It’s Not You, It’s the System That Educated You

Main Points

  • Academic writing is an extremely complex skill that takes at least ten years after college to master.
  • For decades, the writing curriculum in U.S. public schools abandoned formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure, depriving students of some of the building blocks of writing expertise.
  • The information we need to complete a task is stored in working memory. Working memory is also where planning and analysis takes place. Working memory capacity is limited.
  • Writers can reduce the demands on working memory by moving skills, particularly knowledge of grammar and sentence structure, into long-term memory, thus freeing working memory to focus on planning and analysis.

Recently a client told me that many of the junior faculty he knew would rather do almost anything than sit down and try to write for publication. He said that they found it almost physically painful. I can understand why. Here’s my message to academic writers: It’s not you, it’s the system that taught you, and you can use specific strategies to improve your writing and make up for a gap in your writing education.

To understand why you struggle so much with writing, you need an understanding of how complex academic writing is and a quick tour of writing education in the United States.

The Complexity of Academic Writing

Writing experts compare mastering the skill of professional writing to achieving excellence in playing chess or composing music. They note that it takes at least ten years to master basic writing (reporting on what other people have said in a coherent way) and ten years of practice after that to master adult-level writing (writing in a way that restructures and reorganizes knowledge to suit a specific purpose). (Kellogg 2006).

One psycholinguist has described writing as one of the most complex tasks human beings do (Olive 2004). Doing it effectively requires you to use multiple cognitive and metacognitive skills simultaneously. And academic writing adds layers of complexity. You’re required to write in ways that contribute original results or analysis to an existing body of literature. You need to process and organize huge volumes of information each time you write. You need to write in the style your discipline requires. You need to find the sweet spot between deference to the previous generation and confidence about your own contributions. You need to think about multiple readerships so a publisher will be interested in your work. And all of this must be done with impeccable grammar and style.

People who study the acquisition of expertise say that high-quality instruction and focused practice are necessary to achieve mastery of a skill (Zimmerman 2013; Ericsson 2013). Yet academics are expected to acquire the extremely complex skill of professional writing with little or no mentoring or training and almost no guidance or feedback about how to practice writing. Each person is left on their own to figure it out as best they can. Once you get your PhD, the U.S. education system lets you down just at the moment in your career when you need mentoring the most.

A Quick History of Writing Education in the United States

If you were born after around 1965, the system began letting you down some years before you got your degree. Around the mid-1970s, there was a major shift in how writing was taught in U.S. schools. For several centuries before that, writing was taught using the product model. This model emphasized formal instruction in grammar, syntax, and sentence structure. It required rote learning and memorization of the parts of speech and types of sentence structure. Students were expected to learn to write from reading good literature and imitating it. This method has a deep history; Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write by rewriting texts he admired using his own language (Kellogg 2006). In these writing exercise, Franklin focused on the quality and style of the finished product.

The problem with this way of teaching writing was that it didn’t work for all students. In fact, it didn’t work for a lot of students (Hairston 1982). Reformers who were concerned about the students who were falling behind argued that understanding the process of writing was more important than learning rules. The process model deliberately avoided teaching grammar and sentence structure. “The student uses his own language” pronounced Don Murray, one of the early proponents of this method (Murray 2009, 4). The process model encouraged students to write from their own experiences instead of learning from examples of excellence. Prewriting, freewriting, and brainstorming became mainstays in English classrooms. Instead of giving students specific feedback on their writing, teachers encouraged students to learn from each other through peer review. The battle cries of this revolution were “students need work in invention” (Hairston 1982, 80) and “mechanics come last” (Murray 2009, 5).

bigstock-A-Group-Of-Dogs-Sitting-Near-T-104041238_It's Not You.jpg

These learners are being trained to do complex tasks in small increments. They receive positive reinforcement as they master each layer of the new skill and each stage of learning builds on previous learning. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t how you learned grammar.



By the late 1980s, the process method dominated the teaching of writing in U.S. public schools. It has generated innumerable studies in the fields of cognitive psychology, linguistics, and educational psychology since then. But it hasn’t led to better writers. A recent national assessment found that only 27 percent of twelfth graders could write coherent sentences and present their ideas in writing in logical and clear ways (NAEP Writing Achievement Levels 2011).

And it hasn’t led to students who are enthusiastic because they are writing from their own experiences. By the last year of high school, many U.S. students have developed an aversion to writing: in a national assessment in 2011, 65 percent of males and 46 percent of females disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “writing is one of my favorite activities” (“Top Stories in NAEP Writing” 2011, slide 4).

While the underlying philosophy of the process method that a student’s own interest would naturally lead to improvement in writing skill may have come from good intentions (some of its early proponents saw it as a logical extension of the civil rights movement), in hindsight it seems somewhat curious. It’s analogous to a belief that a child who is handed a violin for thirty minutes every day will eventually become able to play Vivaldi or that children who are sent to a practice field every day for half an hour will eventually become a team that plays football by U.S. rules.

The underlying structure of every complex skill must become part of the learning process at some point. Piano students who want to play classical music must learn scales. Young people who want to become professional athletes must practice the basic skills of their sport every day. People who want to become software designers must learn the rules that govern commands in computer languages.

The absence of formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure becomes all too evident when students get to college. Today, most undergraduates don’t know the basic parts of speech. They don’t know how pronouns work. They don’t know about different ways to write a sentence or even realize when a sentence they’ve written doesn’t make sense. They become visibly frustrated when instructors raise these topics. That’s because they don’t have neuronal networks about this knowledge. The set of information they have in their brains about writing and the set of information instructors try to introduce about grammar simply don’t match.

