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Remember college, when you’d crack open your textbook, pop the top off your brand-new highlighter, then start smearing that sucker across line after line of text, making the important stuff stand out so you could reread it and reread it some more? Lots of people call that “studying,” but it turns out it doesn’t really work so well. So why do so many people do it?
This phenomenon is explained in our summer 2015 book pick, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Citing recent research in cognitive psychology, the authors take our beliefs about learning and turn them upside down. Some of the most common practices in classrooms, music studios, and athletic fields—things like repeating an action over and over to reinforce muscle memory or distributing a review sheet of key points to students before an exam—are actually pretty ineffective ways to learn. The authors explain how the brain responds to these methods, why they are less than ideal for building enduring learning, and what we should be doing instead.
Although the reading can sometimes be challenging, the concepts are illustrated beautifully in a series of anecdotes from sports, the military, music, and even corporate training to demonstrate how learning in any field is still learning; the principles hold up no matter where they are applied. And knowing that real learning is sometimes difficult (discussed below in principle #3) made it easier for me to accept the times when I wasn’t totally grasping something.
Anyone who teaches anything would benefit from reading this book: coaches, tutors, classroom teachers, parents, even corporate trainers. Instead of doing what we’ve always done and wondering why some learners just don’t get it, we can take a different approach that’s based on research, even if it seems counterintuitive.
What Teachers Need to Know
Make It Stick introduces quite a few guiding principles about learning. Here are a few important takeaways for teachers:
1. We should add more low-stakes quizzing to our instructional plans. Regularly quizzing our students on the material is one of the best ways to help them learn it. Many teachers give regular formative assessments, but most don’t realize that the process of trying to retrieve skills and information from memory reinforces the learning more effectively than simply reviewing it. Quizzing yourself on something actually helps you learn it better. The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to add this kind of retrieval practice into our teaching: Set aside 3-5 minutes of every class period for a quick quiz, including something students just learned and something from earlier. Whenever possible, avoid providing the answers in the form of multiple choice or true/false; the learning will be better if students have to try to recall the information instead of just recognizing it.
2. Repeating one skill to perfection is not the best path toward long-term learning. When we practice a skill or try to remember information, common sense tells us to just keep repeating it until we have it down pat. But the research cited in this book tells a different story: Our learning is actually more durable if we mix it up with other skills or information before we master it. That “mastery” feeling we get from massed practice is really just our short-term memory hanging on to stuff. To entrench learning in long-term memory, we have to space out our practice and mix it up with other things. In the classroom, that means we’re better off giving students shorter, spaced out practice on a regular basis, rather than clumping it all together (so 5 math problems every day is better than 20 all at once).
3. Real learning doesn’t always feel good. When our students struggle to master a concept or skill, it’s natural for teachers to get nervous and start looking for other approaches. Although ineffective teaching strategies should be abandoned, an awkward crawl to mastery isn’t necessarily a sign of poor teaching. According to the authors, easy learning is not long-lasting; it’s the effort required to learn that results in true retention. So when you have given students a challenging task and they complain that it’s too hard or they don’t get it, consider your response carefully: Is it a poorly designed task or lesson that will never result in good learning, or are students experiencing healthy growing pains? Having another teacher look at your lesson materials may help you make the call.
4. We must be transparent in our approach. When we apply the principles from this book, it’s vital that we share our thinking with students. If we add daily quizzing to our teaching or make students struggle a bit before mastering a concept, students will be less likely to resist it if we explain that these methods will ultimately help them learn better, even if it isn’t as fast or doesn’t feel as satisfying.
This is just a preliminary list; to learn more and really understand the thinking behind these principles, a thorough read of the book is important.
A Few More Goodies…
As I read this book, I created my own series of video reflections on the chapters. You can watch these here.
Interview with Peter Brown
I had the great privilege of interviewing Peter Brown, one of the book’s authors. We talked about his collaboration process with the other two authors and about some of the most important takeaways from the book. After talking with him, I feel like I understand the book’s concepts even more clearly. Read a full transcript here or listen to the interview below:
How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning (PDF)
Written by a team of cognitive psychologists from Washington University, including two of the book’s authors, this 11-page guide offers teachers clear, step-by-step instructions for adding retrieval practice to their classroom instruction. Click here to take a look.
The Retrieval Practice Website
On Retrieval Practice, teachers can learn about why having students recall information is a more effective strategy than simply continuing to pour the material into their brains. Specific retrieval practice strategies are given, along with links to books and articles about this practice.
The Testing Effect: Illustrating a Fundamental Concept and Changing Study Strategies (PDF)
This study, published by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, compared the memory of two groups of students: One group simply read and re-read their material, and the other group read it and then tested themselves on it. The “testing” group retain the content better when tested on it a week later. All students who participated in the study were shown the results and resolved to add more self-testing to their studying regimens. See the study here.
What do you think?
This review is just the beginning of our conversation about the ideas presented in this book. In the comments below, share your thoughts and questions. I am especially interested to hear whether you plan to make any changes to your teaching based on what you learned in Make It Stick. And if you find this months or years after it was originally posted, add a comment anyway—the ideas in this book will last a long time.
Looking forward to learning and growing with you. ♦