Make It Stick

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

Chapter 1: Learning is Misunderstood

  • Learning: acquiring knowledge and skills and having them available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
  • Aspects of learning
    1. Learning requires memory.
    2. Learning and remembering happens throughout our lifetime.
    3. Learning is an acquired skill.
  • The best ways to learn
    • Retrieval practice: recalling facts or concepts or events from memory.
      • E.g. Tests, quizzes, flash cards.
    • Spaced practice: spreading out your practice sessions.
      • E.g. Studying for an hour and then taking a break versus cramming.
    • Interleaved practice: mixing different, but related, subjects while studying.
      • E.g. Studying computer science and computational neuroscience at the same time.
    • Attempt practice: attempting a problem before being taught the solution.
      • E.g. Not looking at the answers immediately.
  • One of the best habits of a learner is to regularly self-quiz themselves to recalibrate their understanding.
  • Learning is deeper and more durable when its effortful.
  • We’re poor judges of when we’re learning well and when we’re not.
  • Rereading a text and massed practice of a skill/new knowledge is often touted but is the least productive.
  • Learning styles are not supported by evidence.
  • Extract the underlying principles or rules.
  • Learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.
  • Putting new knowledge into a larger context is effective.
  • Extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model, then connect that to prior knowledge.
  • Repetition by itself does not lead to good long-term memory.
  • Students work hard to capture every word they hear, labouring under the misapprehension that the essence of the subject lies in the syntax in which its described.
  • Mastering the lecture or text isn’t the same as mastering the ideas behind them.
  • Questions to ask yourself
    • Had he used the set of key concepts in the back of each chapter to test himself?
    • Could he look at a concept, define it, and use it in a paragraph?
    • While he was reading, had he thought of converting the main points of the text into a series of questions and then later tried to answer them while he was studying?
    • Had he at least rephrased the main ideas in his own words as he read?
    • Had he tried to relate them to what he already knew?
    • Had he looked for examples outside the text?
  • One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.
  • Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.
  • Retrieval (testing) interrupts forgetting.
  • Distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate problems.

Chapter 2: To Learn, Retrieve

  • A central challenge to improve learning is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.
  • Practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than re-exposure to the original material does.
  • To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that recall, rather than becoming mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort.
  • Repeated retrieval can embed knowledge and skills that become reflexive. The brain acts before the mind has time to think.
  • Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice as creativity requires a foundation of knowledge.
  • When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.
  • Cumulative learning effects that accrue like compound interest when course material is carried forward in a regime of quizzes across an entire semester.
  • Giving feedback strengthens retention more than testing alone does, but delaying the feedback produces even better results.
  • The implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, the greater the retention results.
  • The act of retrieving a memory changes the memory, making it easier to retrieve again later.
  • Effortful, delayed, repeated, tested retrieval.

Chapter 3: Mix Up Your Practice

  • Most of us believe that learning is better when you focus with a single purpose in mind. This is a myth.
  • Practice is more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out.
  • The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows isn’t.
  • The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of re-triggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.
  • The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice but the tradeoff is the long term growth.
  • The basic idea is that varied practice improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another.
  • For our learning to have practical value, we must be adept at discerning “What kind of problem is this?” so we can select and apply an appropriate solution.
  • The commonalities among works proved less useful than the differences between works when discriminating works.
  • The kind of retrieval practice that proves most effective is one that reflects what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later.
  • “Practice like you play and you will play like you practice.”
  • Placing too much emphasis on variety runs the risk of underemphasizing repeated retrieval practice on the basis.
  • The better your mastery, the less frequent the practice, but if it’s important to retain, it will never disappear completely from your set of practice boxes.
  • In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete.

