Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
By Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel
The word that continuously popped into my mind as I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel was "refreshing." For teachers and students looking for relatively simple, effective, and sensible advice about how to make learning last, look no further. This book gives you exactly what you are in search of. As I read the book, I wrote in the margins more times than I could count -- comments like, “Finally!” and “Yes!” along with exclamation point after exclamation point. In fact, there is so much good advice to unpack in this book that writing a short book review proved difficult.
Like so many useful books about education of late, the authors of Make It Stick are not teachers or administrators or professors of education. Roediger and McDaniel are cognitive scientists, and they teamed up with Brown, a writer, to help translate their very heady research into language that even high school students can understand. The most basic premise of the book is in fact the first sentence of the preface: “People generally are going about learning in the wrong way.” The authors argue that what we believe about learning, what we know in our gut about how people learn, is in fact often not supported by reality. They also contend that individuals are not very good at knowing which study methods are actually working and which are not. Because of this, we often spend enormous amounts of time doing the things that are least effective in terms of making learning stick in our brains and then wonder why, after hours of work, we can recall or understand only a fraction of the material.
The book is organized into eight chapters that each begin with a story about a person – a pilot, an emergency room doctor, a military officer - that in some way exhibits the kind of learning and thinking we all strive for in our work. The authors then break down the case study by showing how and why those individuals were successful, and more often than not those individuals were successful not because they completely understood what they were doing at the time but because of some very good intuition. The authors, however, understand that many of us do not have that same level of intuition. By breaking down the stories of these highly successful individuals into their component parts and explaining the cognitive science behind their success, the authors hope to illustrate to their readers that success can be replicated.
The major claims of the book are laid out in the first chapter and then revisited again and again in different ways throughout each chapter. According to the authors, real learning takes work, and yet humans generally want to find the easiest path possible to their destination. Thus, we often choose to make things easier, but in doing so, we learn less. In keeping with this idea, the authors also contend that the most effective study methods are often counterintuitive and thus are the ones we most often ignore to our own detriment. For example, rereading texts or notes and massed practice are some of the least effective methods for deep learning according to cognitive research, and yet how many students spend the bulk of their study time doing just this? Spacing out one’s practice, elaborating on previous knowledge, and building organized mental models are key to lasting and deep knowledge according to the authors, but most of us are not doing these things. Why? Because when we do them, we often struggle more, and when we struggle, we often feel like we are not learning. So we go back to rereading and massed practice, which feels easier and in fact is easier, and convince ourselves we are experiencing success. Unfortunately, we have more often than not simply tricked ourselves into thinking we are learning the material. The authors call this the “illusion of knowing.” When we reread notes again and again, we become familiar with those notes to the point where we think we know the material, but really, say the authors, we are only fooling ourselves. We may have memorized those notes as they are written, but we have not mastered a true understanding of the underlying material.
The truth is that I think many teachers know much of what the authors say to be true and have known it for a while, but the cognitive science to support our hunches was not available until recently. We could thus talk until we were blue in the face to our students about why they shouldn’t just reread their notes as their primary study tool, but we had little data to show them why this was not a good idea and what to do instead. That’s why Make It Stick is so important. First, it provides the research in an easy to understand way. Second, at the end of every chapter, the authors provide “takeaways.” The takeaways are short snippets that tell the readers what not to do but more importantly, what to do instead. For example, if massed practice – doing the same kinds of problems again and again until one thinks they have them mastered – is not beneficial to long-term learning, what should a student do instead? The authors argue for effortful retrieval and spaced practice. Students should try and recall information from memory, and even if they can’t quite remember it all, just the very act of attempting to call up the information strengthens the brain’s connections. If teachers and students do not have time to read Make It Stick in its entirety, simply reading these takeaways at the end of each chapter would go a long way.
Since reading the book, I have begun to incorporate some of the ideas from the book into my classroom. For example, we have done many non-graded retrieval assessments a day or two after first introducing a topic. They are non-graded because the idea is to get students just to attempt to recall the information and make a stronger connection in the brain. Many students have self-reported that these seem to be helping. We have also begun to do old-fashioned pre-testing. Yes, the authors go back to some oldies but goodies, and this is what I found most refreshing. According to the cognitive research, pre-testing, even when students bomb the pre-test, primes the brain to receive the new information. Again, the pre-testing is no-stakes testing; it’s just a way to get student brains ready to make the connections they need to make learning stick. Finally, I’ve repeatedly talked with my students about not rereading their text or their notes. Instead of just telling them not to do this, however, I have been giving them other ideas about more effective study methods that I gathered from the book.
As I said at the beginning, there were quite a few moments when reading the book that the word "refreshing" came to mind. Let me end by explaining why that was so. It seems like in the world of education, the pendulum is always swinging from one far side to the other when a more balanced approach to teaching and learning is probably called for. This book appears to be calling for that more balanced approach. The authors show that some of our most tried and true methods of teaching and learning are in fact effective when properly tweaked. For example, they advocate the use of flashcards; However, they say that too often students remove flashcards from the pile too early. They advocate leaving the flashcards in longer and always reincorporating old flashcards into new material periodically. The authors also question the idea that people who receive instruction in a manner that matches their preferred learning style learn better. As a teacher who has been told by students who are struggling that they are having a hard time because they have a different learning style than the instructional method being used, this offered me a way of talking to those students about this very issue. Finally, the authors question those who advocate for “student-directed learning.” Given that people are so susceptible to misjudging what learning methods work best and fooling themselves into thinking they know and understand more than they do, the authors question the wisdom of handing over too much of the learning process to the youngest of learners. There is too much for me to unpack here about why the authors think this might not be the best idea, but if this is of interest to you, I highly encourage you to pick up the book.
The book Make It Stick has not been far from my side since I finished reading it. It has been going back and forth with me to work, and I have spoken of it to colleagues and to my students. I am seriously thinking about assigning it as summer reading to my students next year, and to me that might be the strongest recommendation I can give it.
Donna Lamberti is the Upper School AP History Teacher at UMS-Wright Preparatory School in Mobile, AL. She can be reached on Twitter @donnalamberti or via email.