Productive Learning

This page is for students and lifelong learners. I believe all of the following software and reading suggestions can make learning a more enjoyable, effective, and efficient process. And one that doesn't hurt your psychological well-being in the process. I have benefitted greatly from all of these resources, as have my students


Some of the top activities in academia are managing stress, learning, staying productive, balancing work and quality of life, and doing things you should but don’t want to do (e.g., studying on a Friday night). Meditation helps with all of these, and more. Really, I’m not kidding. What’s the catch? You may have to stick with it a few weeks or months until you notice some of the benefits. It’s either that or continuing to use your mind inefficiently. And no, sports and other immersive activities don’t count – when you’re stressed and can’t concentrate on a paper that’s due soon, a game of basketball probably isn’t going to help much. But meditation will. Check out this short meditation guide.


Unfortunately, the first step to conceptual mastery tends to involve a lot of memorization. I attribute much of my success in college to the basic memorization techniques in this book. If you find yourself having to remember lots of definitions, numbered lists, dates, etc., this book will be a huge help. I’d recommend starting with chapters 4-6; those 20 pages alone will improve your memorization effectiveness and efficiency.

(Speed) Reading

Do you feel like you read too slowly, that reading is cognitively draining, or that the info just doesn’t enter your head? First, I’d recommend that you start meditating – this will help with the cognitive processes (e.g., attention) involved with reading. Second, the suggestions below may help. Or… they may not. These are the only suggestion on this page that, in my view, may not work for everyone (I’d suggest the other techniques for meditation, memorization, studying, etc. to everyone). Though I think this could help many people (and have helped some students who tried it). I remember spending far too much time in college laboring over dense texts and wish I had known about this then.

The technique: Text-to-speech software

This is software that reads text to you. With some practice, you can listen at relatively high speeds while not hurting comprehension. In fact, I’ve found that my comprehension is dramatically enhanced and have heard the same from students who have given it a try. Text-to-speech software allows you to also listen to readings while doing other things that don’t require as much attention, but be careful with this – how you use the software should match what you need to get from the reading. If it’s a book you’re reading for pleasure, then you can do that anywhere. If it’s for a course and you need to have a deep understanding of the material, you probably want to be using the text-to-speech software at a computer so that you can make notes, repeat paragraphs you didn’t fully grasp, etc. But if you’re low on time, listening to an article while doing other necessary chores is better than nothing!

Software Options

The best software that I know of for listening through a phone or tablet is Voice Dream (for apple and android). It’s a bit pricey as far as apps go (around $10 the last time I checked), but well worth it if you plan on listening to text. With this software, you can import readable documents such as word documents, PDFs, EPUB, and web pages. This software isn’t ideal for accomplishing the 2nd point I mention below, but you can fiddle with the font size and the number of lines it shows you to get close. It also has something called the “pac-man mode” of displaying the text which makes it easier to follow the words.

Also note that not all electronic documents are “readable.” If you have a PDF that doesn’t allow you to highlight individual words, that means it’s not yet in a readable form (it’s essentially an image of a page and the computer doesn’t recognize the text on it). But you can use OCR (optical character recognition) software to convert documents to a readable form. OCR software often comes with scanners (this is what makes scanned documents readable) and there is also OCR software that will convert documents that you already have in electronic form. Nowadays there are free online OCR (optical character recognition) converters but be cautious about picking a reputable-looking website for this and never use such a website to convert any sensitive or confidential information that you wouldn’t want others to see.

Key points

There are a few keys to using the software optimally, and they address two factors that slow down our reading:

1. Saying the words in our head as we read them slows us down. You can read without saying them in your head, but it can be a challenge to stop the habit. When the software reads the text to you, however, there’s no need for you to go to the extra effort. Also, you should be sure to adjust the speed so that it’s slow enough that you can process what’s being said, but fast enough that it isn’t boring (if your attention is wandering, it’s probably too slow). Also, note that these text-to-speech programs use computerized voices that some may find to be annoying. But know that these computerized voices allow you to substantially increase the speeds without distorting how it sounds (you couldn’t do this with a recorded human voice).

2. Dragging your eyes across the page to track words is itself cognitive work. If you’re listening to a reading while doing something else, then your eyes will obviously be freed from this tracking procedure. But in general, having the words there in front of you visually will also help with comprehension, if done strategically. The default setting for most text-to-speech readers doesn’t do this very well. You’ll see a highlighted box move from word to word as it’s read – but if you’re listening at high speeds, that means the highlighter is traveling across the page at a very high speed – this is not at all easy for our eyes to follow, and makes it more difficult to keep up. My suggestion is to find a text-to-speech reader that allows you to increase the size of the text and to make the text window small enough that only about one word (or just a few words) fits in the box at a time. This way, the only word you see in the box is the one being read. This means your eyes can stay focused on one spot as the word being read is shown. You can do something close to this in Voice Dream by changing the text size and line spacing (though doing this then makes it a bit of a pain to highlight large amounts of text).


If you have any reading barriers (e.g., dyslexia) that you can have documented by a medical professional, you can get free (for students) or inexpensive (for adults) access to Bookshare, which is an incredible program that gives access to a gigantic range of books in electronic form. If this applies to you, check it out!

Any books you download in Bookshare can be directly imported into the Voice Dream app.


As explained in Make it Stick and other books (e.g., How We Learn; A Mind for Numbers; see also Fluent Forever for learning other languages), psychological research has demonstrated that our gut is often wrong about the best ways to study and learn. Whether you’re in classes, teaching classes, or doing research, this will change your understanding of the best way to acquire and hold onto new knowledge. And even if you are, or were, a straight-A student, still read pages 200 – 217 of Make it Stick on studying and pages 224 – 239 if you’re a teacher. You’ll be surprised.


If you’re not quizzing yourself in some form during the studying process, you’re not learning in an optimal manner. One of the themes from the books mentioned above is that the only way to know what you do or don’t know (and thus need to study more) is by quizzing yourself. It’s a mistake to think that we know something because it looks familiar when we read our notes on it – familiarity is not at all indicative of whether you’ll be able to remember or apply the information when it’s not in front of you.

One of the easiest ways to quiz yourself is through flashcards. Electronic flashcards are particularly nice because they keep track of past performance, can show you the cards at the optimal intervals for memorization, etc. Free software that I recommend is Anki. If you do give Anki a try, here are 3 guides I put together for its basics, recommended settings, and using it for exam studying (be sure to read the exam studying guide before trying to use this for an exam – otherwise, you may not be studying all of the necessary flashcards).

When using any flashcards (paper or electronic), make sure you’re actually mentally generating the answer before looking at the back – and if you can’t remember the answer, spend a few moments of effort trying to remember something about it. Research shows that this effort to remember, even when unsuccessful, enhances long-term memory.

Managing your Money

Managing your money is a critical skill. This isn’t exactly related to learning, but I still thought that I’d mention it. You should feel that you have enough control over your money that you know what you can and can’t afford, and that you are able to confidently plan and budget your money so that you are able to spend it on the things that really matter to you. To do so effectively requires more than just keeping track of what your monthly expenses (e.g., with apps like Mint). You Need a Budget (YNAB) is the best system for personal budgeting that I’ve seen – it’s a revolutionary approach that makes complete sense from a psychological perspective. Students also get the first entire year free. I highly recommend YNAB, regardless of whether you’re a student or working, rich or poor. You do need a budget!

Have questions?

Feel free to get in touch.