To Know or to Master? That is the question….

Help, I forgot everything!

The tragedy of oblivion …

I regularly have children who tell me that they have “forgotten everything” about lessons they have learned recently.

But how can we forget everything in a sometimes very short time? What is going on?  And what can we change to avoid this situation?

The difference between knowing and mastering

While providing a program, I might happen to say to my client: “we are going to work on this or that idea.” It can be a difficult word, a grammar rule, a mathematical operation … and my client replies, “oh yes, I know that.

So then I pose my trick question: “Very good, explain it to me.”

And that is where I expose the difference.

The client who masters a concept is very comfortable explaining it to me. In this case, the case is closed and we can continue.

But the child who “knows” is usually not able to explain it to me. And yet he is sincerely convinced that he knows and can use his knowledge. But it is possible that more or less quickly he will have lost the little he knew.

To draw a parallel, you probably know how to ride a bicycle. But perhaps, like me, you have not ridden a bike for several years (or even decades?). An yet, if you resumed riding a bike today, you would know immediately how to pedal with total confidence. This is an example of mastery.

Other factors are also at play, for example:

The importance of the target

How many students study their lessons, generally at the last moment, with the sole objective of achieving a good grade on an exam?

If you are good at aiming and throwing, whether it is a dart, a penalty shot, or a business goal, you know very well that the direction of our attention strongly determines our success.

If the student is aiming for the test, his brain will probably understand that retaining this knowledge after the test is useless, and it will be quickly forgotten…. until the next test for which it will be necessary to start all over again!

So much energy consumed for so few results.

This is why it is essential to see beyond the grades and make the connection with the use that the student can make in reality. Voilà pourquoi il est primordial de voir plus loin que les notes et faire le lien avec l’utilisation que l’élève pourra faire dans la réalité (see my article “connecting to reality“).

To see further, we can …

Use your imagination

Learning to remember and not going through the “oblivion” box is also using your imatination to put yourself in a situation and “live the course.” This is particularly true in history and geography. If you imagine yourself as a prehistoric man and then invent agriculture and create the first villages, it will be harder to forget than the words spoken by the teacher.

Visit the castles of the Loire, view a report on the beautiful blue Danube, follow the settlers to conquer the west — these are experiences that leave their mark, whether real or virtual.

But this is just as true in mathematics, physical sciences, chemistry, languages …

However, this requires being present and observing. Some children do this naturally. For others, despite the efforts of parents and teachers, the child remains “distracted” whatever one does. Maybe a Davis® program will then be profitable…

Study, yes, but not just any way

animated gif, multiplication tables
ineffective strategy for learning multiplication tables.

Some study strategies are very clearly ineffective. A very simple example is in studying the multiplication tables. Many students write the tables by first writing a column of “2”, then a column of “x” followed by a column of “1 2 3 …” We continue with a string of “=
and finally “2 4 6 …” But what is the significance of this way of doing things? It does not mean anything. And as with everything that has no meaning, the intelligent brain quickly forgets it.

Experiments carried out in 2008 by Henry Roediger and his collaborators have shown that being active in learning creates much better results than simply rereading lessons without any exercise.

illustration of Roedeger's findings
Roediger’s experience, practical exercises are essential.

In Henry Roediger’s experiments, students did eight review sessions. Some just read the material, others re-read three times for an exercise session, and the latter alternated four times re-reading with doing exercises. Forty-eight hours later, the active students (the last group) had a success rate more than twice as high as the regular reading (the first group).

What if that is not enough?

The bits of advice I can give above are beneficial for all pupils and students of all ages. However, it sometimes happens that they are not enough and that difficulties persist despite everything.

The reason may be a learning difference such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or attention deficit disorder. These difficulties have roots that can be eliminated thanks to the tools invented by Ron Davis to resove his own dyslexia.

When I deliver a Davis® program, I particularly insist that my client experiment and create his own learning. Thus, he leaves with all the necessary Davis tools and all the know-how to overcome his dyslexia by continuing at home what was learned during the program.

Completing a Davis program means giving yourself the opportunity to never say, “help, I forgot everything.” .

This article has been translated from French by Abigail Marshall, with the help of Google translate. For the original French version, see

The drawings on this page are original artwork from the website — they are used with permission from the site owner.

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