Chapter 4: Embrace Difficulties

  • Short term impediments that make for stronger learning have come to be called as “desirable difficulties”.
  • Consolidation helps organize and solidify learning and so does retrieval after a lapse of some time.
  • The act of retrieving a memory from long-term storage can both strengthen the memory traces and make them modifiable again. This process is called reconsolidation.
  • Learning, remembering, and forgetting work together in interesting ways.
    1. As we re-code and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely.
    2. We must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked.
  • The task is more than committing knowledge to memory, being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important.
  • While we have an infinite capacity to learn, we don’t have an infinite capacity to retrieve what we’ve learnt.
  • It is one skill to hit a curveball when you know a curveball will be thrown; it is a different skill to hit a curveball when you don’t know its coming. Baseball players need to build the latter skill but they often practice the former skill.
  • The paradox is that some forgetting is often essential for new learning.
  • The paradox is at the heart of the concept of desirable difficulties in learning: the more effort required to retrieve something, the better you learn it. In other words, the more you’ve forgotten about a topic, the more effective relearning will be in shaping your permanent knowledge.
  • Interleaving and variation mix up the contexts of practice and the other skills and knowledge with which the new material is associated. This makes our mental models more versatile, enabling us to apply learning to a broader range of situations.
  • It’s thought that this heightened sensitivity to similarities and differences during interleaved practice leads to the encoding of more complex and nuanced representations of the study material.
  • Its better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution. It’s better to attempt a solution and supply the incorrect answer than not to make the attempt.
  • A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure.
  • Failure underlies the scientific method. The qualities of persistence and resiliency, where failure is seen as useful information, underlies successful innovation.
  • It isn’t failure that’s desirable, it’s the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn’t that sometimes only failure can reveal.
  • Generative learning is generating the answer rather than recalling it. Aka trial and error.
  • To be desirable, a difficulty must be something learners can overcome through increased effort.
  • Learning is a three step process
    1. Encoding
    2. Consolidation
    3. Retrieval
  • Learning always builds on a store of prior knowledge. We interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know.
  • When practice conditions are varied or retrieval is interleaved with practice from other material, we increase our abilities of discrimination and induction and the versatility with which we can apply the learning in new settings.

Chapter 5: Avoid Illusions of Knowing

  • One problem with poor judgement is that we usually don’t know when we’ve got it.
  • Learning when to trust your intuition and when to question it is a big part of how you improve your competence in the world at large and in any field where you want to be an expert.
  • Our understanding of the world is shaped by a hunger for narrative that rises out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events.
  • When surprising things happen, we search for an explanation.
  • Narrative and memory become one. The memories we organize meaningfully become those that are better remembered.
  • Memory has some similarities to a Google search algorithm. The more links then the greater the chance is retrieving it.
  • Memory can be distorted in many ways. Imagination inflation, suggestion, interference, curse of knowledge, false consensus effect.
  • Confidence in a memory isn’t a reliable indication of its accuracy.
  • We must cultivate the ability to discern when our mental models aren’t working: when a situation that seems familiar is actually different and requires that we reach for a different solution and do something new.
  • Incompetent people lack the skills to improve because they are unable to distinguish between incompetence and competence.
  • For success everything must go right, but by contrast, failure can be attributed to any number of external causes.
  • The answer to illusion and misjudgment is to replace subjective experience as the basis for decisions with a set of objective gauges outside ourselves, so that our judgement squares with the real world around us.
  • Don’t put stock into momentary gains that result from massed practice. Space your testing, vary your practice, keep the long term view.
  • Use an external judge. Think of the kids lining up to join the softball team - would you be picked?
  • Peer review serves as an external gauge that provides feedback.
  • Action beats reaction. First mover advantage.
  • Sometimes the most powerful feedback for calibrating your sense of what you do and don’t know are the mistakes you make in the field, assuming your survive them and are receptive to the lesson.

Chapter 6: Get Beyond Learning Styles

  • While it’s true that most all of us have a decided preference for how we like to learn new material, the premise behind learning styles is that we learn better when the mode of presentation matches the particular style in which an individual is best able to learn. That’s the critical claim.
  • Three parts of intelligence
    • Analytical
    • Creative
    • Practical
  • Where aptitude tests and learning styles emphasizes our strengths and encourages us to focus on them, dynamic testing helps us to discover our weakness and correct them.
  • High structure builders learn new material better than low structure builders.
  • High structure builders develop the skill to identify foundational concepts and their key building blocks and to sort new information based on whether it adds to the larger structure and one’s knowledge or is extraneous and can be put aside.
  • Cultivating the habit of reflecting on one’s experiences, of making them into a story, strengthens learning.
  • Be the one in charge. Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills, and processes, is a quest.
  • Embrace the notion of successful intelligence. You will become ever more competent and versatile if you also use testing and trial and error to continue to improve in the areas where your knowledge or performance are not pulling their weight.
  • Adopt active learning strategies
    • Be aggressive with retrieval practice, distributed, interleaved testing.
    • Don’t rely on what feels best.
    • Don’t assume that you’re doing something wrong if the learning feels hard.
    • Distill the underlying principles; build the structure. What kind of scaffold or framework can you imagine that holds these central ideas together.
  • By abstracting the underlying rules and piecing them into a structure, you go for more than knowledge. You go for knowhow and that kind of mastery will put you ahead.

