Firecracker uses 20 Proven Principles of Learning & Memory

Posted by on Mar 26, 2013 9:17:00 PM

Most people know that Spaced Learning is fundamental to Firecracker's adaptive learning platform, but did you know that Firecracker also utilizes 20 other proven principles of learning and memory? We want to share these with you so you can better understand how Firecracker maximizes the efficiency of your studies and helps you achieve your goals.


Spaced Learning is critical to efficient learning and long-term memory consolidation but it's only one of many proven learning principles that can enhance learning, retention and application. Unfortunately, these proven learning principles rarely if ever make it into the education setting. This lack in application of even basic educational science to education is what gets our team up early and keeps us working late into the night.

Firecracker's adaptive platform and content applies 19 proven principles of efficient and effective learning. We obsessively look for additional principles to apply and continually validate and improve our system based on millions of data points generated by our members and their direct feedback. Below are the 20 principles, listed in order of when you guys encounter them as you study, reinforce/retain and learn how to apply new material on Firecracker.


Step 1: Learn New Material

Learn new material by studying Firecracker's high-yield and interactive Topics. Learning principles applied:

1. Contiguity Effect: Ideas that are associated should be presented contiguously in space and time[1].

Example: Firecracker's topics group related facts as opposed to flashcards which typically have only one fact.

2. Dual Code & Multimedia Effects: Visual and multi-media form richer representations than do a single medium[1, 2].

Example: Firecracker has hundreds of relevant images (e.g. gram stains, CT scans, X-rays, clinical photos) that are presented alongside text content.

3. Coherence Effect: Materials should explicitly link related ideas[1, 3, 4].

Example: Firecracker’s entire system links related concepts, not only with topics, but also with multiple-choice and open-ended questions.

4. Segmentation Principle: Complex lessons should be broken down into manageable sub-parts[1, 2].

Example: Firecracker's topics have two levels of bullet points (key concepts and supportive concepts).

6. Cognitive Flexibility: This improves with multiple viewpoints linking facts and deep conceptual principles[5, 6, 7, 8].

Example: Firecracker presents material in several locations, e.g. TB is covered under Microbiology, Pulmonology, and Immunology. And, over the course of using Firecracker, you will typically see 3-5 different questions of varying difficulty and integration of material for each and every concept you're studying.

7. Anchored Learning: Materials are anchored in real-world problems that you care about[9].

Example: Firecracker often associates concepts with their clinical correlates, and with questions that reinforce the same.

8. Organization Effects: Outlining, integrating, and synthesizing information produces better learning than rereading materials or other more passive strategies[9, 10].

Example: Creating your own topics, adding concepts and questions to existing topics, taking good notes/annotations, etc. all result in better learning and retention than passive approaches such as reading. Don't be discouraged if you find it difficult to create your own content and questions. That's the point! It should require effort because there is a long-term retention advantage for effortful processing.


Step 2: Take a Study Quiz

Take a study quiz after studying a few topics to both reinforce what you learned, and see how well you remember each concept within the topics you studied. Study quizzes are comprised of both multiple-choice and open-ended study questions. Immediate testing, multiple-choice questions, and open-ended study questions embody eight more learning principles:

9. Imperfect Metacognition: We rarely have an accurate knowledge of our cognition and need assistance with calibrating comprehension, learning, and memory[11, 12, 13, 14].

Example: Firecracker's quizzes solve this problem by helping you see how well you actually understand and remember something.

10. Desirable Difficulties: Challenges make learning and retrieval effortful leading to improved retention[15, 16, 17].

Example: Many of Firecracker’s questions are on par with or exceed USMLE question difficulty. We often find that students have more trouble remembering the answer to an open-ended recall question than with recognizing the answer to a USMLE question. We vary question difficulty to take advantage of this learning principle.

11. Cognitive Disequilibrium: Deep reasoning and learning is stimulated by problems that create cognitive disequilibrium, such as obstacles to goals, contradictions, conflict, and anomalies[18, 19, 20, 21].

Example: Firecracker’s questions are often “2-jump” or “3-jump” questions that require us to integrate disparate knowledge and/or figure out multiple things prior to being able to answer the main question.

12. Generation Effect: Learning is enhanced when learners must produce answers, not merely recognize answers[22, 23, 24].

Example: Firecracker has over 30,000 open-ended study questions that don’t have answer choices and only show you the answer after you've formulated the answer on your own without any prompts.

13. Testing Effect: Testing enhances learning, especially when the tests are aligned with important concepts[25, 26, 27].

Example: After studying and marking a topic as learned, Firecracker immediately incorporates the concepts you just covered and recommends those concepts in quizs. In fact, Firecracker’s entire system is constantly assessing and testing you.

14. Feedback Effects: Students benefit from immediate feedback on their performance[28].

Example: After each review session, Firecracker will tell you how you did and how you are doing overall.

15. Negative Suggestion Effects: Learning wrong information can be reduced when feedback is immediate[29, 30, 31, 32].

Example: Firecracker tells you what the right answer is immediately after you answer a question. Even our exam simulation has "Tutor mode" wherein you are given the correct answer after you answer each question.

16. Deep Questions: Learners derive more benefit from answering questions that elicit explanations (e.g., why, why not, how, what-if)[35, 36, 37, 38].

Example: Many of Firecracker’s questions require elicit explanations.


Step 3: Follow your Adaptive Review Recommendations

Based on how well you do on your Study quiz, Firecracker schedules review questions for you to do in the future to make sure you review concepts before you forget them. Relearning something takes way longer than reviewing it and if you never want to forget anything before a test! If you follow your personal review calendar, you will review concepts you are having difficulty with more frequency (shorter intervals/spacing) to ensure complete mastery and conversion into long-term memory, and review concepts you have already mastered with less frequency (longer intervals/spacing) to maintain your knowledge over time.

Research shows (and our data confirms) that if we review something only once or twice, we're likely to forget it, but if we review it three or four times, it's likely to stick for good. Considering there are thousands of facts we need to remember, it's not hard to understand why Firecracker is so popular! Creating a review schedule for thousands of concepts isn't practical. Thankfully that's exactly what Firecracker does for us. Adaptive review applies four more learning principles:

17. Spaced Effects: Spacing our learning out over time produces better long-term retention than does a single test or study session[39, 40, 41].

Example. Following your recommended review questions and reviewing something 5 times for 1 minute each over time over the course of a month is more effective than reviewing it for 5 minutes all at once.

18. Goldilocks Principle: Assignments should be at the right difficulty level.

Example: Firecracker varies the difficulty of your review depending on your level of mastery. The more you know, the harder it gets[42, 43, 44].

19. Self-regulated Learning: Most students learn more faster if they self-regulate their learning[45, 46].

Example: Firecracker lets you choose what to study and when and empowers you with the right data to make educated decisions.

20. Exam Expectations:
Students benefit more from repeated testing and the expectation thereof[47].

Example: Firecracker is constantly testing you, so you will be ready come test or exam day—no exceptions. 


So there you have it; 20 proven learning and memory science principles that you take advantage each and every day you use Firecracker. We highly recommend you look for other ways you can work these principles into your studies. If you think we should apply another proven learning and memory science principle, please let us know!

- Firecracker





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Topics: Learning & Memory Science

Welcome to Firecracker

Firecracker is an adaptive learning platform that uses amazing content coupled with spaced repetition to help medical students crush their exams. We offer programs for both individual students, and entire medical schools. If you'd like to learn more contact us at

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