How to Learn Slippery Concepts

a slippery, wet frog

Some ideas are just plain slippery. Like a wet frog, they’re hard to grasp and even harder to hold onto.

In other words, some of the things you try to learn will be difficult to understand and difficult to remember. They’re more likely to “slip” from your mind.

Classic examples of slippery concepts include: dividing fractions, properly using semicolons, completing the square, indirect object pronouns, naming ionic compounds, irregular preterite conjugations, the French Revolution, the steps of mitosis, and long division.

The things that are slippery for you might be different than the things that are slippery for another student, but the strategies for making them less slippery are the same.

How to Make Slippery Concepts Stick

The first thing you must do is write.

If all you’re doing is looking at the concept or listening to the teacher explain it, you’re not doing enough. That’s like trying to grab a greased-up grapefruit with just your thumb and pinky finger – it’s going to slip out of your grasp. You should use your whole hand. Heck, you can even use two hands.

So take notes, not in order to have a reference to look at later, but because making written product leads to greater understanding and memory.

a student taking notes

The second strategy is to hook the slippery concept onto something familiar. Connect it to something you already know. Draw an analogy between the idea and a related or similar idea. This helps the concept make more sense, which is essential because confusing things are harder to remember.

Now, it’s not necessarily your job to come up with these connections. If your teacher doesn’t provide them, look to other resources. Educational YouTube videos, like Crash Course, often do a great job relating new concepts to old concepts or explaining things via metaphor. Tutors and good textbooks do this too.

The third strategy is to use a memory trick or pneumonic device to make the slippery concept easier to grasp. Songs like the preterite irregulars song affix the slippery concept to a catchy tune, making it easier to remember. Acronyms like PMAT (the steps of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase) give you something firm to grab onto. For learning biology, no one does this better than The Amoeba Sisters.

More, More, More

I often describe learning as “walking the mastery path,” and explain the phenomenon of forgetting by pointing out that the mastery path is a muddy slope:

For a slippery concept, the slope is steeper and muddier. Making it to the “I get it!” milestone takes more focus, and forgetting happens more quickly if you don’t revisit the idea soon.

If you already have good study practices that work for you, the answer is to simply do more. To get far enough up the hill that you won’t slip back down requires more repetitions, done more frequently. If you can normally create a long-term memory of a concept with three extra repetitions in a week, try doubling that for slippery concepts. If you can normally wait 24 hours before needing to rescue the memory from being lost, try revisiting the idea within six hours. Test yourself early and often.

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

When something is difficult to understand or remember, it doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to learn it. It just happens to be a slippery concept for you. If the strategies that usually work for you aren’t working, try different ones. If the amount of studying that usually works for you isn’t working, do more.

With the right resources and enough effort you truly can learn anything.

Why Confusing Things Are Hard to Remember

A student confused while doing homework

Imagine you’re asked to memorize the Gettysburg Address. This would be moderately challenging, but ultimately doable.

Now imagine you’re asked to memorize a speech of equal length in Russian (or some other language you don’t know). Yikes. This would be tremendously difficult, borderline impossible.

Why is the second task so much harder?

The answer has to do with the fact that the human brain is very skilled at forgetting. And no, I’m not being snarky. Forgetting is a genuinely important thing for your brain to do.

Forgetting is Good

So much of what we see and hear each day is useless. You don’t need to remember all the little sounds you heard coming through your window today. You don’t need to remember all the license plate numbers on all the cars you walked by in the grocery store parking lot. Your brain does you a huge favor by deleting everything that seems unimportant.

“More than 99 percent of experience is fleeting, here and gone. The brain holds on to only what’s relevant, useful, or interesting – or may be so in the future.” –Benedict Carey1

Filtering

Sometimes your brain forgets information because you’re not using it. This is the “use it or lose it” principle of memory. The things you learn but never practice are quickly forgotten.

But most of the “forgetting” your brain does is more immediate than that. It’s a form of filtering. Your brain sorts out all the information coming in, tossing aside everything that’s obviously irrelevant. This helps us focus on what matters.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey writes, “Forgetting, remember, is not only a passive process of decay but also an active one, of filtering. It works to block distracting information, to clear away useless clutter.”1

A lego man sweeping up a mess

And your brain is unlikely to recognize something as useful if it doesn’t make sense.

Why Confusing Things Are Hard to Remember

The first step in learning anything is called encoding: the process through which information is taken in and understood.2 Notice the key word there: understood. If the information that’s coming in doesn’t make sense, there’s little hope of storing it in your brain.

If you’re at a café, and you overhear someone’s conversation, it might grab your attention. If it was an interesting conversation, you might remember some of it later. But if the conversation were in Russian (or some other language you don’t know) you won’t remember what was said because you never understood it in the first place. It will also be less likely to grab your attention. It will seem more like background noise.

