How to make it stick

I picked up “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown out of my interest in how best to learn new things for myself and also how best to teach others.

Some of the advice was familiar, while some of it was new to me. The most powerful meta-lesson was that our intuition about what works and what will be the most efficient use of study time is often wrong. Studies that assess retention over time, and ability to apply learned skills, show that our familiar or intuitive strategies are not as effective as a different, less familiar set. Part of this seems to come down to perceived effort. When studying feels easy, we think it is working. But (this book argues) instead it is when you have to struggle a little that the ideas and skills truly sink in. One perplexing example is that apparently if the text in a book is slightly blurry, your vision system has to work harder to decode it and this focuses your attention so you will actually understand it better (!). Of perhaps more salience, trying to describe ideas after a little forgetting time has ensued, so you have to work hard to dredge up the details, is far more effective than (a) re-reading the text or (b) reviewing it right after you read it.

Recommended strategies (worth contemplating and trying out):

  • Interleaving topics (or problem types) – this way you can’t anticipate exactly which kind of math problem or tennis serve is coming next. It feels less organized and a little frustrating, but (the book argues) that’s when you’ll make it stick.
  • Quizzing yourself – turn content into questions and see if you can answer them *without going to your notes*.
  • Space it out – Re-quiz yourself after a day or a week (and again into the future) when you’ve forgotten a little.
  • Try a new task/problem *before you’re told exactly how to do it*. Then check your solution against the “right” way. Low-stakes mistakes made in this fashion can be immediately corrected, and the solution “sticks” better because you had a hand in creating it.
  • Reflect on what you know. Try to rephrase it. Find the gaps and hunt down answers to fill them.

I also liked the advice to share with students the reasons why you’ve arranged course activities the way you have. This past term, I added weekly quizzes, which were open-book and could be re-taken (asynchronously) at their own pace and as many times as desired before the end of the week (highest score was kept). This low-stress practice is in line with the book’s advice. But I never explained to the students *why* I thought it would be a useful learning exercise. Interestingly, several students spontaneously told me that they found these quizzes to be very useful. Others simply ignored the quizzes the whole term, which I found puzzling since it was effectively a “freebie” 10% of their grade. Perhaps explicitly stating the goal of the quizzes would have engaged more students.

I’ve experimented with sharing a bit of learning philosophy with students, when I hand back their midterm exams. I explain that I see tests as a diagnostic tool, not a judgment about the test-taker as a person. They provide a snapshot of your skills at one point in time. Missed questions do not tell you “you can’t learn this” but instead “you haven’t mastered this yet”, and they point the way to how to prioritize your next steps. I never got any concrete feedback on this, so I’m still curious what students think of it :)

One of my favorite metaphors in this book was the idea that your memories are out there in a forest, and the more times you follow a path to find each one, the faster it becomes next time.

I also really liked the (empowering!) view that learning happens when you connect something new to what you already know, so rather than “running out of space” in which to store information, instead “the more you know, the more you can learn”! Of course, I am hearing what I want to hear :)

This book contains many other thought-provoking discussions and strategies – I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in teaching effectively, as well as anyone who wants their own learning to stick!

Black in Oregon

I took some time to investigate the history of blacks in Oregon, and what I found was eye-opening. In 1844, the then-territory of Oregon passed a law banning slavery. To modern eyes this may seem quite progressive, until you read the rest of the law and it becomes clear that this was not a statement about the ills and injustice of slavery, but rather an effort to rid the state of black people. In addition to banning slavery, the law also prohibited blacks from entering the state. Those who entered anyway could be whipped “upon his or her bare back not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes”, every six months until they left. The law was repealed the next year, but other “exclusion bills” followed.

In 1857, Oregon joined the United States and became the only state to do so with a clause in its state constitution to specifically exclude blacks. The Oregon Constitution banned slavery and prevented blacks from legally residing in the state, or owning property, voting, etc. Oregon also rescinded (took back) its ratification of the 14th amendment (which gave all native-born Americans citizenship, including blacks) in 1869 and voted against the 15h amendment (to give blacks voting rights) in 1869. It did not ratify the 15th amendment until 1959 (!) and the 14th in 1973 (!!).

