The characteristics of effective learning


To learn effectively we should spend enough time to let new information soak into our memory before we move on. Every cognitive process requires time and effort if we want to remember something for the long run. We need to give a meaning to new information based on our current knowledge. How does this new thing connect with what we already know? How does this new thing build upon our current knowledge structure? Why is it important? Is it valid according to existing knowledge? Does it change anything in our current structure?

To encode new information make associations, find examples/counterexamples, use your imagination to think of an analogy or a pattern.

Are you learning a foreign language? Form examples with the new vocabulary. Think of words that sound or look similar to new words. Can you remember any synonyms? Any antonyms? Close your eyes and visualise yourself using new words in a real life scenario with a native speaker.

Have you just learned a new mathematical formula? Solve a couple of problems with this formula. Are there any exceptions? Can you derive the formula on your own on a blank piece of paper? Can you explain to your parents what’s the purpose of this formula? Why do we need it? Explain this formula to someone that doesn’t know anything about mathematics. Why is this formula consistent with other formulas that you already know?

Let’s say that you are reading about the European Union. The moment I am writing this article the number of EU states is 28 whereas the number of Eurozone states is 19. How can you remember these two numbers? Look at them for 5 seconds. Can you relate these two numbers somehow? I am sure you have already come up with an idea. For example, 1 + 1 = 2 and 9 – 1 = 8. Or just focus on 19 and add the last digit to 19 to make 28. This simple quick observation costs 5 seconds but it can lock these two numbers in your memory making it hard to forget. Oh, and before I move on, I just wanted to let you know that Alexander Fleming discovered the penicillin in 19 28.


Now who starts a learning session with a blank piece of paper? Almost no one. Most of us open our books or notes and start reading. And after we read, we reread and reread and reread. Big mistake. What will help you to learn effectively is not rereading but self-testing. What can you remember from the last time? Recall first! Rack your brains! Look up in the ceiling until you bring something to the surface! Do you think this is a waste of time? No, it’s not. It’s the only way to build strong memories. The more you struggle to remember something the stronger roots it will grow in your memory. If you didn’t manage to recall it, encode it better. How can you secure it better in your memory? Recall it again after a couple of days. Target it again!

Flashcards is a great way to practice recall. Use traditional flash cards or electronic ones. Anki is a great software to make electronic flash cards. Use flash cards for anything you are trying to learn: language vocabulary, historical events, medicine, anything.

When you take notes, use the Cornell notetaking system. Divide the sheet into two columns. Take notes on the right column and use the left column for the corresponding questions. When you review your notes cover the right column with your hand and try to answer the questions on the left column. Confirm. Did you get it correct? Leave space in your notes so you can use it while you practice recall. If you didn’t get something correct add comments, encode it better, add supporting information, draw an “attention” sign. Always start reviewing your notes with self-testing. Make it hard as you are being tested every time you review your notes.



Tell me now how many courses and books are out there that promise they can teach you a language or anything in 7 days? Infinite. Correct. Is it possible? Have you learned a language in 7 days? Do you know anyone that has? If you do, please let me know because I want to meet that person.

Research has shown that to learn effectively we need to space our study sessions. We need to allow a little bit of forgetting to happen. Recall information that starts getting rusty in our memory. Do you struggle? Does it take time to bring to the surface? That should be your goal. It’s only then When you glue it to your long-term memory.

When you mass your studying into one single session you feel you are making great progress. But that progress is only short-term! Space your learning out in time and when you go back to carry on, always start with self-testing.

Stop going to those “ultimate hands-on crash-courses”. This only suits the course organisers who teach you “everything” over a single weekend and walk away with all your money at once. It doesn’t suit you.

Imagine your long-term memory as a garden with plants. Each plant is  a bit of information in your memory. You need to go back often enough to water your plants. How can you water your plants? With self-testing. We explained that earlier. Water your plants with recall practice if you don’t want to see them die. Bear in mind that you can’t water your plants only once even if you throw a ton of water on them. You need to space the watering process. Do the same with your learning.

Have you realised what I’ve just done with the previous paragraph? I used an analogy to connect self-testing and spacing with the process of watering plants in a garden. Do you remember encoding? I just wanted to remind you. I went back to it. I spaced it out.


