Make It Stick
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Make It Stick

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

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eBook - ePub

Make It Stick

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

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About This Book

To most of us, learning something "the hard way" implies wasted time and effort. Good teaching, we believe, should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier. Make It Stick turns fashionable ideas like these on their head. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned.Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another. Speaking most urgently to students, teachers, trainers, and athletes, Make It Stick will appeal to all those interested in the challenge of lifelong learning and self-improvement.

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Belknap Press
Learning Is Misunderstood
EARLY IN HIS CAREER as a pilot, Matt Brown was flying a twin-engine Cessna northeast out of Harlingen, Texas, when he noticed a drop in oil pressure in his right engine. He was alone, flying through the night at eleven thousand feet, making a hotshot freight run to a plant in Kentucky that had shut down its manufacturing line awaiting product parts for assembly.
He reduced altitude and kept an eye on the oil gauge, hoping to fly as far as a planned fuel stop in Louisiana, where he could service the plane, but the pressure kept falling. Matt has been messing around with piston engines since he was old enough to hold a wrench, and he knew he had a problem. He ran a mental checklist, figuring his options. If he let the oil pressure get too low he risked the engine’s seizing up. How much further could he fly before shutting it down? What would happen when he did? He’d lose lift on the right side, but could he stay aloft? He reviewed the tolerances he’d memorized for the Cessna 401. Loaded, the best you could do on one engine was slow your descent. But he had a light load, and he’d burned through most of his fuel. So he shut down the ailing right engine, feathered the prop to reduce drag, increased power on the left, flew with opposite rudder, and limped another ten miles toward his intended stop. There, he made his approach in a wide left-hand turn, for the simple but critical reason that without power on his right side it was only from a left-hand turn that he still had the lift needed to level out for a touchdown.
While we don’t need to understand each of the actions Matt took, he certainly needed to, and his ability to work himself out of a jam illustrates what we mean in this book when we talk about learning: we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
There are some immutable aspects of learning that we can probably all agree on:
First, to be useful, learning requires memory, so what we’ve learned is still there later when we need it.
Second, we need to keep learning and remembering all our lives. We can’t advance through middle school without some mastery of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Getting ahead at work takes mastery of job skills and difficult colleagues. In retirement, we pick up new interests. In our dotage, we move into simpler housing while we’re still able to adapt. If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life.
Third, learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.