Chapter 7: Increase Your Abilities

  • From the time a child enters first grade, through high school, college, and beyond, there is little change in the number of synapses. It’s during this time when no, or little, synapse formation occurs that most learning takes place.
  • Cognitive multipliers: growth mindset, practicing like an expert, and constructing memory cues.
  • Performance goals vs learning goals. The second goal means you aim for harder tasks and don’t try to validate what you already know.
  • When you praise for intelligence, kids get the message that being smart is what matters. Emphasizing effort gives a child a rare variable they can control, but emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of a child’s control and provides a no good recipe for responding to failure.
  • The realization is that the power to increase your abilities lies largely within your own control.
  • If doing something repeatedly might be considered practice, deliberate practice is a different animal: its goal directed, often solitary, and consists of repeated striving to reach beyond your current level of performance.
  • Most people who achieve expertise in a field are destined to remain average performers in the other realms of life.
  • Expert performance is a product of the quantity and quality of practice, not of genetic predisposition and that becoming an expert isn’t beyond the reach of normally gifted people.
  • The memory palace serves not as a learning tool but as a method to organize what’s already been learned so as to be readily retrievable at essay time.
  • Effortful learning changes the brain.
  • “Why bother?” we make the effort because the effort extends the boundaries of our abilities.
  • What we do shapes who we become and what we’re capable of doing. The more we do, the more we can do.
  • Mastery comes from self discipline, grit, and persistence.

Chapter 8: Make It Stick

Learning Tips for Students

  • Practice retrieving new learning from memory
  • Space out your retrieval practice
  • Interleaved the study of different problem types
  • Other effective study strategies
    • Elaboration: finding additional layers of meaning in new material.
    • Generation: attempting to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer/solution.
    • Reflection: reflecting on learned material.
    • Calibration: aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback.
    • Mnemonic devices: ways to store information and find it again.

Tips for Teachers

  • Some kinds of difficulties during learning help to make the learning stronger and better remembered.
  • When learning is easy, it is often superficial and soon forgotten.
  • Not all of our intellectual abilities are hardwired. In fact, when learning is effortful, it changes the brain, making new connections and increasing intellectual ability.
  • You learn better when you wrestle with new problems before being shown the solution, rather than the other way around.
  • To achieve excellence in any sphere, you must strive to surpass your current level of ability.
  • Striving, by its nature, often results in setbacks, and setbacks are often what provide the essential information needed to adjust strategies to achieve mastery.

Summary Notes from an Amazon Review


Conventional Wisdom: Make learning easy

Best practice: Design learning with desirable difficulties

Discussion: “Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful.” “Difficulties that elicit more effort and that slow down learning… will more than compensate for their inconvenience by making the learning stronger, more precise, and more enduring. Short-term impediments that make for stronger learning have come to be called desirable difficulties.” “Don’t assume you are doing something wrong if the learning feels hard.” “Not all difficulties in learning are desirable ones. Anxiety while taking a test seems to represent an undesirable difficulty.” Slow down to find meaning. Always read prior to the lecture. “Training has to be engaging in order to hold employees’ attention.”

Conventional Wisdom: Concentrate on one topic at a time (aka. massed practice)

Best practice: Interleave different but related topics

Discussion: “Learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice.” While interleaving can impede performance during initial learning (tests taken immediately after exposure), interleaving has been show to boost “final test performance by a remarkable 215 percent.” In addition, “commonalities… learned through massed practice proved less useful than the differences … learned through interleaving.” “In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete… You need to shuffle your flashcards.”

Conventional Wisdom: Reread material multiple times and in close succession

Best practice: Space repetition

Discussion: “Repetition by itself does not lead to good long-term memory… It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse [at least a day in between] since the first reading.” “The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.” “Design quizzing and exercises to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term, so that retrieval practices continues and the learning is cumulative.” Spiral upward at increasing levels of difficulty with each re-exposure.

