Book Review: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

by: Craig S.Sep 29, 2017comments

Book Title: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Authors: Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel
Publisher: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, London, 2014, 313 pages, $29.00

This book was by far the most helpful book I have ever read in relation to learning how to learn.

The authors make the following claims: (1) learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful, (2) we are poor judges of when we are learning well, (3) retrieval practice (recalling facts or concepts or events from memory) is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading, (4) periodic practice stops forgetting, (5) interleaving the practice of two or more subjects makes retrieval harder but produces longer-lasting learning, (6) trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, (7) you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify your areas of weakness, (8) making mistakes and correcting them leads to advanced learning.

I felt like the following concepts related to learning were very helpful.

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. For example, in order to remember that warm air can hold more water than cold air, think of the drip of water from the back of the air conditioner.

Retrieval learning from memory tells you what you know and do not know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you are weak. Secondly, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory. There are various forms of retrieval practice including recitation, low-stakes quizzing, self-testing, spacing out the practice, interleaving the practice of different topics or skills, and trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution, and distilling the underlying principles that differentiate types of problems.

Reflection involves retrieving knowledge and earlier learning from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.

Testing. Studies in the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology showed that gains in learning continue to increase as the number of tests increases. Testing is also better than rereading in that it can better facilitate a transfer of knowledge to new concepts and problems and it improves one’s ability to retain.

Feedback on wrong answers strengthens retention more than testing alone does, and delaying feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.

Varied practice—like tossing beanbags into baskets at mixed distances or baseball batters practicing on randomly interspersed types of pitches–improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another.

Spaced practice, which allows some forgetting to occur between sessions, strengthens both the learning and the cues and routes for fast retrieval when that learning is needed again.

Generative learning means trying to solve a problem without the benefit of having been taught how to solve the problem. This is also called ‘trial and error’. This also leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution so long as corrective feedback is provided.

Association with pictures. Humans remember pictures more easily than words. For example, the image of an elephant is easier to recall than the word elephant. So associating mental images with verbal material makes it easier to recall from memory.

Mnemonic devices help you retrieve what you have learned and hold arbitrary information in memory.  For example, some schoolchildren are taught to remember the US Great Lakes in geographic order, from east to west: Old Elephants Have Musty Skin.

One thing I liked about the book was that it had numerous case studies of how various individuals excelled in learning. I also liked the fact that the authors exposed some myths such as the myth of errorless learning.  Errors are an integral part of striving to increase one’s mastery over new material. Kids who have been taught that errors are a natural part of learning showed significantly better use of working memory that did the others.

Craig S.

Craig has done ethnolinguistic research in southeast Asia which led to the publication of a two volume book on the minority languages of that area. He has also published six peer-reviewed articles on the minority languages of southeast Asia.