Varied Instruction

And then it comes to the learning styles… Today we all believe we are a certain type of learner (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc.) However, there is no scientific evidence that we should learn according to our “preferred learning style” if we want to achieve maximum learning results! Instead, science says we should learn in different modes and work with our weak sides. It’s only then when learning becomes effective. Don’t stay within your comfort learning zone. Stretch yourself. Explore new material from different sides.

Do you prefer pictures? Start reading.

Are you reading about the events of the Second World War? Close your book and watch a documentary on YouTube covering the same events.

Are you studying English by reading a passage in silence? Stop for a minute. Read it out loud and record it with Google Translate. Did Google Translate pick the words up correctly? If so great. You just practiced pronunciation. Press the record button now and listen. Focus on the words that you don’t pronounce correctly. There you go. Reading, speaking, listening. At zero cost.


Always remember this. If you want to make your learning easy, you will have to pay a price for it later. The price of forgetting. Effective learning (long-term learning) should be effortful and hard. Hence, avoid practices like cramming, rereading and speedreading. These practices make you feel you are learning fast. However, the results are only temporary.

I know some of the above may sound controversial. But this is not my personal opinion. It is what science says about how we should learn. I only managed to dig this truth out after diving into research papers and changing totally the way I learn. Because the way I used to learn was far far away from the optimal. I wish I knew all this when I was a student. But no academic institution dedicates a separate module to how we should learn. Educators believe that we know how to learn. Unfortunately, we don’t. Because the characteristics of effective learning are counterintuitive. We are poor judges of future performance based on current performance. Just because you feel you remember everything now, doesn’t mean you will remember it in the future.

What you should do is to nurture curiosity, motivation and love for what you are learning. Find genuine interest in it. Effective learning happens when you are in a sort of meditation state. Fully absorbed, trapped in a book, film, documentary, interview, talk etc. It’s then when the magic happens.

PS: Special thanks to Maggy for making the below beautiful illustration for me. You can find her at



Most common Russian Words with Anki

Are you ready for some Russian vocabulary? I hope so because I have created Anki electronic flashcards with the 10000 most common Russian words. At the back of every card in addition to the word definition in English, you will also get audio pronunciation and links to Google Translate, Yandex Translate, noun declension/verb conjugation rules, and examples. And if that “10000” sounds a little overwhelming, I have also made smaller decks of cards with the 1K, 1.5K, 2K, 3K, 4K and 5K most common Russian words. All I need from you is some motivation.

Anki is a flash card software which uses a spaced repetition system. That means that a card shows up at spaced time intervals. The length of each interval depends on how well you remember a card every time you review it.

The desktop version of Anki is completely free and available for all platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux). You can download it here.

The first time you open Anki you should be able to see a Window like this:


Your new profile obviously has no cards at the moment. Now download one of my decks (Anki file) with the most common Russian words. Click here to download the decks. 

After you download a deck, click on Import file on the above window. Select the file — Anki Deck — that you have just downloaded. Then click on the title of the Deck to start studying the words. Press Study Now on the following window. (Note: If the name reads “10000 most frequent Russian words” irrespective of the deck you downloaded, you haven’t made a mistake. Just rename the file. The reason is I used the big deck to create the smaller decks 🙂

The first card you will get is the following ( И – the most common Russian word!)

After you guess, click on Show Answer to confirm. You will instantly hear how the word is pronounced and reveal the back of the card with the following:

  1. Google Translate link
  2. Yandex Translate link
  3. Wiktionary link (with rules on noun declension, verb conjugation and other useful information)
  4. Yandex Examples (Examples with the current word on Yandex)
  5. Frequency Index of the current word (1: Most Frequent).

For example, this is what you get after you press Show Answer on the card И.

Now you can use the links to find more about the word. After you explore the word and find examples, you can press Edit and make any changes at the back of the card. These changes will be saved and become available the next time you see this card. For example, you can add a couple of examples directly on the back of the card for quick reference.

Before you move to the next card:

  1. If you managed to get it correct very easily press Easy. This means that you will be given this card again in 4 days as indicated above the button.
  2. If you managed to get it correct but it wasn’t something really obvious press Good. This means that you will be given this card again in 10 min for revision.
  3. If you managed to get it incorrect press Again. This means that you will be given this card again in less than a minute.