This is why if you were born after 1965 you may be struggling with writing. Your writing has improved considerably from the day you first stepped into a college classroom. But because you most likely didn’t get any formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure, the building blocks of written language, you need to allocate a large amount of attention to writing sentences. It probably feels as if each one is pulled out of your gut. That’s because you have to focus so much on writing good sentences that there’s not enough space left in your working memory for thinking about what you want to say next, how the various ideas you’re writing about fit together, or how you want to analyze the topic you’re writing about.

The pendulum is gradually swinging back toward a middle ground. Some educators now realize that children need lots of practice writing good sentences rather than practice in any kind of writing regardless of its quality. Instead of relying so heavily on peer review, some teachers now give focused feedback on student writing. And some educators have returned to showing students examples of good writing and asking them to imitate it (Goldstein 2017); the difference is that now those examples are much more likely to reflect the life experiences of students than they were forty years ago. Recent research shows that students who learn to write from teachers who use the process model but also give them focused direction tend to become better writers and to have positive feelings about themselves as writers (Pritchard and Honeycutt 2005). And the latest edition of the Handbook of Writing Research includes a chapter on a topic that has been a pariah for over forty years: teaching grammar (Hudson 2016).


The Good News

If you are struggling with academic writing, I have very three pieces of very good news for you. Recent research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology has changed our understanding of how the writing brain works. We now know very specific information about which parts of the brain are doing what when we are generating text. As a result, we know strategies for easing the burden on certain brain functions. These practices give writers greater access to the cognitive resources they need for planning, analysis, and creativity.

  1. Your brain has a wonderful workhorse called working memory. Working memory is where you temporarily hold all the information you need to complete a task. Working memory is also the place where you generate creative ideas, where you put together knowledge and information in unique ways. As a writer, you need to know two important things about working memory: it stores information only temporarily and it’s limited in size. Information in working memory is just visiting; it’s there only for a short while. And the size of working memory is finite and can’t be increased. (When you do well on exercises to improve your memory, you’re not increasing the size of your working memory; you’re moving things from working memory into long-term memory.)


  1. You can do many things to reduce the load on your working memory when you’re writing (Kellogg et al. 2013). Some of these are ongoing processes that will lead to increases in writing skill for the rest of your life. For example, you can learn grammar rules–not all at once, but gradually and organically, in response to the issues you see in your writing. You can practice writing for at least ten minutes a day–after a few months, you’ll be surprised at the improvement you’ll start to see in your first drafts. You can learn a variety of sentence structures. You can read more–all kinds of reading about all kinds of things. You can learn to use metacognitive thinking in every step of the writing process. You can devise a system for organizing the huge volume of information you handle when you write. This is just a partial list. (You can read more about these and other strategies in the essays on this website.)


  1. Your brain is neuroplastic. It can develop new synapses and pathways that become hardwired. When you practice a new skill through repetition, your brain creates new neural pathways so using that skill becomes reflexive and no longer requires intense effort. Cognitive neuroscientists tell us that repeatedly doing a particular activity increases the space the brain allocates to that activity and increases our ability to focus while doing it. However, as skill level in that activity increases, the brain also becomes more efficient and needs to use fewer resources to accomplish the task, particularly in working memory (Hill and Schneider 2013). Thus, learning a new skill and practicing it repeatedly moves it into long-term memory and frees up resources in working memory.


One of the key components of improving your writing skills is reducing the demands on working memory. Moving knowledge of grammar and sentence structure into long-term memory is one way to do that. In other words, you’re not fatally wounded as a writer if you weren’t taught grammar and syntax in secondary school. You can learn it now and it can become part of your long-term memory. It might even be easier to learn it now than when you were in secondary school because a) now you have very good incentives to do so (tenure, job security, increased income); and b) you have much more context in your brain to help you apply new knowledge than you did when you were younger.


Resources for Increasing Your Knowledge of Grammar


Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2003.

Get your hands on this one from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”

Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”

Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.

This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.



Grammar Revolution:

Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.

Grammarly Blog:

Has pages on many aspects of grammar knowledge, divided into four broad categories: Grammar, Punctuation, Mechanics, and Techniques. I can’t speak for the accuracy of its online grammar check feature, though.



Ericsson, K. Anders. 2013. “The Influence and Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 683–703. New York: Cambridge University Press.

“Grade 12 National Results, 2011.” The Nation’s Report Card. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Goldstein, Susan. 2017. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” New York Times, August 2. Accessed March 27, 2018.

Hairston, Maxine. 1982. “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 1: 76–88.

Hill, Nicole M., and Walter Schneider. 2013. “Brain Changes in the Development of Expertise: Neuroanatomical and Neurophysiological Evidence about Skill-Based Adaptations.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 653–682. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson, Richard. 2016. “Teaching Grammar.” In Handbook of Writing Research, 2nd ed., edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steven Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 288–300. New York: Guilford Press.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2006. “Professional Writing Expertise.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 389–402. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5: 159–190.

Murray, Don. 2009 “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product.” (1972). In The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller, 1–5. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton.

NAEP Writing Achievement Levels. 2011. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Olive, Thierry. 2004. “Working Memory in Writing: Empirical Evidence from the Dual-Task Approach.” European Psychologist 9, no. 1: 32–42.

Pritchard, Ruie J., and Ronald L. Honeycutt. 2005. “The Process Approach to Writing Instruction: Examining Its Effectiveness.” In Handbook of Writing Research, 1st ed., edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steven Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 275–290. New York: Guilford Press.

“Top Stories in NAEP Writing.” 2011. The Nation’s Report Card, slide 4, accessed March 26, 2018,

Zimmerman, Barry J. 2013. “Development and Adaptation of Expertise: The Role of Self-Regulatory Processes and Beliefs.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 705–722. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Contact me at

Core Ideas for Writing Success

This is the cheat sheet for this website. You’ll find more detail in the essays. This list presents the essence of the concepts and practices that will help you succeed as a writer.

iStock-965678498_agility dog_Road Map.jpg

This champion knows that doing things in a particular way leads to rewards.


