Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Most of the fashionable study habits and practice routines you’re using are counterproductive to your long-term learning. Based on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology, Make It Stick overturns these outdated ideas and offers you concrete strategies to help you improve your learning skills. This book is a must-have if you’re interested in lifelong learning and self-improvement.

Summary Notes

To retrieve is to learn

There are several aspects of learning that we can all agree on. The first is that learning requires memory. Second, learning is a lifelong process that goes beyond your school years. Third, learning is a skill you must work to acquire. Unfortunately, most of the strategies used by learners and teachers go against these three aforementioned points. For example, we assume that rereading something helps you master the content. Teachers encourage students to study a textbook repeatedly to burn the material into their memory.

Repetition by itself does not lead to good long-term memory. It simply creates an illusion of knowing. You end up mastering a concept word-for-word but barely have an understanding of the ideas behind it.

The key to learning anything for the long term is to practice retrieving it from memory. It’s not enough to read the material. You have to challenge your memory periodically to see whether you truly understand the content or not. Test yourself regularly and allow your brain to struggle through the process of recalling what you’ve learned. The more effort you put into retrieving the information from your brain, the more you strengthen the memory in the long run.

Actions to take

Mix up your practice

“If learning can be defined as picking up new knowledge or skills and being able to apply them later, then how quickly you pick something up is only part of the story. Is it still there when you need to use it out in the everyday world?”

One of the pervasive beliefs about learning is that we learn better and faster if we focus on one thing exclusively. Whether it’s students in class, athletes in the field, or corporate employees, the focus is on practicing the same routine repeatedly until you see an improvement. This is referred to as “massed practice.”

To be fair, massed practice does yield rapid gains. For example, you can learn a new language quickly if you go to a summer boot camp where you focus on one language until you nail it. But the problem with massed practice is that it also results in rapid forgetting. Since you’re cramming the material, you may pass the test that’s due the next day but you will remember very little a few months down the line.

A better way to learn is to space out your learning. Practice is more effective when you break up your training into separate periods that are spaced out. You can also mix things up by practicing different skills at the same time. It may take you longer to master each skill, and it may require more effort overall, but you’ll experience more long-term gains.

Actions to take

Embrace difficulties in your learning process

“The easier knowledge or a skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit your retention of it. Conversely, the more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it”

When you’re learning something for the first time, you watch and listen to your instructor as they explain the subject to you. Your brain converts all your sensory perceptions into a meaningful mental image that you can easily understand. This process of learning is known as “encoding,” and it’s what is responsible for your short-term memory. Think of the first time you learned to tie your shoes. It’s easy to get it right the first few times because you had just learned it.

However, if you want to learn something and transfer it into your long-term memory, you have to strengthen the memory further. Your brain has to process, reorganize and stabilize the new information you’ve learned. Your brain rehearses the information, gives it a deeper meaning, and connects it to knowledge already stored in your long-term memory. This process is known as “consolidation,” and it often takes a long time for your brain to do this.

To help your brain consolidate new information, you have to push it to retrieve the memory of what you’ve learned. You need to put yourself in situations where you’re forced to practice what you’ve learned—this time without an instructor or textbook. Even if you forget what you’ve learned, pushing yourself to retrieve this knowledge through continual practice encourages your brain to recode, consolidate and anchor the memory further.

Actions to take

Avoid deluding yourself

“The problem with poor judgment is that we usually don’t know when we’ve got it”

One thing that makes you an effective human is your ability to correctly gauge your performance. You’re constantly judging what you know and don’t know so that you can determine your ability to perform a task or solve a problem. Unfortunately, most people have a distorted perception of how knowledgeable they are. We tell ourselves that we’re smarter than the next guy even if we’re not. Thus we fall into a delusion that may lead to poor judgment.

This is often the result of perceptual illusions, faulty narratives, and distortions of memory caused by subjective reasoning. Sometimes we fail to recognize when a new type of problem requires a new type of solution. Other times we overestimate our competence and thus see no need to change. We also construct mental stories about the world around us and our role in it.

Good judgment doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a skill you acquire by becoming an astute observer of your thinking and performance. You have to learn to recognize competence in others, become a better judge of what you know versus what you don’t, and embrace learning strategies that provide credible results. At the end of the day, you’re learning must be based on reality rather than an illusion of knowing.

Actions to take

Overcome the myth of learning styles

For years, we’ve been told that there are different learning styles and that every individual has a unique way of processing information. Some people are visual learners, others prefer written text, while others would rather listen to a lecture. Furthermore, it’s believed that those who are taught in a way that doesn’t match their unique learning style are at a disadvantage. But research suggests that differences in learning style don’t matter as much as previously assumed.

While it’s true that most people do have a preferred learning style, there is little scientific evidence to show that you learn better when the mode of instruction matches your particular style. It is more important for the mode of instruction to match the nature of the subject being taught. For example, visual instruction is perfect for teaching geometry while verbal instruction works well for poetry.

Furthermore, you need to recognize that you have many different types of intelligence. You can rely on your logical, spatial, linguistic, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligence. There’s no need to limit yourself to one specific learning style when you have access to multiple intelligences. Simply draw on whatever form of intelligence you need in a particular situation.

Actions to take

Increase your intellectual abilities

For years, we were told that the brain is hardwired and that our intellectual capacity is set from birth. But we now know that this isn’t true. Your brain is remarkably plastic, which means you can increase your intellectual abilities even into old age. Though genetics are important, your environment also plays a big role in your intellectual development. There are environmental multipliers that can enhance your intellectual proficiency to surpass someone with similar genetics.

Furthermore, some specific strategies and behaviors act as cognitive multipliers to increase the performance of your intelligence. These cognitive multipliers empower you to develop mental models that enhance your reasoning, creativity, and problem-solving skills. By embracing these mental models, you can align your thoughts and actions and start taking full responsibility for your intellectual growth.

Actions to take

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