You can also use the following useful shortcuts:

  1. Again: Press 1.
  2. Good: Press 2.
  3. Easy: Press 3.
  4. Replay the audio: Press R.
  5. Show Answer: Press Spacebar.

From my experience, I have found a convenient setup to work with Anki and a browser needed for the hyperlinks. I divide my screen into two parts: 1) Anki on the left-half and 2) Google Chrome on the right-half as shown below. Every time you click on a link in Anki, a new tab will open on the right without having to switch windows to see it. Obviously every now and then, you will have to close a few tabs in Chrome. A useful shortcut to quickly close tabs is Ctrl + W in Chrome. Also, if you pay attention below, as the targeted word here is a verb (сказать), the Wiktionary link title refers to the conjugation rules of the verb. If the targeted word is a noun, you will see there a link called “Wiktionary – Declension”. If the word is neither a noun, nor a verb, you just see a “Wiktionary” link.


I know that some of you are not absolute beginners and you would like to start from a more advanced word than И. In that case you can do the following:

  1. Click on Browse on any of the cards.
  2. Select your Deck on the window that pops up like below:Anki-Most-Common-Russian-Words---Browse-words
  3. Click on due to sort the cards by that column (frequency order).
  4. Click on any card on the Grid (the card up to which you are more or less familiar).
  5. Press fn + left arrow to select all the previous cards (the familiar words).
  6. Click Delete on the top right of the window.

After doing all the above you can start reviewing words with a frequency index greater than the one you wish. That’s all! You can now get cracking!

Last but not least, I want to bring to your attention the following points:

  1. The above method should never be your principal method of learning vocabulary. It should be a complementary method which helps you catch important-frequent words that just slip through your day-to-day vocabulary net. If you want to explore effective language techniques for the Russian language, you can read the relevant section of my blog here. I have also written a book on how to learn Russian with all the necessary methods and material you need to learn Russian effectively without a teacher.
  2. The default word definitions come from Yandex Translate website. They are not always the best because you can never get the best translation with any tool. Always, consult the links provided to find examples and more information about every word before you move to the next.
  3. The list of the words has been compiled using this reliable resource here.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share and leave a comment below to let me know about your progress and ideas! Enjoy!


Mnemonics and their limitations in studying vocabulary

The keyword mnemonics technique uses keywords and mental images to associate verbal material. For example, let’s say you want to memorize the French feminine noun affiche that means poster in English. For this, you could imagine a feminine looking fish attaching a poster to the wall.

This technique has become increasingly popular lately. It is also the core learning strategy of Memrise, an online language learning platform. Memrise was founded by the memory champion and author Ed Cooke.

I hadn’t practised this technique until I came across Memrise. I started fanatically creating mental images and keywords to memorize words in Russian. I realized that not every word is easy to tackle with mnemonics. However, I managed to use my imagination and come up with some surreal mental images that helped me to memorize a few Russian words. I got really excited! “This technique is gold”, I thought!

However, we have to be careful with how we arrive to “cause-and-effect” conclusions. Do I successfully remember these words because of the mnemonics per se, or because of the repetition of the retrieval process? In fact, I was over excited to confirm that this method works, so I kept going back to recall the mnemonics from my memory (retrieval process or self-testing). In that case, maybe it was the repeated retrieval process that helped me to memorize the targeted words.

For this reason, I decided to dig deeper into research. I found that lots of studies show a benefit of the mnemonics in the short-term, i.e. when someone is tested soon after a study session. However, when targeted words are not keyword-friendly, or someone receives delayed tests on them, the benefits vanish.

Hall (1988) conducted several experiments and showed that a control group outperformed the mnemonics group on English words that were not keyword friendly. Even when the mnemonics group was given the keywords, i.e. they didn’t have to waste time generating them, the control group performed better.

Condus, Marshall, Miller, Raugh & Atkinson (1975) investigating the long-term benefits of the mnemonics, they included a test soon after the practice and one after a longer delay of several days, or even months. These studies showed a benefit of the mnemonics method for both the immediate and delayed tests.

