Thoughts on Make it Stick

My book this February was Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.  The authors objective in writing this book was to “better bridge the gap between basic knowledge on learning in cognitive psychology and its application in education.”  The book begins by addressing some of the most common ways that learning is misunderstood. Then the authors present the critical findings from cognitive psychology and the bearing of those findings on learning.  The last section of the book offers practical advice for both students and teachers.

The authors identify several critical misunderstandings about learning:  learning is better when it is easy and fast, the most effective way to learn a new skill is to practice repeatedly until you’ve got it, rereading is an effective mechanism for learning, and that instruction should be targeted to the learners preferred learning style.  They support their identification of these misunderstandings with evidence from studies as well as illustrative anecdotes. The authors then present and discuss effective strategies for learning. Retrieval practice is the first learning strategy discussed and it is addressed at some length.  The authors explain that retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts or concepts or events from memory like quizzing or testing yourself to see what you know. It is most effective when done regularly at intervals of varying length. The spacing of these “retrieval sessions” should be long enough that retrieving the information requires cognitive work rather than mindless repetition.  Another strategy focused on at length is that of interleaving. “Interleaving” is the practice of devoting study time to different skills, types of problems, or subjects rather than “massing” time on a specific type of problem, for example. The authors provide explanations and copious evidence of how concepts such as desirable difficulty, elaboration, mental models, and generative learning positively impact learning.  

I thought this book was great!  I would go out on a limb and suggest that it is a must read for teachers and perhaps even students too.  It is written in an accessible and relatable style that is engaging and eye-opening. While reading the chapter that tackles misconceptions about learning, I saw myself both as a teacher and a student in those descriptions.  I suspect that I’m not alone in this! Throughout the book, I found myself wondering why so much of the book’s content was new to me. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of staying current in my knowledge, but, somehow, I missed much of this. The book prompted me to do a bit more digging into the topic and I came across a great website that has great resources.  Check out thelearningscientists.org.  As teachers, there are many opportunities for us to incorporate this research into our own practice.  I think that the most important way is by naming these techniques for our students, explaining why they are effective, and encouraging them to use these strategies.  Providing our students with instruction around how learning works is a skill from which they will continue to benefit as lifelong learners.
March’s book is A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger.

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