Oregon continues to have a small black population – about 2%. That rarity can create its own problems. I found this very thought-provoking:

“Because exclusion policies served to keep minority numbers low, racial discrimination has not been evident to white Oregonians and many outsiders… Perhaps that is why Oregonians have a special problem with race-blindness: it tends to afflict most those who are unaccustomed to seeing themselves in racial terms.” from Race, Politics, and Denial: Why Oregon Forgot to Ratify the Fourteenth Amendment by Cheryl A. Brooks (2005)

And maybe this contributes to not only ignorance, but also violence. Given the recent murder of George Floyd, it was chilling to come across this passage:

“One such case occurred in 1985, when Lloyd Stevenson, a black man, was killed by a policeman using a choke hold. Neither of the two officers involved was disciplined. The case took a bizarre and controversial turn when on the day of Stevenson’s funeral, two police officers sold t-shirts to fellow officers bearing the slogan “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em.” They were fired but were eventually reinstated with back pay.” from Blacks in Oregon by Darrell Milner (2019)

There is so much more to learn and so much more to do. And of course it is not just about Oregon. I am grieving for this history and for our present day. Unlike a virus that jumped species and attacked us from the outside, racism is something that we created. We did it to ourselves. That makes us responsible. And that also means it is an opportunity, because we control our actions and how we want the future to be. We get to choose.

Communicating with your hands

… and facial expressions! A talented friend of mine started offering online lessons in American Sign Language (ASL), and so far we’ve covered basic signs (e.g., please, thank you, how do you sign…?), the manual alphabet, and how to express basic needs (e.g., hunger, thirst, sleepiness). I have dim memories of learning some ASL in high school, and it seems that the alphabet, at least, stuck with me. It’s great to learn a bunch of new vocabulary. (The image at right shows the sign for “learn”.)

I don’t know if or when I’ll get to put ASL into practice, but regardless I’m enjoying puzzling through a new kind of grammar and the… hm… performance aspect of signing. It’s not just about moving your hands; the aspects of eye contact and facial expression are also necessary, and even though it’s mostly intuitive so far, it’s new/foreign to have to think consciously about what expression goes with the sign :) I get the sense that the expressions are much more vivid and large than they are when I’m speaking English. (I’m sure it becomes natural over time.)

Some other ideas I found valuable that we’ve covered so far:

  • Sign language has its own grammar, and notably it is not a literal reproduction of English with hand signs (I’ve encountered this concept before and it continues to fascinate me. It makes sense to me that what would be natural and efficient in spoken language might be quite different in signed language).
  • Signs have three parts: hand shape, hand position, and motion.
  • We are encouraged to fingerspell words as units, so instead of thinking/spelling “b” “o” “o” “k”, you do better to think sign-b-sign-o-sign-o-sign-k as a unit. This sounds similar to what you’d like to achieve with any foreign language: blending units into chunks to make communication more natural.

I’m looking forward to next week’s lessons!

How to sharpen a push reel mower

I have a lawn mower (reel mower) that is purely mechanical: you push it and as it moves it spins five curved blades that chop up the grass. It has no engine and uses no gas or electricity. Mowing the lawn with it is a nice exercise: you push it along and it makes a quiet snick-snick-snick sound as it cuts the grass. I’m very fond of it!

Yet over the years the blades grow dull. I figured I’d need to take it to a sharpening service, but then I found this Instructable that shows you how to sharpen a reel mower yourself. It’s quite clever *and* easy to do! You use the mower to “lap” its own curved blades, meaning to sharpen and align them by running them backwards against the fixed blade (“bed knife”). As advertised, this was straightforward: I swapped the gears on the two wheels, adjusted the bed knife (this was actually the trickiest part for me), smeared on “grinding compound” (I ordered this Permatex compound for just $4!), and then pushed the mower around for a while with its blades grinding each other smooth/sharp. In this process I also got to study just how the mower works (I love decoding machines) and to admire the built-in ingenuity and simplicity of it.


At least, that’s what it was supposed to do. After I’d pushed it for a while, I felt the blades with my finger. They had turned shiny (see picture at right), but didn’t feel sharp. I decided to give it a try. I swapped the gears back, readjusted the bed knife, and took my mower out to the lawn. And whoa! It cut the grass WAY BETTER than it had for a long time. In fact it cut it much shorter than before – I think with dull blades it was bending the grass over and cutting it longer. I had *wondered* why I had to leave the mower on the lowest height to get anything reasonable. Now I can set it to a higher (correct) setting and get the desired grass height. Very satisfying!

Madrones on my estate

My new house in Oregon is located within the “Madrone Estates”. That’s right, I apparently now own an Estate! Ha ha!

I assumed that “Madrone” probably referred to the last name of the person who established the neighborhood, or something like that. But then I discovered that instead it refers to the madrone tree – a lovely native tree that’s all over my property! Its fancy latin name is arbutus menzeiseii, and it is easily recognized by the dramatic red peeling bark. (The beautiful picture to the right is not mine but it gives a good idea what they look like. Are they not gorgeous?)

Apparently in the spring they bear bell-shaped flowers – something to look forward to as the months roll by!

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