Learn easier by planning better, and thinking harder

Think about the same problem repeatedly and you learn less. Think about different problems in-between and you learn easier. To learn easier, think harder.

Think about the same problem repeatedly and you learn less.
Think about different problems in-between and you learn easier.

To learn easier, think harder.

Learn easier by knowing your capabilities better

One reason to make things difficult while studying is that making things too easy leads to overconfidence, which in turn leads students to stop studying too soon. Students should actively avoid overconfidence, especially students who have a pattern of doing worse on exams than they expected:

  1. Test yourself.
  2. Consider what could go wrong on a test.
  3. Think about what you don’t know.

Ironically, students also tend to be underconfident in their ability to learn and improve, and so if you are a student who is discouraged by how difficult the material is, you might benefit if you:

  1. Remember if you are prone to underestimating your capacity for learning.

Learn easier by planning better

There are also ways to overcome another huge problem for studiers, the planning fallacy:

  1. Break the task down into elements and consider how long each subtask will take.
  2. Consciously estimate that everything will take twice as long as you think it will take.

Procrastination is a huge hurdle to effective studying. Advice that one should avoid procrastination is easy to find (e.g., Benjamin Franklin: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,”) but advice on how to do so is difficult to come by. Research suggests that there are ways of decreasing procrastination:

  1. Increase expectancy of success.
  2. Set appropriate and achievable subgoals.
  3. Form predictable work habits that essentially make the decision that it is time to work for you.

Learn easier by learning to think harder

With respect to how to study, our most general advice is this:

  1. Struggle while thinking.
    Easy studying is often ineffective.
  2. Do not try to take shortcuts on the path to knowledge.
  3. Make it as easy as possible to think hard.
    Avoid pitfalls such as trying to study in a situation that leads to too much distraction.

We have already alluded to multiple productive ways to make things difficult.

  1. Summarize notes during a lecture.
    Don’t transcribe notes during a lecture.
  2. Ask yourself questions while studying.
  3. Simulate test conditions by quizzing yourself and see if you really know the answers.
    Don’t go over the answers and decide that you know them—which is easy when they are right in front of you.
  4. Space repeated study sessions apart in time to allow forgetting.
  5. Return to restudy information that seemed well-learned at one point but might have been forgotten.

These strategies have dual benefits: They enhance learning, and they make self-monitoring more accurate.

Learn easier by learning longer

Studying more is not effective unless one is smart about how to study. We have tried to explain how students can become smarter studiers. Making bad choices about how to study can be akin to pedaling a stationary bike: You put in effort but you go nowhere. Making bad choices about what and when to study can be like riding in the wrong direction (what) or starting a race at the wrong time (when). Our goal in this chapter is to point studiers in the right direction and give them a faster bike.

There is one last piece of advice, and it is the most obvious of all: The more time you spend riding, the farther you get—and the same is true of studying:

  1. Learn to study efficiently.
  2. Study a lot.

Distance = rate × time, and learning = efficiency × time.

If you end up accomplishing your goals and have free time afterward:

  1. Study some more.

Learn easier

learning = efficiency × time

  1. Test yourself.
  2. Consider what could go wrong on a test.
  3. Think about what you don’t know.
  4. Remember if you are prone to underestimating your capacity for learning.
  5. Break the task down into elements and consider how long each subtask will take.
  6. Consciously estimate that everything will take twice as long as you think it will take.
  7. Increase expectancy of success.
  8. Set appropriate and achievable subgoals.
  9. Form predictable work habits that essentially make the decision that it is time to work for you.
  10. Struggle while thinking.
    Easy studying is often ineffective.
  11. Do not try to take shortcuts on the path to knowledge.
  12. Make it as easy as possible to think hard.
    Avoid pitfalls such as trying to study in a situation that leads to too much distraction.
  13. Summarize notes during a lecture.
    Don’t transcribe notes during a lecture.
  14. Ask yourself questions while studying.
  15. Simulate test conditions by quizzing yourself and see if you really know the answers.
    Don’t go over the answers and decide that you know them—which is easy when they are right in front of you.
  16. Space repeated study sessions apart in time to allow forgetting.
  17. Return to restudy information that seemed well-learned at one point but might have been forgotten.
  18. Learn to study efficiently.
  19. Study a lot.
  20. Study some more.[1]

  1. Kornell, Nate, and Bridgid Finn. “Self-regulated learning: An overview of theory and data.” The Oxford Handbook of Metamemory, edited by John Dunlosky and Sarah (Uma) K. Tauber, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 325-340.

