Do students need to work with "low-level" fact questions before they tackle "higher-level" understanding questions?

Whenever researchers compare "higher-level" questions to "low-level" fact questions and test for conceptual knowledge, factual knowledge, and general performance, it's higher-level questions that turn out the best on all outcomes (or sometimes a mix of high and low level is okay, too).

It's a robust finding; I've never encountered research studies that contradict it. Facts without context are not terribly useful and not terribly memorable. Facts with context are both useful and memorable.

Here are some articles illustrating this basic principle:

Jensen, J. L., McDaniel, M. A., Woodard, S. M., & Kummer, T. A. (2014). Teaching to the test… or testing to teach: Exams requiring higher order thinking skills encourage greater conceptual understanding. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 307-329. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-013-9248-9

Rowland, C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: a meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological bulletin, 140(6), 1432. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264988491_The_Effect_of_Testing_Versus_Restudy_on_Retention_A_Meta-Analytic_Review_of_the_Testing_Effect

McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European journal of cognitive psychology, 19(4-5), 494-513. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Testing-the-testing-effect-in-the-classroom-McDaniel-Anderson/5890758fdccf8e4ea75571f7d8741940660ba38f?p2df

Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Retrieval practice & Bloom’s taxonomy: Do students need fact knowledge before higher order learning?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2), 189. https://psycnet.apa.org/manuscript/2018-26228-001.pdf

Should you listen to music while you study?

No... and possibly yes.

There's a couple of different mechanisms at play. First, is the potential for interference. Say you're reading a chapter while listening to music with words. It's a little similar to reading a book while someone tells you a story (though not quite as bad). Your attention is being pulled in two different directions at once and you have to actively pull your attention to what you're reading and away from the music. So that's not great. Even music without words can do this, although there is less direct interference. It's the same idea as studying in a noisy environment (there's a siren, over there is a jackhammer, there are conversations all around you, etc.). It just drains your attention.

BUT, there's some other reasons that music can be helpful. One is that you have created a positive study association. If you tend to study with a certain kind of music on, listening to that music acts as a cue for you to concentrate. It's the same as if you like to study in a particular spot in the library. You will study more effectively in that environment than in an environment with other associations (e.g., the bathroom; your bedroom). Another potential mechanism at play is mood. Music can improve your mood, and your happy mood can influence learning. Also, since you are happy listening to the music, you associate studying with, perhaps, a calm happiness, which makes you inclined to study more.

These effects, however – both good and bad – are likely to be minor.

So my overall recommendation is: if it's not broke, don't fix it. I would avoid forms of music that have high levels of distraction. I'm thinking of the screaming in hardcore or maybe some of the odder instrumental music with sudden jarring sounds. I would also probably try to avoid music with words. But if you feel like you have positive results with what you're doing, keep doing it. Might be good to mix it up every once in a while though.

Is there a daily learning limit? A maximum amount you can learn in a day?

Hmm... another one where the answer is "yes and no".

Learning takes time. Neurons have to physically grow and change in response to what you're doing. So at an abstract level, yes there is some kind of limit to what you can learn in a day. No one can learn a language or learn most worthwhile things in a day - there's just too much to learn. That said, training and instructional techniques also improve over time. So practically speaking, it's hard to say exactly what that limit is. Another thing to consider is the value of rest. A lot of learning occurs when we don't seem to be doing anything at all. So cramming as much studying into your day as possible is not as "optimal" as it seems.

How long should a study break be? Is there a ratio between "study time" and "break time" that we should adhere to?

It's probably more important that the break is truly restful than that you take a break for a specific time. My intuition on break length says something between 10 to 30 minutes. But I don't have any evidence to back that up. The implication from work on deliberate practice suggests that 1.5 hrs of work before a break is about how long you should target your study or work sessions for. But that's for people working at the top of their game and exerting a lot of focus.

When you start to have very long study sessions (more than 1.5+ hrs, say) you are almost certainly not working at your peak levels. And if you have breaks too frequently (after every 10 minutes of studying, you take a break) you're likely disrupting your focus. It takes time to "sink" into a topic and I suspect that frequent breaks can function like task-switching. I suggest experimenting a bit and seeing what works for you.

Internal signals, like loss of focus or feeling overwhelmed can be signs that you could take a break. You could set a timer, if you didn't trust yourself. But you might experiment and see what works.

The ratio of study to practice really depends on the nature of what you are learning. If you're learning to trick-ride bicycles you're going to spend a LOT of time practicing tricks and quite a bit less time studying other people's tricks. If you're learning history, you're probably going to spend a lot of time "studying" and not much time "practicing" (of course, you might consider reading primary sources and writing and arguing to be "practicing" the profession of history - after all, that's what professional historians primarily do; but I'm speaking here of wanting to understand a historical time period from an amateurs perspective).