However, the promising results of the later research were compromised by the design of the experiments as the exact same groups were tested both on the immediate and the delayed tests. Given that the mnemonics group showed increased performance on the immediate test, this initial successful recall could have boosted the performance on the delayed test. In other words, the advantage in the delayed test performance for the mnemonics group could have been due to the retrieval practice (immediate test) and not due to the mnemonics per se (It is known that retrieval practice slows forgetting.)

For this reason, researchers tested different groups on the immediate and delayed tests. The results below show that although the mnemonics group outperformed a rote repetition (repeated study) group on the immediate test, the benefits on the delayed test vanished for those who received only the delayed test.

Mnemonics Experiment 1

In a second experiment, after researchers nearly equated the performance of the two groups on the immediate test by giving more training to the rote repetition group, the repetition group performed much better than the mnemonics group on the delayed test as shown on the chart below:

Mnemonics Experiment - WangThis shows that the mnemonics are not as effective for long-term retention. This is probably because it gets harder to decode the mnemonic if lots of forgetting has occurred . For example, for the feminine looking fish we have lots of target words, “fish”, “poster”, “wall”, “feminine” etc. Which of these words corresponds to what?

Apart from the long-term retention disadvantage of the mnemonics, their critics also report the following:

  • Time is needed to train someone to generate appropriate mnemonics.
  • Time is needed to generate keywords and mental images.
  • There is no evidence that mnemonics are superior to traditional self-testing or repetition of study.
  • Mnemonics are limited in terms of learning domain to foreign languages. Even within that domain, not all the material is keyword friendly, i.e. it is not always easy to create keywords.

Going back to Memrise, Ed Cooke and his team, apart from mnemonics, rely heavily on repeated retrieval practice using sophisticated algorithms. So, their system throws you a certain word several times spaced with intervals that are optimized for effective learning.

As a conclusion, you should use mnemonics for keyword-friendly words when you learn a foreign language but make sure you refresh them frequently in your memory. In general, testing and spaced practice are proven methods that promote effective, long-term and durable learning. Stay tuned, I will soon come back with more interesting results…

Mnemonics limitations in language learning

We have 3 winners!

Hello lovely diversified people,

We have 3 winners from the last italki prize competition:

1) Daniel Smith

2) Emmanuel Tartagal

3) Sarah Kim

The guys above each wins $40 to spend on italki private language lessons! I would like to thank you all for your participation and very useful intelligence you gave to me regarding your difficulties learning a language and your needs! I promise to do my best to help!

Subscribe here as more prizes are to come!

Thanks again,



Win private language lessons!

Hi all!

I am working on some big plans to create the best methods and resources for language learners, and I need your help.

I would like you to answer just 3 questions as much in detail as possible! It would be a massive help and there is something in it for you – scroll below:

1) What is your favourite website or software which helps you learn a language and why?

2) What is your favourite method for memorising new words?

3) What is your biggest difficulty in learning a language?

What’s in it for you??? I thought you’d never ask!

I am going to give away three iTalki promo codes, each one worth 400 points ($40), to three lucky participants. Italki helped me to practise my Russian with native speakers at very affordable prices. To learn more about iTalki please read my article here. In addition, everyone who takes part will be the first to get access to my upcoming ebook ‘Learn Russian the smart way’, for FREE.

Please send the answers to: until the 7th of August 2015!

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Does money make you happier?

A couple of months ago, I came across this BBC Business Daily Podcast. I quite often listen to podcasts but this one really struck me. The guests are trying to answer whether more money makes us happier, more motivated and more productive. The findings are astonishing and totally counter-intuitive.

Economist Carol Graham from Brookings Institution says that income correlates with how people evaluate their lives as a whole. I make more money; thus, I am more successful. However, when we measure daily quality of life, this correlation vanishes. More income does not necessarily mean that you smile more often, you enjoy your friends more, or you are less worried. Very poor people may experience stress as their daily existence can be a struggle. However, once certain basic needs are met (food, home, etc.), the relationship income/wellbeing becomes very weak. Carol says that people who do not have many choices and feel that they cannot substantially change their lives tend to focus more on the daily experience of wellbeing: ‘I have my friends, my family, enough to eat — I am OK!’ She also says: ‘The happiest people care least about money and a lot about learning and creativity. Least happy people care mostly about money, but even if they earn more money, that will not make them happier.’