  • Better thinking, not more time spent working, is what will help you become a better writer.
  • Clarity and concision are more important than word count.
  • Working memory is the workhorse of the writer. It’s where planning and organizing and analysis happen.
  • Because working memory is a limited resource, it’s important to move new information and writing skills into long-term memory as soon as possible.
  • Your brain is neuroplastic. You can create strong neural pathways for new skills through repetition.
  • Metacognition is a crucial tool for academic writing.
  • Domain knowledge is the specialist knowledge you’ve acquired in your discipline. It will continue to increase over the years. As your domain knowledge grows, you’ll be able to connect new information to what you already know more quickly and more efficiently.
  • Your inner chatter about the writing process has great power to affect your thinking. You can change that inner dialogue from criticism to confidence by improving skill areas.
  • It’s important to diagnose which writing skill areas need improvement.
  • “Writer’s block” is simply a writing problem that can be fixed through diagnosis and action. You may need more knowledge about a particular issue, you may need a better organization strategy for your chapter or article, you may need some time for your brain to connect new information to domain knowledge, you may need a good conversation with a colleague or an editor to put language to your thoughts. Don’t get scared when you hit an obstacle. There’s always a solution.
  • Your brain processes new information while you sleep. You may find that sometimes you’ll go to bed feeling discouraged about your supposed lack of progress that day but then wake up the next morning with all kinds of fresh ideas. That’s because your brain is sorting and filing the new information you fed it during the day; it’s making connections between new knowledge and domain knowledge.
  • It’s important to be a good partner to your brain. Learn which times of day are best for your biological rhythms. Give your brain support between work sessions by doing activities that increase dopamine and serotonin levels. Don’t expect your brain to perform for you in a writing session if you haven’t done the preliminary steps that function as scaffolding for writing. Eat protein and drink plenty of water when you’re writing.


  • My review of the literature in neuroscience, cognitive science, and writing research has revealed practices for improving writing ability that I call the Big Three. When you’re struggling to get to analysis in your writing, talk about your ideas with a trusted friend or colleague. When you get stuck with a particular writing problem, take a walk. There’s something special about walking that supports your brain as it works through a problem. To sharpen your ability to move information into long-term memory and focus on specific cognitive tasks to the exclusion of others, strengthen your attention skills. Using these three strategies will have multiple spillover effects in other areas of your cognition that will translate to better writing and less frustration while you’re doing it.
  • Start working metacognitively at the very beginning of a writing project. Don’t think of some tasks (i.e., collecting sources, taking notes) as rote work. Every writing task requires metacognitive thinking. This will help you form a structure for your work and connect new information to your outline and to your domain knowledge.
  • Construct an outline that emerges from your sources. Don’t make an outline and then try to make your sources fit your preconceived notion. As you work with your sources, your understanding of your topic will change and your preconceived outline will suddenly be mismatched with your sources. Always work up from the sources.
  • Always work from an outline. Don’t expect good results if you wing it. Having a plan increases the quality of first drafts and saves you time.
  • Don’t make a highly detailed outline. Just broad strokes–three or four main sections. Leave space for your thinking to grow and change within each section of your outline.
  • Plug your notes into your outline immediately. Don’t take notes on a bunch of articles without plugging them into the relevant section of your outline. This reinforces in your brain what connects to what.
  • Always collect the citation for a source before you begin taking notes.
  • Following the steps in Bloom’s taxonomy will create a scaffold for analytical thought. Each step builds on the ones below it. This method of writing will nurture both metacognition and analysis.
  • When you’re processing new sources, take short breaks of wakeful rest. This helps consolidate new knowledge in long-term memory.
  • When you take notes from new sources, practice retrieval learning: before the end of your work session, write down as much as you can remember from the articles or books you’ve just processed, then review the material in those sources. This has the potential to increase your long-term memory of new knowledge by 80 percent. The more you repeat this process, the greater your recall will be. Getting this information into long-term memory frees space in your working memory for planning and analysis.
  • Work sessions should be anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours, but not more than that.
  • Have a detailed list when you begin a work session. Break each task into the smallest components and make each component a list item. This strategy rewards you for multiple accomplishments. Rewards increase the levels of dopamine in your brain, which in turn increase your ability to stay focused and motivated.


Contact me at

Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Main Ideas

  • The structure of your brain changes throughout your life depending on how you use it. You can determine what areas become stronger.
  • Focused practice with feedback, incremental change, and rewards for success that lead to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine are key principles of neuroplasticity.
  • Neuroplastic change can have spillover effects: the brain learns to apply new connections in other areas of cognition.
  • Two cognitive skills can be strengthened through neuroplasticity that will improve the quality of your writing: increasing verbal skill and increasing ability to focus attention.

Source: Jurie Roussow, “How Neuroplasticity Changes the Brain,” Rforce, March 8, 2017, Used by permission.

Basic Concepts of Neuroplasticity

Thanks to the pathbreaking research of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and many others, we now know that the structure of the brain changes across the life course. This is because of synaptic plasticity (the strengthening or weakening of the synapses between neurons). Various kinds of training can cause physical changes in brain structure. For example, one study showed that London taxi drivers had a mental map of the entire city; they knew how to get to any address without consulting a map. Brain scans showed that their hippocampuses, the part of the brain where we store information about maps and memories of how to navigate, was larger than those of the general population (Costandi 2013). Musicians provide other examples of neuroplasticity. The area of the brain that controls finger movement is longer in a professional pianist who can play up to 1,800 notes per minute than in the general population. Musicians also have more connections across the hemispheres of the brain because they coordinate visual information, information about beat and rhythm, and movement of various parts of their body when they play an instrument (Stewart 2008).

