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Categories: Learning

The best time to study difficult information 

By  Lysette Offley

student tackling difficult revisionIs there a right or wrong time to study difficult information?

Do you find sometimes that despite your best efforts, something you’re trying to learn just simply will not go into your head?

It’s the same for all of us. The cause might be because it’s less familiar information or a more difficult concept. It might be that we’re not as interested in it or that we’re tired and aren’t really giving it our full attention.

But for whatever reason, sometimes learning a particular topic can be tricky.

Good to know then, that there is something peculiar about the way our brains work, that we can use to our advantage.

It’s all to do with Serial Position – the proper term referring to what order things occur i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, last…

Those of you who have read my articles in the past, and who are familiar with the Genius Material strategy for learning, will know that I advocate working with your brain not against it.

In any given learning situation, it turns out that there are certain times that are easier for us to remember what we’ve learnt. So it strikes me that using those times to tackle the trickier stuff makes sense.

And they are beginnings and ends.

This applies to a few contexts, all of which being useful:


You’re probably aware what tends to happen when playing an accumulative memory game such as:

“I went on holiday and packed my case and in it I put my T shirt.”

“I went on holiday and packed my case and in it I put my T shirt and my shorts.”

“I went on holiday and packed my case and in it I put my T shirt, my shorts and my sunglasses.”

I’m sure you remember the sort of game I’m referring to.

It starts off easy enough, but as the list grows longer and longer and the game becomes more difficult, it’s usually easier for us to remember the beginning of the list and also the end. It’s the items in the middle that we tend to leave out.

The same thing happens when we write a shopping list and accidentally leave it at home. When we get to the shop there’s a very good chance will remember more of the items at the beginning and the end of the absent list. It’s the middle that’s more fuzzy.


You also know what happens when you try to spend too long revising. Your brain goes to sleep!

So you already know that you need to punctuate study time with short breaks. Well it turns out, that we also find it easier to remember what we learn at the beginning and the end of a session. And if you are already in the habit of taking regular breaks, you automatically chop the time into multiple beginnings and endings, creating more opportunities to make it easier for your brain.

Note making

I’m assuming that you’ve read my articles in the past, and know that it’s not enough simply to read the information you intend to learn – you have to actively manipulate it so that your brain can make a pattern of it and send it to your long-term memory.

Not always, but usually, to do this, most people write study notes. (Writing isn’t the only way to actively manipulate the information, and the style of note making you choose will be a direct result of understanding how your brain prefers to process, store and retrieve information.)

And so, in order to make the most of the way that your brain already learns best, as you arrange your notes on the page, aim to put the weightier, more complex or more difficult information…

Wait for it…!

At the beginning or the end.

You heard that coming, didn’t you?




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Lysette Offley

Genius Maker & Founder of Genius Material and The Genius Principles. Working with professionals who need exceptional academic & professional development.

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