Psychologist Dan Ariely from Duke University ran an experiment to determine whether money incentives make us more productive. He told three groups that if they did certain tasks well, they would get a bonus of 1-day, 1-week or 5-month wages respectively. It turned out that as the reward increased the performance went down. People of course cared about the money, but the high incentive increased their stress which then damaged their productivity.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner from the University of California in Berkeley finds that poor people are better judges of human emotion. He ran an experiment showing an image of a starving child to people from different social classes. It was shown that lower class people had a stronger ‘vagus nerve’ reaction which is associated with empathy and compassion. He explains that people who live in an environment where everything is scarce around them tend to connect and empathise more with others.

The science has spoken to confirm what you already knew: money will not make you happy.

My little story and a new chapter in life.


My name is Angelos. Five years ago, I left my country Greece that was struggling with unemployment, to start my professional career in London. I was twenty five and had a burning desire to succeed. The definition of success is different for each one of us and usually changes as we grow older. For me, when I arrived to London, success was to work in investment banking and make lots of money. However, I didn’t have any finance background or working experience and I knew my goal would not be that easy, especially at the onset of a global financial crisis.

Within a month, I got my first job and became a Christmas tree seller! After the Christmas season, I was doing different things to make a living; I was teaching maths, setting up the Wifi in coffee shops and working as a musician in Greek venues. At that point, my financial situation was still tight and I had to keep costs to a minimum; I was living in a tiny single room, chasing the ‘2 for 1’ Tesco deals and commuting on my bike. It was not an easy year, but certainly a colourful one. I smelled so many Christmas trees, saw kids become confident with maths, enjoyed free carrot cake in coffee shops across the city and taught English people the basic steps of ‘Sirtaki!’ In the meantime, I was loyal to my goal of getting into finance. I was studying the mechanics of the financial products until late night and schmoozing every banker I was meeting. I even bought my first full suit!

After loads of unsuccessful interviews, I finally became a consultant in an investment bank. My wages instantly quadrupled. I called my Mom back in Greece to say: ‘I made it!’ I was not a trader or any ‘top-dog’ but still the professional environment looked fabulous to my eyes. I started to learn interesting things, read the Financial Times every day, and work long hours. Initially, I was enjoying my job and particularly my ‘daily-rate’ which was constantly increasing. Soon, I gave up maths lessons, music and even my bike (it was uncomfortable to ride in a suit…) I started a part-time postgraduate course in maths but I had to freeze that too as I didn’t have time to study. Also, I couldn’t stay late any more at my friend’s on a weekday as I had to be fresh and productive the following day at work. I entered a life routine, a fully-programmed schedule. I could only enjoy my weekends and I always had that strange feeling that time was passing so quickly. Eventually, I realised I had to change my life. However, although I knew I needed an exit point, I was constantly pushing that point further down the line: ‘Let’s wait until Christmas, let’s wait until Easter, let’s wait for another month so I have some more savings in my bank account.’ People kept telling me: ‘You can work for another ten years, buy a couple of flats and then you are sorted!’ Others would even scream at me: ‘Are you crazy? Do you know how many people would die to have your job?’ But, I knew that was all nonsense! How can you compromise your life so you start living it ten years from now? Only you know what makes you happy and no one else can live your life for you.

Eventually, after more than three years in banking, I decided to quit. I am now back to maths tutoring and music performances. In the last few months, I passionately started learning Russian, something I always wanted to do. After immersing into the language and experimenting with different learning techniques, I am currently writing a book with tips and methods for learning Russian effectively. At the moment, I see every day my savings go down while I am trying to make a living with different activities. Am I scared? Yes, I am. Do I doubt sometimes whether I did the right thing? Yes, I do. At least, I feel I was honest to myself and stopped something that was not making me happy.

Why this blog? I want to connect with people who faced similar challenges like the ones above and decided to follow their interests and live a diversified life instead of a monotonous one dictated by the social norms. I want to read your stories and learn from you. I hope you will learn too from my experiences and mistakes. Do I have any secret recipes or a magic answer? No. I have just scratched the surface and the ice is thick.