Posted in learning, Psychology

Effortful Learning: Ineffective Pedagogy and Academia

In a typical year or degree, undergraduates academia consists of cramming, flashcards, lectures, highlighting which all seem to be a must-have or go to method of learning. As I will demonstrate these methods are less effective than we may believe.

The first ineffective method of studying is cramming. It seems that cramming is a rite of passage, where you only become a real student if you cram at least one within your undergrad degree. Cramming is defined as forcing something into a tight or crowded area. This typically involves last-minute preparation for an exam, paper, or assignment. Unfortunately, cramming comes at a high cost of wellness, such as eating regularly (coffee does not count as food, sorry), and of course sleep. A study was done where they sleep deprived student for 36 hours and measured the effects with visual stimuli. The result of the study was an exaggerated reaction and impaired mental function. The students provided euphoric reactions to neutral visual images and produced more risky behavior because of the heightened activity in the Mesolimbic system (reward pathway). In addition to the euphoric responses, they had an impaired mental function where the students have difficulty studying the day after because they were so sleep deprived. It seems that as we are trying to increase our cognitive function by sacrificing sleep and wellness, we end up doing more harm and damage to our brain than if were to just go and sleep for a few more hours.

Lectures and PowerPoint, they seem to be one of the first, if not the only go-to methods in the teaching arsenal. It seems that lecturing and PowerPoints are a rite of passage, where you only become a real teacher if you lecture and create a reusable PowerPoint at least once within your teaching career. I recently went to a panel discussion, where a professor defended lecturing and PowerPoints. He claimed that lecturing is a method that is used to fast-track information to the students, while providing an overview, focus on a range of material, and showing students to critically think. During the presentation, he did make a few historical points, in that lecturing dates to medieval times, going back 700-800 years.

The image on the left is a lecture at the University of Bologna in Italy in the mid-fourteenth century (“Lecture,” 2017). The image in the middle is a modern lecture hall in a post-secondary. The image on the right is a modern movie theater. All three look very similar, of the three, the least useful setting, is the one in the middle. I say this because the lecture in Italy was one of the only ways the students got information. While with the movie theatre, the audience is entertained at a cheaper cost of only $10-20 per show, rather than $500-$2000 for the semester (and at least at the movie theatre, the audience can see Ryan Reynolds while eating popcorn).

Regarding PowerPoint, they seem to be a teacher’s only tool within their teaching arsenal. The original purpose of PowerPoint was for business presentations, to show graphs and data. Robert Gaskin, the designer of PowerPoint, stated that “I did not target other existing large groups of users of presentations, such as school teachers or military officers. … I also did not plan to target people who were not existing users of presentations … such as clergy and school children … our focus was purely on business users, in small and large companies, from one person to the largest multinationals” (“Microsoft PowerPoint,” 2017).

Flashcards. The history of flashcards or index cards was created by Carl Linnaeus in the 1900’s, who wanted a system for organization where he could arrange and organize data easily. Flashcards have been used by many people for similar functions, like cataloging, and now is one of the most popular study aid for students. There are many different forms of flashcards (index cards, colored coded cards, digital cards) that all have the same function– self-testing. However, are they useful? I do not think so. Although they are a form of self-testing, they influence ineffective studying, by promoting serial anticipation or (learning) effect, and a lack of associative learning. Serial anticipation is where items are learned because of the sequence or order they are in. Regarding flashcards, many students tend to study flashcards in the same order, so they are learning the order of the cards as much as the cards themselves. Which when the cards are mixed up or in a different order, students have difficulty answering recalling the cards because the order is no longer available. Therefore, the SAFMEDS method is more efficient, purely on the spaced repetition and shuffling of the cards daily.  The lack of associative learning also prevents effective learning. Typically, flashcards are consist of isolated information. “Flashcards only focus on pure memorization and/or recognition; not associative learning, knowledge or understanding”(McGarry, 2017). Thus they are useless when it comes to practical learning.

Highlighters seem to be the main purchase after or even before flashcards. Invented by Dr. Frank Honn in 1963, with the intended purpose to label and find information easier, in other words, highlighter’s sole purpose is for locating information easier, not as a studying method, like most students us them for, where pages from textbooks go from black and white to a psychedelic neon nightmare:

As I had mentioned in my post about desirable difficulties, all the ways mentioned above of learning and studying are entirely ineffective. Cramming completely goes against the spacing effect because the learning is not spaced, thus not be encoded into long-term memory. Lecturing does not offer variety, alertness, and interactivity in term of differentiated instruction, resulting in passive rather than active learning. PowerPoints (as mentioned in my previous post) provides the teacher with more learning than the students because the students do not have to organize the information themselves, it is just provided. Flashcards seem like a proper technique for learning but contradict the testing effect, as they only are useful for recognition, and don’t deal with complex questions, as it is difficult to fit a complex question and answer on an index card, and material is not struggled with because the answer is easily accessible on the back side of the flashcard. Highlighting should only be used as a colorful way to locate text, as by making the information more accessible to find it again goes against the disfluency effect, as information should be more difficult to comprehend, so more attention is put forth, so unless you are planning on highlighting the entire page with a dark blue, making the text difficult to see, then highlighter is useless for learning but excellent for locating.

So, if these ineffective strategies are your go-to methods of learning, studying or teaching, then you may want to rethink your approach to education, studying or teaching.

The featured photo is of my favourite aunt: Pam. In this photo, she is pretending to eat rocks, to which these learning strategies are just as effective as eating rocks.


Anwar, Y. (2017). Pulling an all-nighter can bring on euphoria and risky behaviorBerkeley News. Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Granoff, D. (2017). All-Nighters Found to Cause Euphoria … and Brain Damage | Flyby | The Harvard Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Heibutzki, R. (2017). Cite a Website – Cite This For Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Highlighter. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

History of Highlighters – Who Invented Highlighter?. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Index card. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. (2008). Optimising self-regulated study: The benefits—and costs—of dropping flashcards. Memory16(2), 125-136.

Lecture. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

McGarry, K. (2017). Effortful Learning: Application of SAFMEDSCognitive mindset. Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

McGarry, K. (2017). Effortful Learning: Desirable DifficultyCognitive mindset. Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

McGarry, K. (2017). Liquid NetworkingCognitive mindset. Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Microsoft PowerPoint. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

Serial anticipation method – Oxford Reference. (2017). Retrieved 10 November 2017, from

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