Six More Strategies That Help Elite Learners Excel

Retrieval practice and the testing effect are the most potent tools for remembering what you have learned. Add to these the spaced repetition of retrieval practices, and you have the toolset that enables students to master immense quantities of material.

In this article, we’ll review the other significant tactics and strategies proven by learning and cognitive science research to be highly effective. 

Spacing of knowledge acquisition, Interleaving, variation, reflection, generation, and elaboration are powerful learning techniques. Ever since I learned how to learn, I have employed all of these. They were the engine behind my years of maximal academic success.

Spacing of knowledge acquisition

Spacing over time is helpful for more than just spaced repetition of your retrieval practices. It turns out that spacing out the consumption of your learning materials also enhances learning. For example, learning is augmented when you read long-form writing in multiple sessions over a period of time rather than mass it into a single sitting. Some call this progressive reading. There’s a lot of research that supports that this technique enhances learning.


Interleaving is where you test and challenge yourself to recall a series of learnings or solve problems from the same domain of knowledge. But the domain shouldn’t be too narrowed. You want to force yourself to have to discriminate and ask, What kind of difficulty am I encountering? or What algorithm or formula do I need to employ to solve this challenge?

Because this can be a little difficult to grasp, let’s look at the classic example of non-interleaving to better understand what interleaving is. 

Mathematics texts often have problem sets at the end of their chapters. The problems usually are very similar and reflect the narrow subject matter of the chapter. When you practice solving these problems, you quickly get the hang of which formula or strategy you need to employ. That is not an example of interleaving. 

Now imagine that you are challenged with a set of problems drawn from several chapters in the textbook. Here you need to ask yourself: What kind of problem is this? What formula do I need to apply to solve it? This heterogeneous assortment of problems, from the same larger body of knowledge, is akin to the kind of exam you are likely to face in school and the type of challenge that you are likely to encounter in real life. So, get in the habit of practicing problems that are not so closely related that you don’t face the challenge of discriminating. What kind of problem is this?

By learning your course content while employing interleaving, you will develop a much more flexible mind that can recognize the answer to What kind of problem is this? and adroitly step in with the proper solution.

Our memory is based on a network of associations.


Variation is a tactic that is useful for enhancing physical skills. A classic example is practicing four and 2-foot putts to get better at 3-foot putts or practicing basketball shots along various locations of the three-point line to more generally get good at all three-pointers. 

But there is another type of variation, useful in learning, that helps build more easily retrievable memories. Every time we create a new memory of some piece of knowledge or strengthen an existing memory via retrieval practice, there are many other new experiences, coming from the current context that gets bound with the knowledge at hand. 

What do I mean by the current context? I am referring to our immediate experiences of the external environment, our internal thoughts, and the emotions we’re having during memory retrieval. These can get bound to, and slightly alter the original memory. 

Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first described this phenomenon in 1949. It is succinctly described as “neurons that fire together, wire together” and can explain how associations can develop between seemingly disparate memories when their respective neuronal group’s fire in concert. These associations assist memory retrieval because the more associations that exist between memories, the more pathways there are for retrieving that knowledge from storage. 

Whenever we learn something, we need to attach it to some preexisting knowledge or memory. Everything we know has associations with other memories that we’ve stored. Our memory is based on a network of associations. There is a body of research about neuroscience that proves the existence of this phenomenon. The crosslinkings that support memory associations are the result of neural circuits or engrams. An engram is a group of neurons that are capable of storing an individual memory. When a pair of engrams share some neurons in common, these engram’s memories become linked.

Illustration of overlapping engrams.
Here, the circles represent neuronal bodies, and the lines are synaptic connections. Engram A (gold) stores a memory related to a meal of fish. Engram B (teal) holds a memory of some music playing in the background during the meal. Engrams A and B share some neurons in common. As a result, those memories get linked and associated. When you remember the meal of fish, you might then recall the music and vice versa.

When I study, I find it helpful to leverage variation to create more crosslinked associations and pathways for memory retrieval. My tactics include varying the time and place for my study sessions. I might study early morning in my office and next time study during the afternoon in my backyard or a coffee shop.

Have you ever wondered if we have limits on the number of memories we’re capable of storing? You know, “if I try to remember this, then some other memory is going to have to fall out of my head.”  The answer to this concern is that we possess more than enough memory capacity to last a few lifetimes.

Our problem with having difficulty remembering is not a storage capacity limitation. It’s a problem with retrieval. And fortunately, the more associations that we create between our memories, the more robust will be our recallability of them. 


Reflection is a routine, everyday activity in clinical medicine. Morbidity and mortality conferences are held regularly in all academic hospitals so that healthcare providers can reflect upon particular adverse clinical outcomes. These conferences are an opportunity to analyze and reflect on what went wrong and to offer ideas of how we could do it differently in future similar situations. This reflection is a time to learn from mistakes and prevent repeating them in the future.

Reflection is a transformative tool for turning your knowledge into wisdom.


Think of generation as a technique where you come up with an answer to a problem before you have even obtained the knowledge ordinarily needed to solve the problem.

Generation is the act of synthesizing new knowledge by utilizing your existing base of expertise and leveraging your creative reasoning skills. Even when you’re not successful with such a thought experiment, your efforts of extrapolating from your current knowledge will serve you well and help you develop into a more skillful, adroit, and creative thinker.

As doctors, we’re constantly challenged to utilize generation because we’re always encountering clinical situations that we’ve never seen before. For me, that was one of the thrills of practicing radiology. There was rarely a day when I didn’t see something new that challenged me to generate a diagnosis from a set of findings that I never had before confronted.


Elaboration is your ability to express what you’ve learned in your own words. When you can use those words to skillfully teach your knowledge to a fifth-grader, then you know that you have achieved mastery. Further, when you layer in your expertise and experience from related knowledge domains,  you enable yourself to create richer mental models. Elaboration is the basis of the Feynman technique.

After all, if you can’t present your knowledge with enough clarity that even a fifth-grader can grasp and understand it, then perhaps you don’t truly understand it yourself. You should try to explain every concept out loud to yourself, in your own words and without notes. When you are drafting flashcards, those most powerful are those you create from memory, in your own words.

Key takeaways

Memory retrieval and spaced repetition of these practices are the most potent one-two punch for remembering what you learn. Metacognition is the superpower that elite super learners use to oversee the quality control of their thinking and knowledge acquisition to ensure that they are filling their knowledge gaps.

But there are other essential tools that highly effective learners use to excel. Here we have reviewed how to use a spacing of knowledge acquisition, interleaving, variation, reflection, generation, and elaboration to transform yourself into an elite learner.

We encourage you to try this broad array of tactics and strategies and use them to help you move towards a better version of your intellectual self.

Thanks for reading!

David Handel, MD | Co-founder and CEO of iDoRecall

iDR leverages the proven cognitive science principles that helped me succeed when I was in medical school, but that weren’t possible when I was a student. I invite you to try the free version of iDoRecall and experience how you can remember everything that your learn.

Get Started for Free

Thanks for reading!

David Handel, MD | Co-founder and CEO of iDoRecall

iDR leverages the proven cognitive science principles that helped me succeed when I was in medical school, but that weren’t possible when I was a student. I invite you to try the free version of iDoRecall and experience how you can remember everything that your learn.

Get Started for Free