Conventional Wisdom: Reread to lock-in knowledge

Best practice: Focus on effortful recall of facts or concepts or events from memory (aka. Retrieval practice)

Discussion: “Retrieving knowledge and skill from memory should become your primary study strategy in place of rereading.” There are many methods of retrieval practice. Elaboration, expressing new material in your own words and connecting it with what you already know to find new layers of meaning, for instance by writing daily summaries, is the most effective. Moreover, “cultivating the habit of reflecting on ones’ experiences, of making them into a story, strengthens learning.” Essays and short answer tests are the next most effective durable learning strategies because they involve “Generation… an attempt to answer a question… before being shown the answer”, followed by practice with flash cards, reflection, and, least effective though still useful, multiple choice or true/false questions. To foster this, convert main points into questions to answer during subsequent studying rather than (or in addition to) highlighting and underling,

Conventional Wisdom: Conduct pop-quizzes and high-stakes post-testing with a goal toward errorless results

Best practice: Conduct frequent, predictable, low-stakes testing (including pre-testing)

Discussion: “Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” In fact, “making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.” In addition, frequent quizzing - especially when quizzes are announced in advance - actually reduces learner anxiety. With respect to anxiety, the peak-end rule applies; people judge experiences based on how they were at the peak and at the end. Appreciate that “errors are a natural part of learning.” “Make quizzing and practice exercises count toward the course grade, even if for very low stakes.” Set “clear learning objectives prior to each class.”

Conventional Wisdom: Match instructional style to each learner’s preference

Best practice: Match instructional style to the nature of the content

Discussion: While people do have preferred learning styles (ex: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile), empirical research does not support the notion that learning in your preferred style leads to superior outcomes. “When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.”

Conventional Wisdom: Memorize

Best practice: Extract underlying principles (aka “rule learning” and “structure building”)

Discussion: “It is better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution.” “Mnemonic devise are sometimes discounted as tricks of memory, not tools that fundamentally add to learning, and in a sense this is correct. The value of mnemonics to raise intellectual abilities comes after mastery of new material.”

Conventional Wisdom: Learn abstract concepts

Best practice: Learn using methods and examples that are concrete and personal

Discussion: “The kind of retrieval practice that proves most effective is one that reflects what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later. It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later.” Simulations and role-playing are excellent techniques. “Difficulties that don’t strengthen the skills you will need, or the kinds of challenges you are likely to encounter in the real-world application of your learning, are not desirable.” “Practice like you play, because you will play like you practice.” “Sustained deliberate practice… [is] goal-directed, often solitary, and consists of repeated striving to reach beyond your current level of performance.”

Conventional Wisdom: Read without pausing

Best practice: Spend 40% of time reading and 60% of time “looking up from the material and silently reciting” what it contains.

Conventional Wisdom: Provide immediate feedback

Best practice: Delay feedback

Discussion: “Delaying the feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.” That said, receiving immediate corrective feedback is better than receiving no feedback at all.

Conventional Wisdom: Review all concepts equally

Best practice: Disproportionately focus on the least familiar material (aka dynamic testing)

Discussion: To increase frequency of practice on less familiar material without completely ignoring the most familiar material, use the Leitner box method. “Think of it as a series of four file-card boxes. In the first are the study materials… that must be practices frequently because you often make mistakes in them. In the second box are the cards you’re pretty good at, and that box gets practiced less often than the first, perhaps by half. The cards in the third box are practiced less often than those in the second box, and so on.”

Conventional Wisdom: Accept that IQ is fixed

Best practice: Focus on mindset

Discussion: “Average IQs have risen over the past century with changes in living conditions… IQ is a product of genes and environment” including increased stimulation, nurturing, nutrition “One difference that matters a lot is how you see yourself and your abilities. As the maxim goes, ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’” Adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset; “consider your expertise to be in a continuing state of development.” “Success is less dependent on IQ than on grit, curiosity, and persistence.” Knowledge is a foundational element of creativity, critical thinking, and application. “The upper limits of your performance on any cognitive or manual skill may be set by factors beyond your control, such as you intelligence and the natural limits of your ability, but most of us can learn to perform nearer to our full potential in most areas by discovering our weaknesses and working to bring them up.” “Achieving expertise in any field if particular to that field… The central idea here is that expert performance is a product of the quantity of and the quality of practice, not of genetic predisposition, and that becoming expert is not beyond the reach of normally gifted people who have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.”

Conventional Wisdom: Trust your own sense of mastery

Best practice: Calibrate your judgment

Discussion: “Calibration is the act of aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so as to avoid being carried off by the illusions of mastery that catch many learning by surprise at test time.”

Note: This book practices what it preaches with lots and lots of repetition. The authors are up-front about that but it does get well… repetitive.