Our knowledge of neuroplasticity is relatively young; Michael Merzenich first formed the hypotheses that the brain changes based on activity in the 1960s. At first he was ridiculed because his hypothesis contradicted long-held beliefs about the limitations and static nature of the human brain. But as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) developed in the 1990s, Merzenich’s hypothesis was proven. Studies of the neuroplasticity of the brain have exploded since then.

Merzenich offers some basic principles of neuroplasticity based on his extensive study of the phenomenon. Some of these ideas are relevant to academic writers.

  1. Change is mostly limited to situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. Merzenich writes, “If I am alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action–the brain releases those chemical modulatory neurotransmitters that enable brain change.”
  1. The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the change. “If you are paying just a little bit of attention, are half-trying, do just a tiny bit better than the last time, . . . then only a small dose of modulatory neurotransmitters are released and the attempt results in only very small and ephemeral change.”
  1. Initial changes are just temporary. “The brain has the remarkable ability to first record the change, then make a determination–after the fact–of whether it should make that change a part of the permanent record. It does this by storing the change temporarily, then releasing modulatory neurotransmitters . . . as soon as it is reasonably certain that the behavior has, or is likely to have, a good or bad outcome. The release of these chemicals turns the brain plasticity switch ‘ON,’ which converts the temporary plastic change into a permanent, enduring, physical change.” If you feel pleased by success when you get something right as you’re learning, dopamine is released that tells the brain “Save that one!” (Merzenich 2013, 41).

Spillover Effects of Neuroplastic Change

Neuroplasticity can have spillover effects: That is, improving one function of the brain improves function in other areas. Michael Merzenich learned this when he observed language-impaired and learning-disabled children who were using a plasticity-based computer training program he and his colleagues had designed called Fast ForWord. One type of training exercise requires children to distinguish between the short and long sounds of a mooing cow. Other exercises help children learn to distinguish between similar sounds, such as “ba” and “da.” Another exercise helps them distinguish the frequency of sounds. When the child reaches a progress goal, they get a reward that reinforces the successful behavior and prompts their brain to release dopamine, thus linking a pleasure sensation with choosing correctly. (An animated character appears who does something funny like eating the correct answer or doing a little dance.) The program keeps each child performing at at least 80 percent of correct answers. As the child masters the content of one level, the program increases the level of difficulty in small increments (Rogowsky et al. 2013). Children do exercises for an hour and forty minutes for either eight or twelve weeks. The level of language ability of children who complete the program soon becomes normal for their age and their progress is very fast: most move ahead in language ability by 1.8 years in just six weeks (Doidge 2007). (If you’re interested in learning more about how Merzenich helps children who struggle with language skills, see his talk on neuroplasticity at Merzenich [2014].)

Merzenich observed that a number of children who completed the Fast ForWord program increased in other abilities besides reading and speaking: they also improved in math, science, and social studies. He believes that this is because the brain teaches itself to learn as it changes neuroplastically. He believes that “practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps” (Doidge 2007, 47). Beth Rogowsky and her colleagues observed the same spillover effect in a group of college students whose writing ability was below average. After 11 weeks of daily training with the Fast ForWord program, their scores on a standardized test of writing ability improved from 1 standard deviation below the norm to 1.3 standard deviations above the norm. The training the students received wasn’t about writing: they did exercises to improve cognitive, language, and reading skills. As their brains changed to strengthen the neural pathways for these skills, the improvement in those areas transferred to improvement in writing skills (Rogowsky et al. 2013). This evidence suggests that Merzenich is right: when we learn new skills, our neuroplastic brain learns how to transfer those skills to other tasks we do.

The Fast ForWord program works so well because it’s based on fundamental principles of neuroplasticity. First, it uses intensive practice geared toward incremental change. With each session, performance improves just a bit more. Neuroplasticity isn’t about trying for large change all at once. It’s based on many small changes that build on each other. Second, it uses rewards for reaching a goal that trigger dopamine release, which induces a sense of pleasure that reinforces the reward (Doidge 2007).

There’s another thing about neuroplasticity that seems almost magical: you don’t actually have to be doing the activity you’re learning to increase the neural pathway for that new skill. When you mentally rehearse the new skill, the same changes take place in your brain as if you were actually practicing it. In 2006, neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone did a study at Harvard with volunteers who weren’t musicians. They had jobs that didn’t require manual dexterity. They didn’t even know how to type. He divided them into two groups. All of the volunteers participated in the first phase of the experiment. They sat at a piano and practiced a simple 5-finger exercise for 2 hours a day for 5 days. They were instructed to keep as close as possible to a particular metronome beat and to do the exercise as fluidly as they could. Every day after practicing for 2 hours, they took a 20-minute test of their performance and got feedback about how they could improve.

Then Pascual-Leone divided the volunteers into two groups. The first group continued in the same way: daily practice for four weeks. But the second group didn’t practice. They sat at a piano and imagined they were practicing. They mentally rehearsed the actions their fingers would make as if they were actually playing the piano.

Then Pascual-Leone used trans-cranial-stimulation (a short electric pulse) that targeted the motor cortex of the brains of the two groups to infer the function of the neurons in that area. He found that both groups had similar amounts of neuroplastic change in the part of the motor cortex that controls finger movement. He concluded that “mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked improvement in performance, but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice” (Pascual-Leone 2006, 321). The subhead Pascual-Leone used for the section of his article that discussed these findings was “If You Cannot Do It, At Least Think About It.”

