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


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.


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.

How to Solve Almost Any Physics Problem

A group of students working physics problems at a chalkboard

Many students find story problems in physics (which is most problems in physics) to be overwhelming. And every time this comes up, I teach the very same method I learned from my physics teacher in high school. The way to solve almost any physics problem is a simple, step-by-step strategy for managing cognitive load.

I’ll use the following question to demonstrate the method:

Princess Toadstool stands on the edge of a 30.0 m high cliff. She throws Bowser upwards at 20.0 m/s. If Bowser falls all the way to the bottom of the cliff, find his velocity when he hits the ground.

Step 1: Draw a picture

The first thing you do is draw a little picture or diagram of the situation. The picture might include some numbers, some variables, some force arrows, maybe some stick figures – whatever makes sense. It’s not about art; it’s about getting a sense of what’s going on.

A diagram of the scenario

Step 2: List out your variables

Make a list of all the variables you know, with their numerical values and units. Some of these will not be explicitly stated. For example, an object that is dropped off a cliff has an initial velocity of 0.0 m/s and the standard downward acceleration caused by gravity.

Add all of the variables you don’t know that might be relevant to your list, but leave them blank. For the variable the question is asking you to solve for, write a question mark to indicate that it’s the goal.

Also, assign a positive and negative direction, so you can give relevant values the appropriate sign.

A list of variables and known values alongside the diagram

Step 3: Write down the relevant equations

There are probably just a handful of equations that might help you solve this particular physics problem. These will be the equations that use the same variables that are on your list. Find them in your notes and write them down. Bonus points if you have them memorized, but still write them down because it will make the next step easier.

The three kinematic equations are written next to the list of variables

Step 4: Choose an equation (or equations)

Most of the time, your list of equations will have one that works perfectly: an equation where you know all the variables except for the one you’re solving for. Sometimes, you’ll have to work through one equation to solve for a variable, such as time, and then use another equation to solve for the variable you really care about, perhaps displacement.

In our example, the third equation is the best fit.

The third equation is circled

Step 5: Write down the equation you’ve chosen

Here’s where many students go awry. They know which equation to use, so they attempt to go straight to plugging in the numbers. It is possible to do this without screwing it up, but it’s risky.

I recommend starting by writing just the generic equation with space below it to work, and then rewriting it directly underneath with numbers plugged in for the variables you know. This prevents many errors.

The correct equation is written out with numbers plugged in below.

Step 6: Crunch the numbers

At this stage, all you have left is crunching the numbers and maybe a little algebra. But still be careful and show all of your steps. When you get a final answer, make sure you include units and round to the appropriate number of sig figs.

The numbers are crunched, step by step, until a final answer of -31.4 m/s is given

Step 7: Reality-check your answer

Whatever number you get, make sure it seems reasonable for the given situation. If the question asks you how long it takes for a rock to fall from atop a cliff, and your answer is 6,742 seconds, this should signal that something has gone awry.

If that happens, no worries. You’ve laid everything out clearly on paper, so it shouldn’t be too hard to go back through and find what went wrong.

Notice how, in this problem, I put the final velocity as negative 31.4 m/s because I assigned down as negative, even though my calculator gave me a positive answer for the square root of 988.


Here’s a quick review of the seven steps:

  1. Draw a picture
  2. List out your variables
  3. Write down the relevant equations
  4. Choose an equation (or equations)
  5. Write down the equation you’ve chosen
  6. Crunch the numbers
  7. Reality check your answer

That’s it!

Now you know how to solve messy, overwhelming physics problems. The next time you’re confused by a question, check in with these steps. If you haven’t followed them, start there. Most of the time, your confusion will evaporate.