The important part is not the ratio. It's the back-and-forth of studying and practice. Your practice can help you study more effectively (e.g., you have a much deeper grasp of concept X, so that means concept Y, which builds on concept X, is easier to understand) and your study makes your practice more effective (maybe you realize the mistakes you made in practice, etc.).

Are lectures good or bad teaching tools? How could we improve them?

Well, they're not great.

The traditional lecture requires no active cognitive processing by the students (students can be entirely passive) and the lecturer does not learn what the students know (and what they don't know), so the lecturer can't adapt to how the students are learning. Lectures also seem to mimic "vigilance tasks" (like radar monitoring), which results in steep drops in attention 10-30 minutes into it. Lectures follow from the "information deficit" model of learning - that learning is basically about information transmission. Needless to say, that's not how learning works.

This is compounded by a misunderstanding that the problem is just being engaging. So if you're witty or you have cool stories or if the students like you - those are the keys to better lectures. But improving lectures is more about organizing the content, understanding the students' prior knowledge (through diagnostic tests, for instance), managing cognitive load in other ways (give students time to digest and take notes rather than barreling through the material), using various active learning techniques (e.g., short group work problems, clicker questions, asking them to make predictions, facilitating self-explanations, low-stakes quizzes), and choosing appropriate examples that structure their knowledge growth appropriately.

If you're looking for advice on improving lectures, see the two pieces below. This is a recent piece that gives plenty of good advice:

Cerbin, W. (2018). Improving student learning from lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(3), 151–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000113

And this is an old piece with plenty of good ideas too. Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S., & Habeshaw, T. (1987). Improving Student Learning During Lectures. Medical Teacher, 9(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.3109/01421598709028976

Here are a couple of large meta-analyses that look at active learning in STEM fields at the undergraduate level (and lectures compared to just about any other thing):

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117

Finally, on the link between vigilance tasks and lectures: Young, M. S., Robinson, S., & Alberts, P. (2009). Students pay attention!: Combating the vigilance decrement to improve learning during lectures. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(1), 41–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787408100194

What's the best way to learn foreign language vocabulary?

Overall, I think the best way to grow vocabulary is to see or hear it in use in context, in multiple situations, over the course of a longer period of time (using contextual variation, contrasting or analogical cases, and spacing). But that doesn't mean that other methods can't play a role, too. You might use flashcards or memory palaces or other methods to quickly have a rough sense of words before engaging in lots of reading and listening practice. But my views might change as I read more about it.

Different kinds of vocabulary words (and structures) present different kinds of challenges. There are some words that the foreign language student just has to "hard" memorize. There are no clues about the meaning from the word. In other cases, you have cognate words and false cognate words. In other cases, you can derive or remember the meaning quite easily from the component parts (Chinese has many examples of this).

Words also differ in how much contextual variation matters. In English, "a chair" is just a chair. It's a static item and it can be used to describe just about any chair-like thing, even if there are more specific words for some items (e.g., armchair, bench, couch). Other times, the context matters greatly. We use a verb like "send" to send armies and letters and regards. But other languages might use very different words for those different contexts. So when it comes to remembering the new word, it's not just about linking the new word to "send," it's also about understanding the usage contexts.

Something else to keep in mind is that "memorizing vocabulary" is not a very specific term. You might be exposed once or twice to a vocab word; enough to recognize it, but not recall it. Or you might know a word, but it's not part of your everyday vocabulary. Or you might only be able to remember the word with a specific cued context.

Can you study other topics or work on other things during your "break time" or between free recall sessions?

Yes, you can.

"True breaks," however, are also important (like taking a walk, playing music, or doing absolutely nothing). So don't drop those entirely. There's some evidence that memory consolidation happens during downtime (i.e., when the brain is otherwise not doing anything – even if you're awake – it engages in enhanced memory consolidation).

But when we're talking about the benefits of retrieval practice, the important thing is to clear things from our working memory. You could definitely study a different subject or work on something else to do that. So, in a way, both are good. Which is "best" probably depends on the circumstance. You could do something like: Activity A, Activity B, Activity A, True Break, Activity C, Activity B, Activity C, True Break.

Which note-taking method, by hand or on a computer, is considered the most effective for learning?

The research that has compared those two modes to each other have often been inconsistent. Sometimes, it's the group that writes by hand that does better. Sometimes, it's the group that types that does better (where "better" means either writing more thorough notes or able to perform better on a subsequent test). If there is an average difference between the two, I would guess it's small.