Here’s another interesting finding about neuroplasticity and spillover: If you learned to play a musical instrument when you were a kid, you’re a lucky duck. Neuroplastic changes that are made earlier in life seem to punch above their weight. They teach the brain how to learn, what cognitive neuroscientist Lauren Stewart calls “metaplasticity.” She writes that “learning during sensitive periods [when the acquisition of certain skills is facilitated during certain periods of development] not only affects the development of that particular skill at that particular time, but can also determine how the brain responds to future learning experiences” (Stewart 2008, 307). Intense training during a period of what Stewart calls “exuberant neural development” appears to give a brain the ability to adapt in new learning situations long after the sensitive period of development is over.

So here’s a summary of what we know about neuroplasticity:

  • It is based on focused repetition of a new skill many times combined with feedback about how to improve.
  • It uses rewards to prompt the brain to release dopamine so the brain will associate the new activity with pleasure.
  • It has spillover effects: improvement in one cognitive function can produce improvement in other cognitive functions.
  • Mental rehearsal of a new skill has the same effect on neuroplastic change as physically doing it and in fact can lead to greater acquisition of skill.

One last point about neuroplasticity: this is what Norman Doidge calls the plastic paradox. “The same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors can also allow us to produce more rigid ones” (Doidge 2007, 242). This is why it’s so important to get feedback when you’re learning a new skill. It’s not about how many times you do it–it’s about how many times you do it right.

Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Neuroplastic learning can benefit academic authors in two ways I can think of. I’d say both are equally important. The first is learning to increase your verbal ability, a suite of skills that includes vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, the ability to write using variety of sentence structures, and the ability to write in different ways for different readers. No matter what level of verbal ability you have right now, you can increase it. And the more verbal ability you have stored in long-term memory, such that using those skills has become automatic for you, the more your working memory can devote to the crucial tasks of planning, seeing patterns and connections in a body of knowledge, and generating analysis.

The second area of neuroplastic learning for writers relates to your ability to focus your attention. This is a skill where we all have tremendous room for improvement.

Learning Grammar and Sentence Structure

Learning even a few grammar rules and increasing your inventory of sentence structures by one or two will go a long way toward making the task of generating sentences more fluid. That, in turn, will take some of the burden off your working memory so it will be able to devote more resources to planning and analysis. Putting this new knowledge in long-term memory and using it on a regular basis will strengthen the neural pathways that retrieve it when you need it. This is a significant way that neuroplasticity can help a writer.

You may find that writing a sentence or a paragraph is hard work. Pulling sentences out of your brain and putting them into text may feel very effortful. That’s because it is. If you haven’t had sufficient practice writing sentences, it’s more difficult than it needs to be. What you’re experiencing is that your ability to think about your work is more developed than your level of verbal skill. This is a common experience for writers, particularly at the beginning of their publishing career. Check out this account from writer Derrick Jensen.

For me, writing has gotten much easier. If writing were as hard for me today as it was fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be writing. Life is too short to work that hard at something that feels so uncomfortable. Part of the earlier sensation of difficulty and discomfort for me, though, wasn’t the writing itself. It was frustration because my skills didn’t match my reach. In other words, when writing felt difficult, which most of the time it did, it was almost always because I didn’t have the skills, information, or perspective to be able to adequately to convey whatever I was trying to communicate. (Jensen 2004, 72, my emphasis)

Sound familiar? You’ll be heartened to know that Jensen is now an award-winning author who has published at least 21 books on a broad range of topics. He’s a perfect example of how verbal ability increases with practice.

You can decrease the time it will take you to acquire writing expertise by using the power of neuroplasticity to deepen and automate some of the writing skills that cause you anxiety when you write. Learn some grammar. Increase your vocabulary. Learn a few more sentence structures. Practice writing the same sentence using a variety of structures. Practice writing sentences with the same content for a variety of audiences. Your brain will reward you with a more fluid writing process and a greater ability to focus on structure and analysis. Writing will get easier for you.

Increasing Mental Focus

Strong mental focus is closely related to skillful use of verbal ability. Because the capacity of working memory is limited, it’s crucial to be able focus on a specific task when other cognitive tasks are competing for working memory resources, or as psychologist Daryl Fougnie puts it, “selectively process information” (Fougnie 2008, 1). If you think of writing a chapter or an article as a series of writing problems to be solved, you can see how the ability to focus on one problem or a single category of problems would be useful. Instead of thinking about spelling and syntax and organization and analysis all at the same time, most writers separate these tasks and attend to at least some of them separately. As your level of writing expertise increases, you’ll be able to do more tasks simultaneously because some of them will be stored in long-term memory and won’t take up working memory capacity (Kellogg 2001; Olive and Kellogg 2002).

One good way to increase your ability to focus attention is to regularly do something that puts you in a meditative state. One study suggests that focused-attention meditation–the type of meditation where you focus on controlling attention and regaining it when the mind wanders–strengthens three skills that increase your ability to focus on a specific topic or task longer: 1) “the monitoring faculty that remains vigilant to distractions without destabilizing the focus”; 2) “the ability to disengage from a distracting object without further involvement”; and “the ability to redirect focus promptly to the chosen object” (Lutz et al. 2008, 164). Another study found that as little as 11 hours of traditional Chinese meditation increases the amount of white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, part of a network that is related to the ability to self-regulate (Tang et al. 2010).

If you’re willing to spend a little money for a training program to increase your mental focus, check out the BrainHQ program (see below). Michael Merzenich and a team of colleagues designed the program based on the principles of neuroplasticity. One of the areas it focuses on is attention. (I have no relationship with BrainHQ; I just think it’s a good resource.)

