TYPE: Non-fiction (science, philosophy), practical.
SUMMARY: Tools, strategies and stories to help students, teachers and trainers learn more effectively based on 10 years of collaboration between 11 cognitive psychologists – collected and synthesised by author Peter Brown and psychology researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel.
IN A NUTSHELL: “The responsibility for learning rests with the individual [and] the techniques for highly effective learning outlined in this book can be used right now everywhere learners, teachers and trainers are at work. They come at no cost, they require no structural reform, and the benefits they promise are both real and long-lasting.”
What’s more, both learning-how-to-learn and learning itself are entirely in your control. You can make yourself smarter.
And though it’s a challenging, life-long journey, we’ve learned much about how that process works.
Yet despite these discoveries, disproven myths, outdated theories and ineffective techniques are still common and hold many of us back.
Instead of buying into those myths, it’s important to realise three things:
- Mindless repetition does not build memory – quality, type and timing of repetition are each as important as quantity;
- Fluency is not the same as understanding – just because you can repeat something, it doesn’t mean you get it;
- Creativity and knowledge are not separate – creativity requires knowledge, and knowledge must be memorised.
Dispelling these myths and laying out an alternative, more practical path to better learning is Make It Stick‘s purpose.
Chapter 1 (Learning is Misunderstood) lays out the book’s main arguments. Namely that:
- Rereading and massed practice are popular but ineffective.
- In reality, good learning is active learning…
- Active learning means working smart and hard…
- And working smart and hard is difficult and takes effort
In other words, learning isn’t easy. And anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling you lies.
Chapters two to seven lay out the evidence and implications of recent discoveries in cognitive psychology:
- To Learn, Retrieve – Promotes effortful retrieval as an effective way to learn. Instead of dreading them, it urges us to see tests as valuable learning tools and to find ways to constantly quiz ourselves as we learn.
- Mix Up Your Practice – Discusses the value of mixing up topics and problems, varying practice conditions and spacing your practice over time in improving retention and generalising learning.
- Embrace Difficulties – Reinforces the point that the three stages of learning (encoding, consolidation and retrieval) are active and depend on you making mistakes. To learn effectively, stop looking for easy ways out and accept that getting smart takes time and effort.
- Avoid Illusions of Knowing – Warns us against mistaking fluency for knowledge. It recommends actively avoiding your comfort zone and using testing and teaching as tools to keep you honest about what you do and don’t know.
- Get Beyond Learning Styles – Suggests using a wide range of active strategies to maximise learning. For the best results, break down your topic to discover its underlying principles then learn how to combine those raw components creatively.
- Increase Your Abilities – Revisits the importance of effortful learning. It highlights the importance of a growth mindset, self-discipline, grit and persistence in changing the brain.
Finally, Chapter 8 (Make it Stick) summarises a practical, new approach to learning.
It recommends combining three main strategies in your studies:
- Active retrieval;
- Spaced repetition; and
For active retrieval, don’t blindly re-read or repeat and hope to learn by osmosis. Instead, self-test as you learn, paying close attention to key ideas and new terms and their relationship with other ideas in the field.
If you’re working from a textbook, do the practice questions at the end of each chapter. And if there aren’t any questions, make the effort to generate and practice your own.
Finally, make time weekly to quiz yourself on the current and prior weeks of work. Check your answers to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. And study and correct your mistakes to fill in your areas of weakness.
For spaced repetition, establish a regular, low-stakes, self-quizzing schedule.
When you answer questions correctly, increase the gaps in reviewing those questions from a few minutes, to a few days, to once a month.
And finally, interleave topics in your quizzing to help keep your mind fresh and alert.
For interleaving, study more than one type of problem within a topic at a time and scatter new problem types through your practice schedule.
This won’t just help you learn faster, it’ll also help you stay focused by keeping your learning varied and interesting.
As you combine active retrieval, spaced repetition and interleaving in your learning, you should also look for ways to:
- Use Mnemonics; and
- Adopt a learning mindset.
To elaborate, synthesise ideas in your own words or try teaching them to someone else.
To make your ideas more effective, make them concrete and personal (for example with experiences from your own life) or liken them to a wider context using metaphors.
To generate, don’t just look up the answer when you get stuck.
Instead try to solve the problem before being shown the solution. And if you don’t know the answer, give a best guess – then correct it if necessary.
To reflect, make time to regularly review your learning experiences.
- What went well?
- What could have gone better?
- What does the experience remind you of? and
- What could you do to improve things next time?
To calibrate, use testing to objectively and periodically gauge your level and progress.
Make the most of your time by treating those calibrations like actual tests and do them properly – don’t skate over them.
To use mnemonics, understand that learning mnemonic systems will greatly increase your ability to learn new things.
Then find or create your own memory aids to help learn the information in front of you.
And finally, to adopt a learning mindset:
- Forgive yourself – Everyone starts out awkward and clumsy – nobody ever got good at something without first being bad at it;
- Be optimistic – Learning needs striving, striving leads to setbacks and setbacks lead to learning – expect obstacles and realise that progress lies on the other side;
- Experiment – Try new things, take time to reflect on your results and then try again – see life and learning as an experiment, there are no wrong answers; and
- Persist – the biological processes behind learning take time, stick with it, don’t give up and trust in the process.
That’s all for today! I hope you enjoyed this brief summary of Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Charles McDaniel’s Make It Stick. It’s a wonderful book and if learning to learn faster is something you’re serious about I can definitely recommend getting your own copy.
And just a last quick reminder that if you enjoyed today’s summary, check out The Art of Living‘s full list of Best Books On Learning: 70 Great Books on How to Learn Faster for more suggested reading and book summaries to supercharge your studies.
Until next time, good luck, good learning and go well.