Claims We Make in This Book

You may not agree with the last point, but we hope to persuade you of it. Here, more or less unadorned in list form, are some of the principal claims we make in support of our argument. We set them forth more fully in the chapters that follow.
Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.
We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom. Cramming for exams is an example. Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.
Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes. While the brain is not a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, the neural pathways that make up a body of learning do get stronger, when the memory is retrieved and the learning is practiced. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.
When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.
Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.
The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research. People do have multiple forms of intelligence to bring to bear on learning, and you learn better when you “go wide,” drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.
When you’re adept at extracting the underlying principles or “rules” that differentiate types of problems, you’re more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations. This skill is better acquired through interleaved and varied practice than massed practice. For instance, interleaving practice at computing the volumes of different kinds of geometric solids makes you more skilled at picking the right solution when a later test presents a random solid. Interleaving the identification of bird types or the works of oil painters improves your ability both to learn the unifying attributes within a type and to differentiate between types, improving your skill at categorizing new specimens you encounter later.
We’re all susceptible to illusions that can hijack our judgment of what we know and can do. Testing helps calibrate our judgments of what we’ve learned. A pilot who is responding to a failure of hydraulic systems in a flight simulator discovers quickly whether he’s on top of the corrective procedures or not. In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness.
All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge. You need to know how to land a twin engine plane on two engines before you can learn to land it on one. To learn trigonometry, you need to remember your algebra and geometry. To learn cabinetmaking, you need to have mastered the properties of wood and composite materials, how to join boards, cut rabbets, rout edges, and miter corners.
In a cartoon by the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, a bug-eyed school kid asks his teacher, “Mr. Osborne, can I be excused? My brain is full!” If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind. However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air; to know that this is true in your own experience, you can think of the drip of water from the back of an air conditioner or the way a stifling summer day turns cooler out the back side of a sudden thunderstorm. Evaporation has a cooling effect: you know this because a humid day at your uncle’s in Atlanta feels hotter than a dry one at your cousin’s in Phoenix, where your sweat disappears even before your skin feels damp. When you study the principles of heat transfer, you understand conduction from warming your hands around a hot cup of cocoa; radiation from the way the sun pools in the den on a wintry day; convection from the life-saving blast of A/C as your uncle squires you slowly through his favorite back alley haunts of Atlanta.
Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning. For example, the more of the unfolding story of history you know, the more of it you can learn. And the more ways you give that story meaning, say by connecting it to your understanding of human ambition and the untidiness of fate, the better the story stays with you. Likewise, if you’re trying to learn an abstraction, like the principle of angular momentum, it’s easier when you ground it in something concrete that you already know, like the way a figure skater’s rotation speeds up as she draws her arms to her chest.
People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery. A mental model is a mental representation of some external reality.1 Think of a baseball batter waiting for a pitch. He has less than an instant to decipher whether it’s a curveball, a changeup, or something else. How does he do it? There are a few subtle signals that help: the way the pitcher winds up, the way he throws, the spin of the ball’s seams. A great batter winnows out all the extraneous perceptual distractions, seeing only these variations in pitches, and through practice he forms distinct mental models based on a different set of cues for each kind of pitch. He connects these models to what he knows about batting stance, strike zone, and swinging so as to stay on top of the ball. These he connects to mental models of player positions: if he’s got guys on first and second, maybe he’ll sacrifice to move the runners ahead. If he’s got men on first and third and there is one out, he’s got to keep from hitting into a double play while still hitting to score the runner. His mental models of player positions connect to his models of the opposition (are they playing deep or shallow?) and to the signals flying around from the dugout to the base coaches to him. In a great at-bat, all these pieces come together seamlessly: the batter connects with the ball and drives it through a hole in the outfield, buying the time to get on first and advance his men. Because he has culled out all but the most important elements for identifying and responding to each kind of pitch, constructed mental models out of that learning, and connected those models to his mastery of the other essential elements of this complex game, an expert player has a better chance of scoring runs than a less experienced one who cannot make sense of the vast and changeable information he faces every time he steps up to the plate.
Many people believe that their intellectual ability is hardwired from birth, and that failure to meet a learning challenge is an indictment of their native ability. But every time you learn something new, you change the brain—the residue of your experiences is stored. It’s true that we start life with the gift of our genes, but it’s also true that we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create. In other words, the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. Understanding that this is so enables you to see failure as a badge of effort and a source of useful information—the need to dig deeper or to try a different strategy. The need to understand that when learning is hard, you’re doing important work. To understand that striving and setbacks, as in any action video game or new BMX bike stunt, are essential if you are to surpass your current level of performance toward true expertise. Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.

Empirical Evidence versus Theory, Lore, and Intuition

Much of how we structure training and schooling is based on learning theories that have been handed down to us, and these are shaped by our own sense of what works, a sensibility drawn from our personal experiences as teachers, coaches, students, and mere humans at large on the earth. How we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition. But over the last forty years and more, cognitive psychologists have been working to build a body of evidence to clarify what works and to discover the strategies that get results.
Cognitive psychology is the basic science of understanding how the mind works, conducting empirical research into how people perceive, remember, and think. Many others have their hands in the puzzle of learning as well. Developmental and educational psychologists are concerned with theories of human development and how they can be used to shape the tools of education—such as testing regimes, instructional organizers (for example topic outlines and schematic illustrations), and resources for special groups like those in remedial and gifted education. Neuroscientists, using new imaging techniques and other tools, are advancing our understanding of brain mechanisms that underlie learning, but we’re still a very long way from knowing what neuroscience will tell us about how to improve education.
How is one to know whose advice to take on how best to go about learning?
It’s wise to be skeptical. Advice is easy to find, only a few mouse-clicks away. Yet not all advice is grounded in research—far from it. Nor does all that passes as research meet the standards of science, such as having appropriate control conditions to assure that the results of an investigation are objective and generalizable. The best empirical studies are experimental in nature: the researcher develops a hypothesis and then tests it through a set of experiments that must meet rigorous criteria for design and objectivity. In the chapters that follow, we have distilled the findings of a large body of such studies that have stood up under review by the scientific community before being published in professional journals. We are collaborators in some of these studies, but not the lion’s share. Where we’re offering theory rather than scientifically validated results, we say so. To make our points we use, in addition to tested science, anecdotes from people like Matt Brown whose work requires mastery of complex knowledge and skills, stories that illustrate the underlying principles of how we learn and remember. Discussion of the research studies themselves is kept to a minimum, but you will find many of them cited in the notes at the end of the book if you care to dig further.

People Misunderstand Learning

It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple ...

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