One final note about attention: Be extra careful with yourself after you’ve suffered an interruption. That’s when you’ll make mistakes (Foroughi et al. 2014). You’ll misspell words or even type the wrong word. You’ll return to a different place in your file than the place where you were working before you got interrupted. Just be aware that the work you do in the period after something broke your attention will need a closer second look.

Learn More


Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Merzenich, Michael. 2014. “How Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” Talk given at Mind & Its Potential conference, Chatswood, Australia. YouTube video,


Grammar Books

Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010.

This tiny paperback punches well above its weight. It’s a seminar on sentence writing, including all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them. If you have just ten minutes a day to work on your verbal skills, dip into this one.

Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences. Hauppage, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2012.

The strength of this slim paperback is its description of twenty basic types of sentence structure. If you need to expand your repertoire of sentence types, this is the book for you.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2003.

Get your hands on this from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”

Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

If you get just one book to help you with writing skills, get this one. It’s gone through many editions and all are good. Written by a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago, this book explains basic principles and provides exercises so you can practice your new skill. Although Williams doesn’t label his topic as such, this book focuses on the metacognitive aspects of writing: asking questions about what you write, solving problems with your sentences and paragraphs, and thinking about the needs of your readers.

Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.

This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.


Grammar Websites

Grammar Revolution:

Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.


Increasing Mental Focus

Gladding, Rebecca. 2013. “This Is Your Brain on Meditation: The Science Explaining Why You Should Meditate Every Day.” Psychology Today, May 22.
McPherson, Fiona. “Meditation’s Cognitive Benefits.” About Memory, n.d.,
Schulte, Brigid. 2015. “Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain.” Washington Post, May 26.
Scott, Elizabeth. 2018. “How to Get Started With a Focused Meditation Practice.” verywellmind, July 31.
Schwartz, Jeffrey M., and Sharon Begley. 2009. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins.

If you’re interested in more knowledge about the parts of the brain that are involved with attention (and there are many), you should check out the last chapter, “Attention Must Be Paid.”

Zylowska, Lidia, and Daniel Siegel. 2012. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. New York: Random House.

Even though this book is marketed to adults with ADHD, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is looking to increase their ability to focus. The chapters take you through a guided program of gradually increasing the cognitive skills that will lead to stronger focus.

BrainHQ Program.

In contrast to other brain-training programs, this one was designed in consultation with Michael Merzenich. It’s based on the key neuroscientific principles of repetition, incremental improvement, feedback and suggestions for improvement, and rewards for success. BrainHQ provides a lot of information about the neuroscience behind its design. One of the key areas of focus is attention. It’s a paid program of training, but the cost is quite reasonable.



Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Foroughi, Cyrus K., Nicole E. Werner, Erik T. Nelson, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2014. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors 56, no. 7: 1262–1271.

Fougnie, Daryl. 2008. “The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory.” In New Research on Short-Term Memory, ed. Noah B. Johansen, 1–45. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Jensen, Derrick. 2004. Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2001. “Competition for Working Memory among Writing Processes.” American Journal of Psychology 114, no. 2: 175–191.

Lutz, Antoine, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. 2008. “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation.” Trends in Cognitive Science 12, no. 4: 163–169.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Olive, Thierry, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2002. “Concurrent Activation of High- and Low-Level Production Processes in Written Production.” Memory & Cognition 30, no. 4: 594–600.

Pascual-Leone, Alvaro. 2006. “The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 930, no. 1: 315–329.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Stewart, Lauren. 2008. “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” Clinical Medicine (London) 8, no. 3: 304–308.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Qilin Lu, Xiujuan Geng, Elliott A. Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael I. Posner. 2010. “Short-Term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 35: 15649–15652.


Contact me at

Putting Knowledge in Long-Term Memory

Main Ideas

  • Moving the information you’re working with for a chapter or an article into long-term memory frees up your working memory to focus on other writing tasks.
  • Consciously engaging with the content of the content you select as relevant from your sources earlier rather than later has multiple benefits that lead to better thinking and better writing.
  • A brief period of wakeful rest after you’ve learned new material will help encode it in long-term memory faster.
  • Minimizing distractions when you’re learning new information will help you move it into long-term memory.
  • Recent research suggests that retrieval learning is a more effective and efficient way of moving new information into long-term memory than re-reading and studying.

Long-term memory is the permanent storage of facts and memories. Scientists have identified two types of long-term memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is sometimes called autobiographical memory; it’s the set of memories you have that are attached to experiences you’ve had. This essay focuses on semantic memory–your knowledge of the facts, definitions, and concepts you’ve learned over the course of your life. Semantic memories are created when you have repeated exposure to information (Slotnik 2017).

bigstock-Server-room-interior-in-datace-96985121_Long-Term Memory.jpg

Long-term memory is comparable to a giant server. The methods we use to store information influence our ability to recall it.

New information gets stored in long-term memory through a process called consolidation. Scientists aren’t sure what the exact mechanisms are that store a memory in long-term memory such that it is easily retrievable. Right now there are competing theories of how this happens and the scientific method will eventually sort it out. We do know some things about how long-term memory operates, though, and this information is relevant for you as an academic writer because in your writing work you manage huge amounts of information as you construct texts. What follows is information about better ways of working that will help you store information in long-term memory and retrieve it when you need it.

Taking Notes

There are specific changes you can make when you take notes that will help you store information in long-term memory faster. Taking the time to engage intellectually with the content and then think about (and make notes about ) how that content relates to your thinking about your topic will help you move new information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Don’t underestimate the value of writing notes to yourself about your immediate thoughts about new content. You think that of course you’ll remember your brilliant insights, but you probably won’t. Your brain will be very busy doing other things. You need to write down what you’re thinking, even if it’s only words and phrases. You’ll thank yourself later when you are ready to write.

