Everything you know about learning is wrong. Well, not exactly, but as Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel explain in their book, Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, a lot of our most commonly employed strategies for learning have proven ineffective in research. And some unintuitive learning techniques yield better results.
Roediger and McDaniel, professors of psychology at Washington University of St. Louis, have spent years researching how people learn and retain information, and Brown, a novelist, has helped them distill their findings along with other cognitive science research into this book.
We’re doing learning wrong.
The book stresses two main points:
- You may think you’re learning when you’re not.
- You may think you’re not learning when you are.
Essentially, long-standing study techniques like cramming, reviewing texts, highlighting, and writing outlines make us feel that we’re learning tons of good stuff, but we’re not really activating long-term memory, so the information quickly slips away.
And less common techniques like spaced retrieval or mixed practice make study more challenging and make us feel stupid and frustrated. But these unpleasant practices yield results in the long run.
The authors dive into tons of amazing studies, surprising results, and real-world examples of good learning in action. The book also includes effective tips for students, teachers, managers, employees, mentors, and anyone involved in the acquisition of new information or skills. Here are my three key takeaways:
- Challenge your memory.
- Make a mash-up of practice.
- Drop the common assumptions that hold you back.
Good memory comes from hard practice.
If you’ve ever done flashcards, you know that when you test yourself on specific facts over and over, you will start to remember them. But if you want to really embed that information in your brain, you have to challenge yourself by spacing out your recall. In other words, once you’ve read a new piece of information, try recalling it the next day. Then wait a few days and try again. It’ll be hard to remember. You might have to look it up. Then wait a bit longer and try again. Each time you strive to remember the information, you’re building stronger and stronger mental associations with it.
The authors describe their research with middle school kids in which they offered spaced quizzes to a subset of eighth graders. The quizzes forced students to recall information they had learned days or weeks before and helped them retain it over the year. Those who took the quizzes had an A- average after three semesters, and those who didn’t had a C+ average.
The problem with this approach is that it feels bad. Every time we try hard to recall information and can’t do it, we feel like we’re not learning. But the difficulty is the secret sauce. It makes the learning stick.
Testing yourself at increasing intervals over a period of time also makes learning more meaningful. From Make It Stick:
“In fact, research indicates that testing, compared to rereading, can facilitate better transfer of knowledge to new contexts and problems, and that it improves one’s ability to retain and retrieve material that is related but not tested.”
Teachers have incorporated this technique in classes by giving frequent quizzes that are meant to help students make that extra effort at retrieval over time and learn where they need more work. On the job, managers and trainers can space out review sessions after a class to ask employees to remember and apply new information.
Practice several topics at once to add more desirable difficulty.
Just as spacing out recall adds challenge to study, mixing up different topics or “interleaving,” stresses the brain and improves learning results. Usually we learn how to do one thing or solve one kind of problem at a time. If we switch practice between two or more tasks or problems, we have to work a little harder.
Research with college students learning geometry found that interleaving caused students to learn more slowly, but when they did learn the material, they retained it better. After one week, they performed more than three times better on the problems than students who learned one type of problem at a time.
Any variation in study deepens our understanding because we’re not just learning to solve problems; we’re also learning to discriminate among different kinds of problems. So we’re developing a high-order “conceptual knowledge.”
From Make It Stick:
“Conceptual knowledge requires an understanding of the interrelationships of the basic elements within a larger structure that enables them to function together.”
Mixing up practice is frustrating, and formal classes almost never use it despite proven results, but for those who are developing their skills in the real world, such as learning on the job, interleaving and variation come naturally. That may be one of the reasons that learning by doing can be so effective.
If you want to learn something, forget what you know about learning.
It turns out that we humans are pretty bad judges of our own ability. We suffer from several illusions that warp our assessments about existing abilities and progress in acquiring new skills.
- We forget the effort required to learn a skill and so underestimate how long it will take others to master. This is the “curse of knowledge.”
- We can read a well-written explanation of a difficult concept and assume it’s really very simple. This is a “fluency illusion.”
- We overrate our competence in topics where we are least competent. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect.
- We use learning techniques, like focused review of textbooks, that make us feel like we’re progressing but don’t get results.
In addition to these various delusions, we also hold common assumptions that have not held up under research. For example, there are no “learning styles” in the sense of “aural learners” or “visual learners.” You might prefer to consume material visually, but you can still learn quite well by listening to a lecture. The learning mode is most effective when it matches the topic. For example, motor skills are best mastered by doing. Graphic design is best absorbed visually.
The authors point out that the most successful learners are those who pull out the generalizations and principles from the information they receive. They can identify key ideas and relationships, which help them handle not only the examples they learn from but similar situations they may encounter in the future.
The authors also refer to research by Carol Dweck and K. Anders Ericsson that suggests we are not born with “talent” that propels us into greatness in a specific field. People who believe they can learn new skills at any age and are willing to devote attention and energy toward practice are able to master abilities regardless of genetic makeup.
Effective learning is hard, but it doesn’t have to be discouraging.
It’s clear from the research discussed in this book that learning takes effort, focus, and patience. And the authors point out how hard it is to adopt good learning habits because they don’t feel good.
But, they also remind us that we learn in order to accomplish meaningful tasks. And if we can make that goal the main focus of training, instead of tests, surveys or reviews, we can view study as an on-going, purposeful process we engage in every day. And the work may not feel so onerous.
Thanks to Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel for a fascinating discussion of insightful research and great advice for learners young and old, avid and reluctant.
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