. The worse the model, the more we fall prey to costly mistakes. The difference between great thinkers and ordinary thinkers is that, for ordinary thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For great thinkers, it is conscious and proactive.

All of the extraordinary people mentioned above collect the most effective models across all disciplines, stress-test them, and creatively apply them to their daily lives. Mental models are so valuable that billionaire Ray Dalio’s only book is full of his best mental models. Charlie Mungers’ only book is packed full of his top mental models too. One of the most common pieces of advice that Elon Musk gives is to think from first principles. Mental models and first principles are similar in that they each model deeper levels of reality.

While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie — across fields), these great thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” In another interview, Musk gives an example, “I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”

One of the most effective and universal mental models is the 80/20 Rule: the idea that 20 percent of inputs can lead to 80 percent of outputs. This same 80/20 idea can be applied to our personal lives (productivity, diet, relationships, exercise, learning, etc.) and our professional lives (hiring, firing, management, sales, marketing, etc). As such, you can see how the 80/20 Rule connects many disparate fields. This is what all mental models do.

To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Of all the things on my to-do list, what are the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results?” When we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy, which ones could really change my life?” When considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?” In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

Michael is a Lecturer and Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. He is an avid supporter of technology enhanced learning, instructional learning design and blended learning. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution.

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