The process of taking notes has changed so much in just the last decade. Now much of what we read, certainly in the article literature, is online. We no longer photocopy articles and highlight relevant sections and write notes to ourselves in the margins. This has big implications for how much we store in long-term memory. In the pre-PDF days, we engaged with the content at a fairly deep level at first read. The action of selecting particular sentences and paragraphs for highlighting, a note in the margin, or perhaps a Post-It note meant that we were processing new information and linking it to the ideas we were building for our own writing projects at the earliest stage of a project.

Now it’s possible to select text from a PDF during a skim-read and paste whole sections in a document without seriously engaging with it. That’s a very different process from handwriting or typing notes about what we read. We’re doing only one of the many tasks we used to do when we processed an article: our mental effort is limited to the task of selecting relevant text. We can process ten or more articles in this way during a work session. That feels like we got some good work done, and it’s true that this copy-and-paste work is moving us forward. But we haven’t truly engaged with that text. Perhaps we haven’t even read all the words in the text we copied and pasted. We saw a few key ideas and identified a passage as relevant, then moved on to the next article.

A better way of working is to return to the texts you’ve copied and pasted before the end of that work session to read all the words and use boldface or highlighting for key concepts. Then make some tentative notes about your earliest thoughts about how you can use this information in your text–why it’s relevant, how it connects to the ideas of another author you’re using in your project, what the ideas of this author make you think about. As soon as you have a tentative outline, you can move your notes (with the citations) into the relevant sections of your outline. I like to process all the articles for one section of my outline before moving on to a new section. I may need several work sessions to get through all the articles for that section, but that’s actually good, because with each session, I review new knowledge from previous sessions and think about how the ideas of various authors relate to each other and how they relate to my own ideas.

This level of cognitive work–engaging with new ideas and immediately thinking about how new ideas connect to each other and to your own thinking–helps your brain move new knowledge into long-term memory. That frees up space in your working memory to do all the tasks it does when you’re writing. The important element here is the thinking work as you engage with texts that have new knowledge for your project.

There’s another advantage to doing this level of thinking at this very early stage of your project. Researcher Anke Wischgoll (2016) has found that pairing a metacognitive skill (in this case, thinking about how content relates to your project) with a cognitive skill (selecting text from your sources for relevance) improves the quality of both first drafts and revised drafts. In other words, investing effort in doing metacognitive work at the early stage of notetaking can improve the quality of your writing throughout the process.

Finally, this method of taking and working with notes will enable you to see patterns in your data sooner rather than later. This has two effects: first, you’ll be mentally organizing which source belongs in which section of your chapter or article. The huge amounts of data you’re dealing with will seem less overwhelming. Second, associating the new knowledge you’re encountering with patterns benefits your short-term memory; it makes it easier for short-term memory to manage larger volumes of data. The sooner you can see patterns in your data, the sooner you’ll be able to use it to serve your developing analysis (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).

Wakeful Rest

You’ll be very happy to learn that it’s important to rest your brain after learning new information. I’m not talking about naps; wakeful rest refers to unplugging mentally. In one experiment that tested the value of wakeful rest, researchers asked study participants to close their eyes in a darkened room for 10 minutes after they heard a story. Then the participants were asked to recall as many details of the story as they could. When their recall of the story was tested seven days later, they remembered much more than usual. The researchers theorized that a resting brain was much better able to consolidate new data than an active brain (Dewar et al. 2012).

Two years later, the same research team did another experiment to test whether rehearsing new knowledge during wakeful rest could be an intervening variable that explained their 2012 findings about wakeful rest. This time instead of telling study participants a story, they asked them to look a lists of non-recognizable words–words that couldn’t be memorized or rehearsed during the rest period. They found the same results: after wakeful rest, participants recalled a higher percentage of words than was expected and the same was true seven days later. This time the research team theorized that the brain was able to consolidate new memories more efficiently because no new information was coming in to compete with the knowledge being encoded. So good news–after processing and sifting through new information, all you need to do is power down for a few minutes. Your brain will do the rest (Dewar et al. 2014).

Minimizing Distractions While Learning New Information

Distraction comes in many forms. It could be a bird flying outside the window, a barking dog in the yard next door, the sound of the photocopier down the hall, or a child asking over and over when you’ll be done with your work. Distractions have a clear effect on how much we remember and how confident we are about what we remember. Think of being in the grocery store while you’re striving to remember an item that got added to the list at the last moment but isn’t written down. While you’re walking up and down the aisles, you hear the sounds of snippets of conversation, Muzak, and periodic announcements over the loudspeakers. Your chances of remembering that last-minute addition are quite low in this circumstance. I always ask my partner if I can get anything for him as I go out the door, but I usually forget to get what he asks for. (Do I get any points for good intentions? I don’t think so.)

One pair of researchers has concluded that “any concurrent task that diverts resources necessary for conscious apprehension of that material prevents it from being encoded and becoming part of a memory trace, leading to very poor memory” (Fernandes and Moscovitch 2000). Auditory distractions seem to be more difficult to block out than visual ones when we’re learning new information. When I’m working, I slap on a pair of Peltor Optime 105 industrial-strength earmuffs–the best $20 I ever spent for office equipment. I just don’t have the mental focus to ignore the sound of lawnmowers and garbage trucks.

What about using white noise to block out auditory distractions? The evidence on this is complex. Studies show that introverts don’t do as well with reading comprehension and mental arithmetic in the presence of white noise. The background noise distracts them enough to impair their brain functioning. However, background noise can help children with ADHD retain information. And one study has shown that if white noise works for you while you’re taking in new information, you’ll do better at recalling that information if the same white noise is present when you’re working to recall the stored data (Klemm 2017). So your mileage may vary with white noise. I’m an introvert, so it’s the Peltor Optimes for me on the days when my work requires me to process new information or edit texts.

