Make It Stick and a Short Manifesto On Learning

Make It Stick

Note: In this post, I’ve reviewed Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, but I couldn’t help including a short manifesto on the importance of effective learning. Feel free to skip down to the book review if that’s your fancy.

“The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competitors, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.”

— Bill Gates

Productivity nerds: eat your hearts out.

For all the time management junkies out there, the people concerned with personal effectiveness, the people concerned with lifetime investment — have you ever considered that becoming an effective learner is one of the best decisions you can make?

I know there’s diet and exercise — no brainers. And if you get a little more sophisticated, you learn about breathing techniques, you study time and relationship management principles, and if you’re like me, you realize it’s pretty much required (always has been, actually) to be a continuous learner if you want to be successful. Though there are many forms, I think the best piece of advice is this: Read. A lot.

But even if you could discipline yourself to sit down and read consistently — hopefully not the crap that most people read nowadays — how confident are you that the information you just read will stick with you? Will you remember it in one month or one year? Even if you took notes and highlighted and underlined the book — are you in a position to state what you know if someone asked you to? If you’re like me, the answer is no.

And that’s okay. I am a strong believer in the power of the subconscious. A small percentage of the stuff we read is really impactful, consciously or unconsciously, and it’s the sum total of all of our intellectual efforts that will ultimately make the biggest difference over the course of our lives.

If you’ve been at this for awhile, you realize there’s not going to be enough time to read all of the most important books, that there are more books coming out today that are of value than we can ever possibly read.

I argue that you will ultimately get more out of your education if you have better tools at your disposal to increase the amount of information that sticks with you over a long period of time.

Okay, so book review time.

What I’m most impressed with about this book is the fact that the authors are reluctant to take sides without solid evidence. When a relatively new direction of thinking is introduced but not yet completely verified by scientific studies, they say so. Most of the conventional wisdom we’ve subscribed to our entire lives is not based in fact. It’s based on theory. And surprisingly, a lot of that theory is extremely wrong.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it debunks some of the most widespread, ineffective learning paradigms that have been propagated by our school systems for years.

For example, most of us were taught that it was a good thing to reread text to refresh our memory. The most diligent students I knew (thankfully, I wasn’t very diligent until after I graduated college) would read chapters at least twice, and they would re-read their notes, and even a few crazy ones would re-listen to lectures. Sure, they got good grades on the tests — usually, anyway. But the truth is, rereading text is an extremely time-consuming, almost useless technique, in terms of true learning. It actually leads to what the author calls an “illusion of knowing” — namely, people think they have mastered material because they are more familiar with the text. But switch up the wording on the test or ask these people three months after the class to apply the information in a real life scenario, and their true amount of “learning” will be exposed.

What about mass repetition? Is repetition a good way to memorize information? Teachers have been recommending this method for years. And.. well, it’s simply not a good use of time. It will improve our short-term learning of the information we keep repeating, but it’s more likely to lead to a false sense of confidence in mastery of the material.

I could go on and on, but you really just need to pick up this book and read it. It’s a quick read, and by applying the authors’ techniques throughout the book, you will remember the information in it.

I must say, when I’m preparing to write any type of commentary about a book or about anything that includes a book’s contents for that matter, I usually have the book close at hand. It’s good practice when you want to quote directly, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to list much of the book’s suggestions straight from my memory (after the fact, I did go through my notes to confirm that these were correct, with one exception that I edited):

  1. Retrieval practice — Continuously and cumulatively testing ourselves on the material without referring to notes. Very different from the practice of rereading.
  2. Spaced repetition — Allowing time to pass in between practices. It can even be beneficial to allow for some forgetting, but too much time for forgetting will end up being like having to learn the material new all over again.
  3. Interleaving / Mixing — Mixing up different problems instead of clumping similar types together.
  4. Elaboration — Tying together the material we learn with something we already know in order to find deeper meaning behind it.
  5. Generation — Attempting to solve a problem without knowing the solution before finding out the solution. Challenging our brain to retrieve information (even if it isn’t there) leads to stronger impressions once we do learn the correct information, so long as we’re not fooled into believing our incorrect answers are correct.
  6. Reflection — Self explanatory. Go over a past situation and ask yourself if it could have been done better, how it made you feel and what it made you think. What can you learn from it? Reflection is also a form of retrieval and generation (I did cheat and return to the text to confirm this sentence).
  7. Growth Mindset — The attitude that the harder we work at something, the better we will be. We are to take charge of our own learning and constantly seek out progressively difficult topics to grow. Example: complimenting kids by calling them smart leads them to seek out situations where they look smart — thereby not ones that are difficult for them, whereas complimenting them by telling them they are hard workers leads them to embrace failure and keep trying, ultimately ending in increased total learning.
  8. Mnemonic Techniques and Deliberate Practice — Deliberate practice is often guided. It is the (often done alone) act of constantly honing skills, increasing the difficulty, applying it to different situations, as opposed to repetitively doing that which we already know. Mnemonics are memory techniques — tools — that increase our capacity to hold more information. For example, there is the pegging method, where we align images to numbers and use cues from the sounds and pictures associated to that number to store information. It can also be used to form acronyms. We can use the “location method” to remember sequences and groupings of mass information. There are many different ways to use mnemonics and true practice of these memory techniques is a discipline in itself.

I’m very excited about the future of learning. This is the first book I’ve read of it’s kind, but I’m also very interested in checking out newer releases: How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey and Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization by Edward D. Hess.


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