Cognitive therapy neural networks are increasingly well known

Cognitive therapy neural networks are changed bottom-up in antidepressant therapy and top-down in cognitive therapy

Hypothetical time course of the changes to amygdala and prefrontal function that are associated with antidepressant medication and cognitive therapy, illustrating major cognitive therapy neural networks

Hypothetical time course of the changes to amygdala and prefrontal function that are associated with antidepressant medication and cognitive therapy.

a | During acute depression, amygdala activity is increased (red) and prefrontal activity is decreased (blue) relative to activity in these regions in healthy individuals.

b | Cognitive therapy (CT) effectively exercises the prefrontal cortex (PFC), yielding increased inhibitory function of this region.

c | Antidepressant medication (ADM) targets amygdala function more directly, decreasing its activity.

d | After ADM or CT, amygdala function is decreased and prefrontal function is increased. The double-headed arrow between the amygdala and the PFC represents the bidirectional homeostatic influences that are believed to operate healthy individuals.[1]

Cognitive therapy neural networks –
– work together (along the black lines) to produce depressed symptoms
– feed back the results (along the gray line) to generate depressed symptoms in the future

Information processing in the cognitive model of depression illustrates cognitive therapy neural networks, showing feedback loops

Information processing in the cognitive model of depression.

  • Activation of depressive self-referential schemas by environmental triggers in a vulnerable individual is both the initial and penultimate element of the cognitive model.
  • The initial activation of a schema triggers biased attention, biased processing and biased memory for emotional internal or external stimuli.
  • As a result, incoming information is filtered so that schema-consistent elements in the environment are over-represented.
  • The resulting presence of depressive symptoms then reinforces the self-referential schema (shown by a grey arrow), which further strengthens the individual’s belief in its depressive elements.
  • This sequence triggers the onset and then maintenance of depressive symptoms.[2]

Untreated cognitive therapy neural networks take negative schema information and fan it out, and add in overgeneral negative information

Cognitive functioning in a healthy individual vs. in a depressed individual illustrates functionality in major cognitive therapy neural networks

Cognitive functioning in a healthy (a) or depressed (b) individual.

  • In a depressed individual, a negative self-schema and an over-general mode of processing concur to automatically prime and activate information that is congruent with the negative self-schema, via a cognitive interlock (resulting in rumination), biased memory and attention.
  • In a healthy individual, a concrete mode of processing counteracts these automatic activations.

Cognitive therapy neural networks information flow (in the diagrams above) maps directly to neural regions (in the pictures below)

Brain networks involved in various cognitive functions of cognitive therapy neural networks

Brain networks involved in
(a) self-referential processes and rumination,
(b) cognitive interlock and mood congruent processing,
(c) episodic buffer,
(d) attention bias,
(e) memory bias,
(f) overgeneral processing.

dmPC: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex,
vmPFC: ventromedial prefrontal cortex,
mPFC: medial prefrontal cortex,
iPFC: inferior prefrontal cortex,
mOFC: medial orbitofrontal cortex,
aOFC: anterior orbitofrontal cortex,
dlPFC: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,
aITC: anterior inferotemporal cortex,
STG: superior temporal gyrus,
AnG: angular gyrus,
Ins: insula,
ACC: anterior cingulate cortex,
PCC: posterior cingulate cortex,
PCun: precuneus,
Rsp: retrosplenial cortex,
dmTh: dorsomedial thalamus,
HPC: hippocampus,
Amy: amygdala,
Hab: habenula,
Acc: nucleus accumbens,
Cd: caudate,
Pu: putamen,
Re: nucleus reuniens,
DG dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.[3]


  1. DeRubeis, Robert J., Greg J. Siegle, and Steven D. Hollon. “Cognitive therapy versus medication for depression: treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9.10 (2008): 788-796.
  2. Disner, Seth G., et al. “Neural mechanisms of the cognitive model of depression.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12.8 (2011): 467-477.
  3. Belzung, Catherine, Paul Willner, and Pierre Philippot. “Depression: from psychopathology to pathophysiology.” Current opinion in neurobiology 30 (2015): 24-30.

Reflective listening is interacting to understand

Reflective listening is interacting to understand[1]

Reflective listening reflects the speaker’s attitudes

Rogers offers two guidelines for clarifications. First, they must be crafted exclusively out of what the client has already said, and second, they must clarify an insight that the client has already had.

Later, Rogers refers to a session transcript that shows how a therapist… specifically mirrors the client’s attitudes, rather than the client’s actual words. In this transcript, the therapist rarely says anything that could be construed as a reflection of the client’s speech.

Rogers and Wallen contend that… only two therapist moves are needed: simple acceptance of the client’s remarks with statements like ‘‘I see’’ or ‘‘yes,’’ and reflection of feeling.

Rogers and Wallen sometimes refers to the client’s feelings, but at other times to so-called emotionalized attitudes. For example, Rogers and Wallen give the example of a client who feels his wife is inconsiderate, and suggests the reflection: ‘‘You feel that she is pretty selfish.’’ This is not exactly a feeling per se, and appears to be an example of what Rogers and Wallen mean by emotionalized attitude.

Reflective listening reflects the listener’s empathy

…the therapist’s attitude is also vitally important. Reflection of feeling, then, is not a technique, but a method of implementing client-centered attitudes of acceptance and understanding.

True empathy, Rogers implies, is inherently provisional. In this respect, reflections of feeling are verbalizations of thoughts that tend to naturally enter the mind of a therapist who maintains an empathic attitude.

When the optimal attitude is achieved, the relationship between the therapist’s inner experience and his or her verbalizations becomes nearly seamless. The therapist simply gives voice to her or his thoughts, which are already empathic.