Peltor Optime 105.jpg

My industrial-strength ear protectors. One of the best aids to productivity I’ve ever found.

And here’s a completely non-science-based observation. I find that if I’m doing lower-level cognitive tasks, such as collecting articles, typing citations, or editing endnotes in a manuscript, white noise helps pass the time. Without the white noise as I do tasks that don’t engage higher-order cognitive processes, I’m very sensitive to all kinds of whiny sensory messages from my body. “I’m hot.” “It’s too humid today.” “My feet are cold.” “My stomach is growling.” “My ear hurts.” “I need to cut my fingernails.” “A bug just bit me.” The chatter from my body is constant and becomes distracting if I don’t do something to block it out. Those are the days when Amazon Music or Pandora come to my rescue.

Retrieval Learning: The Best Way to Store Information in Long-Term Memory

When I was in fourth grade in the late 1960s, I was identified as a superior reader for my age group and was introduced to a learning method called SQ3R, which stood for “study, question, read, recite, review.” I used color-coded flash cards as I moved through a self-directed course of study. This method was intended to help students prepare for tests, and it was cutting-edge stuff at the time. So for years I’ve believed that studying and review is the best way to cram information into long-term memory.

iStock-843448284_dog digging_Long-Term Memory.jpg

“I know it’s here somewhere. If I could . . . just . . . remember . . . where . . . I . . . put it.”

It turns out that this isn’t true. Cognitive psychologist Amy Smith reports that “rereading is a poor learning strategy” because the memories it creates are “relatively weak” (Smith et al. 2016). Study after study has shown that the best way to move knowledge into long-term memory isn’t reviewing information; the best way is to test yourself on new information as soon as you’ve learned it. The process of putting something into long-term memory and then immediately retrieving it embeds a memory, and the more times you retrieve the new memory, the more content you’ll remember.

Cognitive psychologist Jeff Karpicke, a pioneer in research on retrieval learning, did a study that asked college students to read from passages from nine selected texts on scientific topics. One group read the texts a second time (the study method). A second group was asked to recall as much as they could about what they had just read and then read the passages again. A third group alternated recalling and re-reading eight times (four times for recall, four times for re-reading). One week later, all three groups were tested on their ability to remember the material in the passages they had read. The participants in Group 1, who re-read the new material but did no retrieval work, were able to recall less than 20 percent. Those in Group 2, who had retrieved the new knowledge one time followed by re-reading, were able to recall almost 40 percent of the new material. Those in Group 3, who had practiced retrieving the new information four times, were able to recall over 80 percent. That’s a 400 percent in improvement over the method of simply re-reading new material. Karpicke theorizes that retrieving new learning increases the strength of the cues that aid accurate retrieval by excluding other potential candidates in long-term memory. He concludes that “active retrieval has powerful effects on long-term learning” (Karpicke 2012).

James Antony and colleagues (2017) theorize that “retrieval learning stabilizes memories via mechanisms similar to those that occur during sleep and offline consolidation periods” (i.e., wakeful rest). For decades, scientists have been telling us that the consolidation of new memories takes years and that sleep is an essential component of that process. However, retrieval learning seems to be a shortcut; it “promotes the rapid development of neocortical representations without time and sleep.”

In addition, the retrieval method of learning protects memories from the deleterious impact of stress. It has long been known that stress impairs our ability to retrieve memories. However, people who practice the retrieval method of learning encode new memories that are robust. One theory is that this method of encoding memories create multiple routes for accessing them. Encoding memories in this way “inoculates” them against the harmful impact of stress, Amy Smith writes. They are “immune” to forgetting due to stress. Put another, more scientific way, “stress may not impair memory retrieval when stronger memory representations are created during encoding” (Smith et al. 2016).

As an academic writer, particularly if you’re in a humanities discipline, you encounter vast amounts of new information during a writing project. You have a solid base of domain knowledge that you draw upon to create hypotheses and analysis. But you collect lots of information that’s new to you as you find support for your ideas. The research on retrieval learning suggests that as soon as you read and take notes on new information, you should test yourself on how much of it you can recall, then review the material. This simple intervention will encode new information in long-term memory more robustly, even if you’re working under stress. (And who among us isn’t?)


Antony, James W., Catarina S. Ferreira, Kenneth A. Normon, and Maria Wimber. 2017. “Retrieval as a Fast Route to Memory Consolidation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21, no. 8: 573–576

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Christopher Butler, Nelson Cowan and SergioDella Sala. 2012. “Brief Wakeful Resting Boosts New Memories Over the Long Term.” Psychological Science 23, no. 9: 955–960.

Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Nelson Cowan, and Sergio Della Sala. 2014. “Boosting Long-Term Memory via Wakeful Rest: Intentional Rehearsal Is Not Necessary, Consolidation Is Sufficient.” PlosOne 9, no. 10.

Fernandes, Myra A., and Morris Moscovitch. 2000. “Divided Attention and Memory: Evidence of Substantial Interference Effects at Retrieval and Encoding.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129, no. 2: 155–176.

Karpicke, Jeffrey B. 2012. “Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3) 157–163.

Klemm, William R. 2017. “Does White Noise Help You Learn?” Psychology Today, June 13.

Slotnik, Scott D. 2017. Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Amy M., Victoria A. Floerke, and Ayanna K. Thomas. 2016. “Retrieval Practice Protects Memory against Acute Stress.” Science 354 (6315): 1046–1048.

Wischgoll, Anke. 2016. “Combined Training of One Cognitive and One Metacognitive Strategy Improves Academic Writing Skills.” Frontiers in Psychology, February 23, 2016,


Contact me at