That’s what makes memorizing a speech in a foreign language so difficult. Our brains hear confusing information the same way they hear utter nonsense. Since we don’t understand it, our brains treat it like background noise or the babbling of a baby – something we’re aware of but don’t need to retain.

Now, the point of this isn’t to explain why it’s hard to memorize a speech in Russian. That’s not the kind of learning task students get asked to do. The point is to explain why it’s so much harder to remember school material that’s confusing.

Disconnected Information

We’re most easily confused by information that’s disconnected from things we already know. If I start telling you about the competing factions within the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, you’ll be completely lost unless you already know a lot about the French Revolution. Lack of context makes things confusing.

A confused student feeling frustrated while studying

Teachers, of course, try to avoid presenting information in this way. They logically connect one idea to the next as they build up a concept or tell a story. They work through the curriculum in a natural progression:

  • Simplifying expressions is followed by solving equations, which is followed by solving inequalities.
  • A study of eukaryotic cell parts is followed by the function of DNA, which is followed by protein synthesis.
  • Industrialization is followed by imperialism, which is followed by World War One.

Unsurprisingly, students get confused when they fall behind. If you fail to learn a foundational concept, the concepts that build on it won’t make sense. If you haven’t kept up with the curriculum, you’ll lack the necessary context. And if you’re confused, you’ll have a hard time remembering what’s being taught.

Getting Caught Up

The ideal thing, of course, is to never fall behind. But the ideal thing rarely happens, so students should expect to need catchup work. This can range from patching holes in your math knowledge to reviewing old Spanish vocabulary to watching Crash Course videos to get caught up in science or history.

Whatever knowledge you’re missing, go learn it. The sooner you get caught up, the better. You don’t want things to get so confusing and hard to learn that you slip into a downward spiral of avoidance.

Too Many Details

Another reason information is sometimes confusing is that there are too many details. Topics like the French Revolution and cellular respiration are so riddled with minute details that it’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed. And as soon as the material stops making sense, it stops being memorable, which is bad news if you’re taking a test on it.

A teacher at a very busy chalkboard that has too many details

This is why you should start with the summary when reading history and biology. Building familiarity with the content before trying to absorb the details helps you retain those details. Get the overview down first, and the rest will be less confusing and therefore more memorable.

Analogies Help

Confusing things are often best understood through analogies:

  • DNA transcription is like making a photocopy of a recipe (a gene), which you then take to the kitchen (a ribosome) to cook the recipe (a protein).
  • Noble gases are like snooty royalty: they’ve got everything they need (a full set of valence electrons) and don’t want to interact with anyone else (they’re inert).
  • Good studying is like learning to ride a bike. (It involves failure and repetition, and thereby forms a lasting memory.)

Analogies take unfamiliar things and connect them to things we already understand. This not only helps us make sense of them but also makes them more memorable.

The Solution is Mechanical

As with nearly all difficult problems, the challenge of remembering confusing academic content calls on us to remember the wisdom of Steven Pressfield:

“The problem is not you.

The problem is the problem.

It’s hard because it’s hard.

The solution is mechanical.

Work the problem.”3

You’re not struggling to retain what your teachers are presenting because you’re not smart enough. There’s nothing wrong with you. The content is just genuinely difficult to understand, and you need to employ strategies to make it easier to comprehend. When you do that, you’ll find that you’re perfectly capable of remembering what you’re studying.

1 Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens. Random House, 2014.

2 “How Memory Works.” The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University.

3 Pressfield, Steven. Do The Work!: Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way. Do You Zoom, Inc. 2011.

Why Good Studying is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

A small child riding a bike

What happens when you learn to ride a bike?

You don’t know how to balance yet, so you crash.

Ouch!

And then what happens?

Your brain gets upset about its inability to balance, and works on figuring it out.

The same thing happens when you do retrieval practice while studying and you make mistakes or can’t remember things. It’s unpleasant, maybe even painful to fail like this, but it convinces your brain that it needs to learn the material. Sometimes learning hurts.

Why do they say that some things are “like riding a bike?”

Because they’re not easily forgotten. If you mastered bike riding as a child, you’ll be able to do it for the rest of your life even if you take a long hiatus from bike riding.

Why is bike riding so memorable?

Because you learned the hard way, through the pain of trial and error. And because you put in many repetitions after you figured it out.

Learning science or Spanish is surprisingly similar. If you study the hard way – that is, actively, with writing and recall – you’ll figure it out. And if you then engage in spaced repetition, you’ll form lasting memories.

When should you put in the work?

Not everything you learn in school demands that level of mastery or retention. If you’re just taking Biology to get a science credit – with no intention of ever using that knowledge in the future – then it’s okay to just get by on short-term memories. You can cram for each test and do well, and you can cram for the final and do fine.

Faking your way through it isn’t always bad. You’ll pass the class and move on with your life.

But for any subject you intend to use in the future, say, in college, or for any subject that’s cumulative, like math or Spanish, you need to think long-term. Study in such a way that the content becomes like riding a bike – virtually unforgettable.