• Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

    By Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger III, and Mark A McDaniel

    Most students think learning should come easy and teachers should custom tailor lessons to their particular learning style.  Not so.  Learning the hard way is often the best way and this book tells you why. 

    Many common study habits are counterproductive: underlining, highlighting, rereading, cramming are all habits which create the illusion of mastery, but the gains quickly fade. 

    More durable and complex learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulty in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.

    Learning is deeper when it is effortful.  Learning that seems easy is here today and gone tomorrow. Students are the poorest judges of when they are learning well.  When the going is harder and slower and doesn’t feel productive, it probably is. 

    Rereading texts and cramming are among the least productive practices.  Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts from memory – is more effective as a learning strategy.  Flashcards are a good example of this.  A simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.

    Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.  The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in your learning style is not supported by empirical research.  You learn better when you ‘go wide,’ drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.  Interleaved and varied practice is better than massed practice of one thing. 

    Elaboration – giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know – strengthens understanding and memory.

    Every time you learn something new, you change your brain.  When learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer. 

    Rereading texts is a labor in vain, as it is time consuming and doesn’t result in durable memory. 

    Converting text and concepts into a paragraph or covering the main points into a series of question or rephrasing the main ideas, creates deeper and longer term learning.

    Low stakes quizzing is a great way to assist students to gain understanding of increasingly difficult material. 

    The best study strategies (with a ton of evidence to back them up);

    ·         Quizzing and self-testing

    ·         Spaced out practice

    ·         Interleaving practice to different but related topics or skills

    ·         Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution

    ·         Distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems

    Reflection is another great practice tool.  Think about what happened, retrieve knowledge required to solve the problem, connect that to new problems, visualize and rehearse how to solve the problem differently the next time.

    Write down what you learned in class or from a reading right afterward without looking at the text or notes.  The aids in retention.  Delay time between recall of information.  This also aids in retention of material. When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to strong long-term retention. 

    Research shows that students score far better on material that has been quizzed and re-quizzed than those who only had one exam.

    Low stakes quizzes, frequently administered, have also been shown to reduce anxiety over unit exams, all while increasing learning.  Students are also more likely to show up for quizzes if they know they are low stakes, frequent, and will assist them in mastering the information that shows up on the exam later. 

    The greater the effort to retrieve learning, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.  Delayed retrieval requires more effort and is more potent.  Repeated retrieval makes memories more durable, and produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily and applied to a wider variety of problems.

    A spiraling series of exercises that cycle back to key skillsets in a seemingly random sequence adds layers of context and meaning and makes for longer lasting learning. Mix up the skill set you are working on. 

    Using information and skills in a real-life setting (as with project based learning) means that you are given the opportunity to practice in a relevant setting.  As the sports adage goes, “practice like you play and you will play like you practice.”  Always be considering ways to apply your learning in a real world context.

    You must also continue to practice your fundamental skills while adding new skills to your repertoire.  Focus on the fundamentals regularly, adding in new material and interleaving it with old material, all the while considering ways to use the materials in the context of real life.

    Constantly distribute your practice across all skills sets, not focusing on one for long periods of time.  Spacing and variability happen as a natural feature of real life; hence, learning should follow that same pattern. 

    Embrace Difficulties!  Short term impediments make for stronger learning, which is why they all them “desirable difficulties.”  This chapter outlines the reason why easier isn’t better when it comes to learning. The more effort required to retrieve information, the better you learn it.  Although interleaving concepts may seem more difficult to the one learning, it produces superior discrimination and memory.  When you struggle to solve a problem before being shown how to solve it, the solution is better learned and more durably remembered.  The act of trying to answer or attempting to solve a problem, or writing a short essay, are all examples of stronger learning strategies than being presented with information.  Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing.

    Writing to learn is a strategy that allows students to express ideas in their own words and relate them to other concepts taught in class or related to the outside world.

    Carol Dweck’s research is reviewed briefly.  It shows that when people understand that effort and learning change the brain and that intellectual abilities lie to a larger degree within their own control, people are more likely to tackle difficult challenges and persist.  Failure, according to Dweck, is an essential experience on the path to mastery.  Blundering through difficult concepts often leads to new discovery and allows room for exploration and growth.

