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!

“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

Memory tricks that work

I enjoy learning about ways to improve my memory, or even other people’s attempts to improve theirs, as in Moonwalking with Einstein. The method of loci (or memory palace) technique is pretty cool, and I used it to memorize some flying-related info. But you know, it took effort!

The other day, I was listening to Jim Kwik’s podcast, Kwik Brain. The tone of the podcast is a bit too self-promotional and get-rich-quick-y for my tastes, but the episodes are short and I can skip over the annoying parts and listen to the rest at 1.5x (sorry, Jim!). But the fact is, in a recent episode he managed to get me to memorize the first ten elements in the periodic table… without even trying! (Much?) And I can reel them off forwards or backwards! Even now, weeks later!

To do this, Jim created a colorful little story.

Imagine a fire hydrant. (The more vividly/crazily/ridiculously you imagine each item, the more it will stick!) Attached to it is a helium balloon. Then some batteries smack into the balloon. They were launched from a barrel. There’s a board leaning against the barrel. A diamond rolls down it! Into … Knight Rider! Which is stuck between two oxen. They have nasty teeth, so you brush the oxen teeth with toothpaste. Next to you is a huge neon sign in flashing colors.

Bizarre! But you’ll remember it. And then…

The fire hydrant = hydrogen.
The balloon = helium.
The batteries = lithium.
The barrel = beryllium.
The board = boron.
The diamond = carbon.
Knight Rider = nitrogen.
The oxen = oxygen.
The toothpaste = fluorine.
The sign = neon.

Not only do you remember this, but you can walk backwards through the little scenario, from neon sign through Knight Rider all the way back to the fire hydrant, and recite Ne – F – O – N – C – B – Be – Li – He – H! Effortless!

This seems so easy when someone already came up with the mnemonic associations. Now I just need to get better at creating them.

He also talked about using your body to anchor a list (e.g., of shopping items). So you imagine item 1 on the top of your head (e.g., milk pouring down your head), then item 2 on your nose (e.g., strawberries stuck up your nose), and so on with mouth, ears, shoulders, fingers, belly button, seat. Or as many places as you need. I tried this the other day and it also worked.

But just like the method of loci, I have to wonder how many times you can re-use the same memory palace (“memory body”?). Wouldn’t the previous set of associations bleed over and get mixed up? Do I need bread this week, or was that last week’s belly button item? Indeed, the advice I’ve seen is to not re-use memory palaces… which seems pretty limiting in terms of the number of things you can memorize this way (although advocates claim that we interact with so many physical locations that you should never really exhaust your options). But maybe don’t re-use your body. :)

Remember numbers with the Major system

Another great tidbit that I gained from reading Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein, is the Major system for memorizing numbers.

Briefly, the Major system is a series of rules for converting numbers into words (usually concrete nouns) which you can then lodge in your memory (or even better, memory palace). For example, if I wanted to remember that the 17 items required for VFR (visual flight rules) flight in an airplane are in paragraph 91.205 of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), I would create two words using the consonants B,D and N,S,L, like “bed” and “nasal”. Then I combine them in some graphic way, like imagining sticking a bed up my nose before getting in the plane.

Effectively, the Major system gives you the ability to memorize arbitrary numbers, for the cost of memorizing a mapping of 10 digits (0-9) to consonant sounds. If you need to remember longer numbers, you end up with a chain of images, which you can place into a sequence of memory palace locations to remember them in order. (I already tried out the memory palace method just to remember what those 17 VFR items actually are, and it seems to be working!) I’m looking forward to exercising it some more.

The OK Plateau

In Joshua Foer’s excellent book on the art of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, he mentions the “OK Plateau” as something that all humans learning anything will encounter. This is the stage you reach once you’ve moved past “beginner” and are able to execute a task with some degree of automation. For example, when you first learn to type, you look for and consciously press the right keys. But at some point you learn where they are and can type without looking (or really thinking about individual keys). Foer pointed out something I’ve always wondered — if we tend to get better at something over time, why doesn’t everyone end up being a 100+ wpm touch-typist?

The “OK Plateau” is reached when you are doing a task “well enough” for your needs, and your brain moves on to focus its conscious effort on something else. So even though you might be typing every day (email, reports, documents, forms), you probably will settle into some particular typing speed that never really improves.



Excellent depiction by imagethink.

This is fine for tasks in which “good enough” is, well, good enough. But there are some things in which you want to become an expert, or at least push your performance to a much higher level. To do that, it seems, you must push yourself back into a conscious awareness of what you are doing and examine and explore where you are making errors or performing suboptimally.

“[Those who excel] develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance.” (Foer)

This means constantly pushing yourself to do more, work faster, tackle harder examples, and so on, and then to learn from your failings or mistakes.

I have been thinking about this in terms of my pilot training. There are significant parts of flying that I can now do with some degree of automation, and it is tempting to declare them “learned” and move my tired brain on to the other big poles. But it is also clear to me that complacency is not something you want to develop in flying – nor in driving – nor anything else that requires a good depth of experience and tuned reflexes. I’ve come across advice in different pilot venues that urge you to continue polishing and refining. How precise can you make your short landing? How precise can you be on airspeed and altitude? If you picked out an emergency landing spot, fly low and actually check it out. Is it as obstacle-free as you thought from higher up?

I expect there is probably a transition you hit once you get your pilot’s license. You go from regular lessons with an instructor (with performance expectations and critiques) to absolute freedom to fly when you want, where you want, with no one watching over your shoulder. At that point, it is up to you to maintain that same level of scrutiny and to critique your own performance. My instructor told me to always have a specific goal when I go out to do solo practice. I’ve encountered the recommendation that, after landing, you give yourself a grade for every flight. What did you do well? What was borderline? What new questions came up that you should research?

Foer describes chess players who learn more from studying old masters’ games (and reasoning through each step) than from playing new games with other players. Studying past games can be more mindful. Pilots can benefit similarly from reading through accident reports to gain knowledge about how things go wrong. AOPA offers a rich array of Accident Case Studies that provide a wealth of scenarios to think through and learn from.

For any hobby or skill, there are similar opportunities to make your practice time more effective at increasing your ability. Instead of playing through your latest violin piece, try doing it 10% faster and see what happens. Try transposing it to a different key on the fly. On your next commute, grade yourself on whether you maintained a specific following distance, how many cars in surrounding lanes you were consciously tracking, how well you optimized your gas mileage, or some other desirable metric.

Employing this approach to everything you do would be exhausting and impossible to maintain. But for those few things that really matter to you, for which the OK Plateau is not good enough, it could be what catapults you to the expert domain. If you’re interested, check out Foer’s short talk summarizing the OK Plateau and his advice for escaping it.

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