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!

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I knew this already. I learned something new!