    Learning is a three step process: Encoding of information held in short term memory.  Consolidation reorganizes and stabilizes memory.  Retrieval updates learning and enables you to apply it. Periodic retrieval of learning helps strengthen connections.  The more difficult the practices, the greater the benefit. 

    Avoid Illusions of Knowing.  In this chapter memory selectivity and memory recall are discusses.  The concept of finding others to support our personal narrative is also explored.  Memory as a reconstruction fraught with inaccuracies is explored also.  Lastly, humans tend to seek out an echo chamber of associates who will support their ideas, and the internet has only made this easier to do, while blocking out other viewpoints. The fact that emotional memories are the most changed memories over time is also explored.  Tools for calibrating judgment are also explored.

    Get Beyond Learning Styles.  This chapter basically debunks the myth that adhering to a specific learning style will benefit the learner.  Learning differences (i.e., dyslexia) are discussed in terms of ways successful people have managed to deal effectively with what some may call a roadblock to learning but others may consider an advantage which allows them to outperform their peers.  The belief in learning styles is not supported by science and it instills a misguided sense of diminished potential.  Instructional techniques are shown to be more important in terms of learning (i.e., visual instruction for geometry, verbal instruction for poetry).

    A note on testing.  We are all in a state of developing and any test that measures only what we know at any given moment is a static measure that tells us nothing about our potential! (This sentence sums up my reason for not placing high value on any given SAT or ACT score.)  Another book, The End of Average, (also synopsized on this website) goes into great detail about testing and the myriad problems associated with static tests of intelligence.

    Dynamic testing is a more useful tool in determining one’s state of expertise, measuring improvement and progress. 

    Back to Dweck: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”  Increase Your Abilities is a chapter that focuses on the importance of curiosity and putting yourself into an environment that challenges your curiosity and pushes you toward learning goals as opposed to performance goals.  The focus should be on ever increasing challenge and persistence, which will hopefully result in a person increasing their sense of possibility and creativity, knowing that with persistence comes higher learning and success.  The more we do, the more we can do.  Doing something easy is not going to push us to new heights.  Significant learning is often difficult.  You will experience setbacks.  These are signs of effort, not failure.

    Study Habits from Timothy Fellows (who earned all As on college exams):

    ·         Always do the reading prior to the lecture

    ·         Anticipate test questions and their answers as you read

    ·         Answer rhetorical questions in your head during lectures to test retention of reading

    ·         Review study guides, find terms you can’t recall and relearn those terms

    ·         Copy bolded terms and their definitions and make sure you understand them

    ·         Take any practice test provided online or by your professor so you can figure out which concepts you don’t know and make a point to learn them

    ·         Reorganize the course information into a study guide of your own design

    ·         Write out concepts that are important, post them above your bed and test yourself on them from time to time

    ·         Space out your review and practice over the duration of the course


    Some other great ideas:

    ·         Testing groups – wrestle with difficult questions together with the books closed.  The idea is exploration of the topic – not merely googling the answer

    ·         Free recall – spend ten minutes at the end of the day writing down on a piece of paper everything you can remember from the class.  After ten minutes, go to your notes and find out what you remembered and then learn the material you forgot

    ·         Summary sheets -  a single sheet on which you illustrate the prior week’s material in drawings annotated with key ideas, arrows, and graphs.  Work with a partner or two to create it – be creative – draw pictures, cartoons, etc. to help you remember key points and how they are interrelated

    ·         Learning paragraphs – you just got your test back, write what you would do differently next time? Pose a question in your subject and write a five or six-sentence response to the question

    ·         Think like the professional you want to become.  What would she do in this situation?  How would he approach the problem?


    This book has a wealth of great ideas and is easy and fun to read.  My copy is full of highlights.  Borrow it or get your own.  Either way, make learning fun, challenging and something you are curious enough to keep doing for a lifetime!!


    Updated by Sheila R Souder on 1/9/2017.