Study tips based on cognitive science


When we try to remember facts, people or stories we are retrieving memories from our brains. We tend to think of the brain as a very ethereal space - memories just pop into our heads. However memory 'recall' is a physiological process whereby memories are retrieved from a long-term memory storage. The stronger the retrieval links, the easier it is for us to remember this information.

The objective of learning is to take new information and transfer them into long-term memory. But how does this process take place?


As you move through the world you are constantly bombarded with stimulus; sights, sounds, smells, etc.. All these new bits of information count as sensory memories.

The next step is to move this into short-term memory. Now it would be impossible for our brains to deal with this huge amount of incoming stimulus. As such it filters all these sensory memories that aren't deemed to be important. In order to transfer stimuli to short-term memory you need to be deliberate with your learning. Sitting passively through a lecture just won't cut it.

The final step is to transfer the information to long-term memory, where it can be retrieved in the future. Different types of information gets stored in different parts of the brain, e.g. visual aspects are stored in the visual cortex. Long-term memories act as groups of connections, known as neurons. The stronger the connections, the easier the memory is to retrieve. Connections get stronger the more often they are used. Unfortunately the reverse is also true; Connections weaken if they aren't used.


Surface learning occurs when information is only weakly held in the brain. While it sits in long-term memory the connections are very weak and so die off quickly. While this might be sufficient to cram for a test of basic facts, surface learning prevents students from being able to apply it further, for example to solve a harder problem or explain the concept in a different context.

Examples of bad habits that lead to surface learning include

  • attending lectures without being fully engaged
  • reading through textbooks
  • highlighting and underlining
  • copying and writing out notes
  • over-reliance on flashcards

Unfortunately these are the most common techniques used by students. And because they involve a lot of effort and activity most students believe (falsely) that it is helpful. But this is why it is doubly bad

Not only are those techniques ineffective but they are inefficient. They take up a lot of time that could be put to good use elsewhere.



In contrast to surface learning, deep learning involves building deep, strong connections between neurons. These connections grow strong by creating multiple different 'reference' points to the same concepts.

Examples of study habits that generate deep learning include

  • Retrieval practice - force yourself to recall information from memory
    • Practicing retrieval strengthens access to that memory
  • Elaborative rehearsal - Link new information to things you already know
    • Building multiple access 'pathways' to the memory allows neurons to fire together and strengthens the memory
  • Spaced-repetition - spread study across time rather than cramming
    • Spacing practice across time prevent the decay of memories
  • Task focus
    • Your brain can only deal with a fixed amount of mental load. Multi-tasking adds extra load and slows the development of long-term memories.

Jesse Whelan is the Founder and Director of Learning at Sandbox Learning Australia. He is passionate about helping children maximise learning by using effective long term strategies.

Do you, your child or someone you know need maths help? At Sandbox Learning Australia we use the science of learning to deliver maths coaching that is both personalised and effective for years 4-12.

If you are in Sydney please contact us via the form below to arrange a free baseline assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Jesse Whelan