Rogerian empathy… is an ideal state of exquisitely sensitive moment-to-moment attunement to the client’s flow of experience that is so thoroughly immersive that Rogers goes so far as to call it ‘‘trancelike.’’

He reconceptualizes empathy as an iterative relational process in which the therapist participates, rather than a process occurring within the mind of the therapist. Empathy is a way of being with another person.

Reflective listening is closer understanding

First, every reflection must include an implied question to the client: Is what I am saying now precisely accurate for you? Second, every reflection must include an implied invitation: If what I am saying is not precisely accurate for you, help me revise my perception so that it is closer to your own.

…he suggests that reflections be renamed ‘‘testing understandings’’ or ‘‘checking perceptions.’’ These phrasings are attempts to further transform the reflection of feeling into an interactional concept. Reflection, here, refers not to the therapist’s speech itself, but purely to how it is experienced by the client.

What is to the therapists a messy series of rough approximations appears to the client as a seamless surface of understanding.

Reflective listening recommendations

  1. Reflections should be directed to the emotional essence of what the client has expressed, and/or to the client’s felt sense of their emerging experiencing, rather than to concrete issues.
  2. Reflections must congruently implement therapist attitudes of acceptance and empathy.
  3. Reflections are part of an empathic dialogue. Accordingly, they must include the implicit invitation for the client to check their accuracy with the client’s inner felt experiencing, and to correct them if needed.
  4. Reflections may be safest when sculpted out of material drawn from the client’s remarks, and when they further develop insights that have already begun to emerge in the client, rather than referring to feelings and attitudes that the client has not yet expressed. However, if the empathic dialogue has advanced to the point that client and therapist are in a shared altered state of consciousness (=empathy trance), therapist understandings may emerge naturally as remarks that may appear unrelated to what the client has explicitly said.
  5. To be in a position to effectively use reflections, the therapist may cultivate an empathic frame of mind. If this underlying attitude is absent, reflections may be incongruent and, therefore, are unlikely to be effective.
  6. Reflections are best couched in provisional rather than declarative form [reflections are best when they’re tentative, not authoritative].
  7. Reflections should not interrupt the flow of the client’s process.[2]

  1. Minarik, Susan K. “Can You Hear Me Now? A Positive Guide to Listening Well.” Positive-Living-Now, 4 Sep. 2010, www.positive-living-now.com/can-you-hear-me-now-a-positive-guide-to-listening-well/. Accessed 1 June 2017.
  2. Arnold, Kyle. “Behind the mirror: Reflective listening and its tain in the work of Carl Rogers.” The Humanistic Psychologist 42.4 (2014): 354-369.

Cognitive therapy gains can be sudden and large

Cognitive therapy gains can be sudden and can be early in therapy.

Cognitive therapy gains can be sudden, and can spiral upward

Psychotherapy does not always follow a linear path.

Most… research is based on the assumption that treatment progress in psychotherapy is linear, or log-linear, and follows some form of regular dose-response relationship… However, this assumption regarding the macro, or average level of change, does not necessarily hold for a finer grained analysis of individual progress…

The prevalence of sudden gains found in several studies from different research groups varies between 17% and 50%…

…sudden gains are a phenomenon of cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) and result from CBT-specific techniques. …substantial cognitive changes could be observed in the therapy session preceding the sudden gains. Sudden gains were followed by a better therapeutic alliance and more cognitive changes in the session after the sudden gain. Thus, the authors postulated an upward spiral, i.e., cognitive changes during the pregain sessions foster the therapeutic alliance and eventually result in additional cognitive changes…

In this paper the frequency of sudden gains as well as sudden losses will be investigated in a large naturalistic outpatient sample (n=1500) with repeated measurements of session progress.

Sudden losses are less frequent, and are more-or-less random

…23.4%… of the patients in the sample experienced at least one sudden gain…

…4.5%… of those experienced a sudden gain and a sudden loss…

…18.9%… had only sudden gains…

…5.47%… experienced only sudden losses.

In contrast to sudden gains, sudden losses occur over the course of treatment without a typical peak of occurrence.

Cognitive therapy gains are greater for people who are hurting more

…those patients who experienced no sudden shifts at all and followed a more linear trajectory had the shortest therapies. At intake patients with no sudden shifts tended to be significantly less disturbed on average… than the three groups with sudden shifts… … post-hoc tests revealed that patients with no sudden shifts were less impaired… compared to sudden gain patients…

…patients with both sudden gains and sudden losses stayed in treatment longer than those in the other groups.

Patients with sudden gains… did not rate the therapeutic relationship significantly higher on average than patients with sudden losses… Results further confirm previous findings that a large amount (about 42%) of sudden gains tend to take place early in therapy and they are part of the phenomenon of early change… But the phenomena also occur later in treatment (about 58%). …we found shorter treatments for patients experiencing sudden gains early in treatment. Patients with early sudden gains showed the highest effect sizes… at the end of treatment.[1]


  1. Lutz, Wolfgang, et al. “The ups and downs of psychotherapy: Sudden gains and sudden losses identified with session reports.” Psychotherapy Research 23.1 (2013): 14-24.