That said, there's a relatively recent meta-analysis that explored 24 studies (Allen et al., 2020, see references below). Overall, they found that those who took notes on a laptop performed worse in the class than those who did not. They included both surveys (that asked students what they did) and experiments (that assigned students to conditions), but the findings between the two were practically identical: a small negative correlation between using a laptop to take notes and class performance. We should keep in mind, however, that it's a tricky thing to study and that what it represents is, in part, how people typically use laptops (and notebooks) to take notes and not fixed attributes of the modes themselves. It's possible that you could use laptops more effectively, but that most people simply do not.

Drawing out the letters by hand also seems to have a memory advantage over typing them. Whether this is playing a part in the meta-analysis's findings or whether some other explanation, like distraction and multi-tasking playing a role, is unclear.

There are other trade-offs to consider, too. Taking notes by hand is usually slower, but permits more flexibility for organizing and drawing diagrams or pictures. The slowness can mean that students have a harder time paying attention to the content (more brain power spent on note taking), which is bad. But it also probably encourages less verbatim note-taking, since it's extremely difficult to do that while taking notes by hand, which is good.

Most people can type much faster than they can write by hand. This lets students pay more attention to the content of the lecture. Another advantage is the ease of reading, search, and reorganization after the fact. But you lose a little on the flexibility front. IMO, even the best sketching/open form note-taking apps are still slower than drawing diagrams free hand. There's also the added potential of getting distracted. It's very tempting to play a little game on the side or to browse websites, etc.

Based on this evidence, I would lean toward taking notes by hand. But if laptop notes seem to be really working for you (you feel focused, you use the notes effectively later, etc.), then I wouldn't worry about it that much.


Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://www.benjaminjameswaddell.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/mueller-the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-keyboard.pdf

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2019). How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 31(3), 753-780. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kayla-Morehead/publication/330856100_How_Much_Mightier_Is_the_Pen_than_the_Keyboard_for_Note-Taking_A_Replication_and_Extension_of_Mueller_and_Oppenheimer_2014/links/5c5c820aa6fdccb608af3927/How-Much-Mightier-Is-the-Pen-than-the-Keyboard-for-Note-Taking-A-Replication-and-Extension-of-Mueller-and-Oppenheimer-2014.pdf

Allen, M., LeFebvre, L., LeFebvre, L., & Bourhis, J. (2020). Is the pencil mightier than the keyboard? A meta-analysis comparing the method of notetaking outcomes. Southern Communication Journal, 85(3), 143-154. https://www.academia.edu/download/80432755/Allen_LeFebvre_LeFebvre_Bourhis_2020_Pencil_vs._Keyboard.pdf

Smoker, T. J., Murphy, C. E., & Rockwell, A. K. (2009, October). Comparing memory for handwriting versus typing. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 53, No. 22, pp. 1744-1747). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=1003a557abbb5d57aa6016ecc64832fc58bf6b08

Which is better for learning, textbooks or video lectures?

In general, I prefer learning from textbooks. The main reason is that you have finer control over your attention while reading. It’s easy to move back a page (or 50 pages) or ahead 50 pages; to ponder an example or have a notebook nearby where you explore an idea. I also think it’s easier to tell when you don’t understand something while reading. At the base level, reading requires something more than just passively listening to something.

That said, a lot depends on how you use these resources. A student with effective learning skills could get more from a bad lecture than a student with ineffective learning skills could get out of a great textbook. With video lectures, you want to be pausing the lecture frequently to attempt to answer the questions or problems they pose — or possible trying to summarize and integrate what you’ve learned so far. With reading, you want to be solving problems, answering questions, making inferences, etc. To a large degree, it’s what you do with the resource that’s important.

My preference for books doesn’t mean that I’m always going to choose a book over a lecture. The value of an educational resource depends on lots of factors. Some of the things that I think about:

  1. Is the resource (book, lecture, or anything else) appropriate for my level of understanding?
  2. How well-organized and comprehensive is the resource?
  3. How many examples and problems or questions (with solutions or example answers) are available? In other words, how many opportunities are there to practice the skill that you’re supposedly learning from the lecture or book? This is usually where textbooks excel.
  4. Is it reputable? How “good” is it considered to be? There are many bland textbooks and many bland lectures. I want the one that’s deep and engaging, where the authors spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize the material.
  5. How many other ways do I have access to the ideas or examples? There are many cases where, say, expert X, who is very good, made a lecture series and has not written a book yet. Well, I want access to expert X, so maybe I’ll choose the lecture series.

Often, having a blend of complementary resources on the same subject is helpful. You get to see slightly different perspectives and examples. I also tend to prefer books or lectures created by one person (or perhaps two co-authors) over large consensus documents. Textbooks made by committee tend to be weak; I’d rather get three unadulterated subjective takes than a single watered down blend of everyone’s ideas.