Principles of Learning Derived from Cognitive Psychology Research

Directing your attention, allocating time, and organizing learning materials effectively will make learning optimal. Making learning active and effortful in strategic and desirable ways will enhance retention, retrieval, and transfer of knowledge. ‘Desirable difficulties’ are those which evoke or induce mental (and interpersonal) processes which strengthen encoding and facilitate retrieval by virtue of making learning more purposefully effortful (hard). So, if your sense is that implementing these principles will make your learning and studying harder and more effortful you are correct, but it will be harder in BENEFICIAL ways—like lifting heavier weights to build strength. This is a list of general learning principles to help you allocate your time and effort efficiently and incorporate desirable difficulties into your learning (processing), studying (solidifying), and exam preparation (practice) activities. *For more elaboration of these principles, including the experimental research from which they are derived, see the websites linked to below.

  1. Allocate your attention intentionally and efficiently in alignment with your professors’ aims.
    1. Focus on one task only, don’t divide your attention. Work intensely.
    2. Align your purposes to the design of the course by knowing professor’s goals, understanding course design, and determining purposes of instruction.
  2. Organize information that you are trying to learn using powerful frameworks/conceptual categories like those used by experts in the field (e.g. your professor).
    1. Explicate models, organizational patterns used by your professor and use them to organize information you are learning.
      1. Ask: “How does my professor think about this topic, field, problem, etc.?”
  3. Practice retrieving information from memory without relying on notes or other materials by quizzing yourself on key concepts, summarizing readings from memory, ‘brain dumps’ on a major class topic, solving problems under exam conditions, etc.
  4. Actively elaborate on and connect what you are learning to what you already know—both from class and not. Strive to build upon, connect, exemplify, apply, and interrogate the content you are learning.
  5. To maximize durability of knowledge and flexible application, vary your studying in terms of locations, situations (alone, with others), modalities (oral, visual, verbal).
  6. Space your studying of a body of knowledge over multiple episodes; interleave different bodies of knowledge, don’t mass or “block” into one large study episode on the same subject.
  7. Utilize ‘dual coding’. Draw a graphic representation (image) of the information you are learning. Make charts that organize information, sketch out processes, create flow charts, make a mind map of key concepts and their relations to clarify your understanding.
  8. Anticipate subsequent study and practice (e.g exam prep) and the ‘target’ performance (e.g. exam). Put information into an efficiently studyable form. For example, take notes in class and on readings, create study guides, etc. in a format that helps you do problem sets and makes exam prep easier.


*For more elaborated discussion of these principles, see: