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David Handel

How to Become a Better Student by Leveraging The Power of Cognitive Science – Interview with David Handel

by Rossella Guido
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Recently I had the opportunity to interview David Handel, MD, a retired physician and entrepreneur. David is a mentor to many students around the world who are searching for strategies that will improve their ability to learn more efficiently and to reliably remember everything they learn.

Rossella: It’s great to meet you. I know a lot about your background but I think that it would be helpful for our readers if you would give them some context and take a few minutes to summarize how you found yourself on the path that led you to create iDoRecall.com.

David: Thanks for inviting me to Inspiring People Daily. Even though I had a successful career as a physician, I was a mediocre student throughout my childhood all the way until I was nearly 20 years old. Eventually, I was fortunate to discover for myself a set of effective learning strategies that as it turned out, are backed by a large body of cognitive science research. When I implemented these strategies, I was able to reverse my lifelong poor academic performance. A few years later, I was admitted to medical school. I graduated #1 in my med school class of over 200 students. I then went to Duke University for my residency in radiology and subsequently practiced radiology for 30 years. 

During my years of medical practice, I got the entrepreneur bug. I created several businesses. Some were successful and others not so much. I invented an adjustable-height high-heel shoe that was sold on Zappos and in many brick-and-mortar stores. By the way, the shoe was manufactured in Italy. I co-founded AYTM, a tech startup that has changed the way that big brands perform surveys for market research. We’ve been fortunate to see AYTM grow into a profitable and important player in the market research industry.

But my first love has been education and optimizing learning techniques. I have always wanted to help students become elite learners by applying the same cognitive science principles that led to my academic success

Unfortunately, technology has assisted us in outsourcing many of our cognitive abilities to what I call neuroprostheses

When I was a teen, the first electronic calculators appeared on the market. Pretty soon, people became less adept at doing math in their heads. When I was young, my dad used to challenge me to multiply 4-digit by 4-digit numbers, such as 4577 X 9634, in my head. That’s really not really an amazing feat but, nowadays, I think most young people would find it not only impossible but also consider it to be a ridiculous skill to possess when you can easily solve that calculation on your phone. 

Since the age of personal computers and word processors, I’ve noticed that many of us have become second-rate spellers. After all, why should we learn how to spell when we can always rely on a spellchecker? 

Worst of all, lots of folks find it less important in the digital age to retain a lot of knowledge. Why remember anything when we can always Google it? The fact is, if you want to be a creative and successful person, you need to possess a large a diverse body of knowledge. Creativity often is the result of crossing or remixing seemingly unrelated ideas from different domains of knowledge to create something new.

Rossella: I see your point about neuroprostheses. How does this story ultimately lead to iDoRecall?

David: It’s my intuition that pervasive technology neuroprostheses and excessive screen time have helped contribute to diminished attention spans and declining academic performance. I’ve concluded we need to create technologies that deliver an anti-neuroprosthesis effect. I want to help students learn more effectively and more efficiently. And that is what iDoRecall is all about.

Rossella: So how does iDoRecall work and what makes it stand apart from other similar solutions.

David: iDoRecall is a flashcard app like no other. Students and lifelong learners upload their learning materials into the app’s library. They can add to their library PDFs, Word files, PowerPoints, images files, and videos. Then they read/watch their content in the app. When they come across concepts and facts that they want to remember, they pause and make a spaced-repetition flashcard that is linked to that nugget of knowledge at the exact relevant spot in the file or video where they learned it. When they practice memory retrieval with their flashcards, if they struggle with the answer, they can click a link that will open the source file or video at the precise location where they learned it. They can quickly review the source material to refresh their memory and then return to their practice session.

Rossella: That sounds like a wonderful solution for students who want to be successful learners. What are the cognitive science principles that you say iDoRecall is using?

David: There are four extensively proven principles that iDoRecall leverages. 

The first one is retrieval practice. Retrieving what you’ve learned from memory is far more powerful for building robust memory than rereading, highlighting as you read and all of the standard ways that students try to learn. There is nothing more effective than retrieval practice and flashcards are the easiest and most efficient way to do this. 

The next principle is the spacing of the retrieval practices out over time. Forgetting is a natural human trait but retrieval practice spaced over time is an unbeatable one-two punch. Most students do a lot of cramming. That is effective for short-term memory so students are satisfied when they perform well on an exam that they crammed for during the days before or night before the test. The problem with cramming is that they quickly forget what they learned in the days and weeks that follow. Spaced retrieval practice takes no longer than ordinary study routines but creates long-term recallability of what you’ve learned.

The third principle is interleaving. This is the testing of your memory for an admixture of various skills and topics within a subject. A classic example of how this principle is ignored is the standard mathematics textbook and course. Typically you will learn one problem type per chapter. You will solve problems at the end of the chapter that are very similar. You quickly gain confidence in solving a set of closely related problems. Then you move onto the subsequent chapters, rinse and repeat. Here’s the challenge that you will face in the final exam: you get presented with an assortment of problems. Now, for the first time, you have to ask yourself, “What type of problem is this?” You never before needed to discriminate and decide on the appropriate formula to apply when you practiced one chapter at a time. Final exams and life typically don’t throw problems at us in a neatly organized fashion. We have to be able to discriminate and know what type of problem this is when we face life’s challenges.

The fourth principle is magnificent and powerful. If you want to be an elite student, you have to develop the ability to reflect and think about your thinking. You also must use the results of this reflection to regulate your next steps and ensure that you learn. Cognitive scientists call this skill metacognition. When you consume educational content, whether it is via reading, watching or listening, you need to develop the skill of holding an internal dialog to quality control your engagement with and understanding of the material. Let me give you a few examples to help you understand. When you read academic content, as you come across new concepts you should ask yourself questions such as: “Do I fully understand this?”, “Does this align with anything else that I already know?”, “Does this contradict anything that I already know?”, “Okay, I’m confused about this explanation. What should I do to understand this concept?”, “Can I explain this in a manner that a rookie would immediately comprehend?”. You should also check in with yourself as you read, now and then asking “Has my mind drifted the past few minutes?” and “Should I go back and reread anything?” By changing your approach to reading from a passive state of mind to actively engaging with the material using metacognition, you can become a much better student. Fortunately, metacognition is a skill that can be learned and a habit that can be ingrained.

Rossella: I understand how iDoRecall helps users tie together their learning materials with these linked spaced-repetition flashcards. But how does it help with metacognition?

David: At this time there aren’t features in the app to assist with metacognition. But these features are coming soon. We will be providing prompts to assist you as you read. They won’t be annoying or interrupt your flow. The prompts will be able upon demand with a click of your mouse or a finger tap if you are using iDoRecall on a phone. The prompts will act like training wheels on a bike. They will coach you to think like a top student and help you to develop your metacognitive skills.

Rossella: That is exciting! Do you foresee iDoRecall becoming a very successful B2C company?

David: I don’t know what the future holds for iDoRecall but I to whatever degree of success we achieve, we will attract competition and I hope that will lead the EdTech industry will focus more attention on creating tools that help students employ cognitive science proven principles to optimize how they learn. While I want iDoRecall to offer its tools to students and schools at a modest cost, I also want to make it available to all students, schools, and geographies where even a modest cost is too prohibitive. I don’t feel that any student should be denied access to this technology just because they can’t afford it. So we have begun to give free access in certain circumstances. We are still in the phase of figuring out how to scale this program in a manner that we can afford.

Rossella: Your life has taken some interesting turns. I appreciate your sharing insight into your endeavors. Thanks for telling us what you’ve learned about maximizing academic success.

David: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been fantastic to meet you.

Dr. David Handel, MD, Physician and Entrepreneur, he graduated #1 in his college and medical school classes by using cognitive psychology learning techniques to completely redesign his approach to learning.

Keep in touch with David Handel

E-Learning, Education, Language Learning
Mount Laurel, New Jersey, United States
Remember everything you learn. Forever.

AYTM (Ask Your Target Market)

A/B Testing, Consumer Research, Market Research, Product Research, Usability Testing
San Francisco, California, United States
AYTM is an innovator in the do-it-yourself online market research.

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