Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

By | April 3, 2018
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

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.

  • Belknap Press

3 thoughts on “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

  1. Kevin Currie-Knight
    463 of 476 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    There’s How You Think You Learn, and There’s How You Learn!, June 6, 2014

    Kevin Currie-Knight (Greenville, NC) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: Make It Stick (Kindle Edition)
    Okay, well maybe I am overstating that a little. But the main “thesis” of Peter Brown’s book – aside from being a summary of what cognitive science data shows about how we learn – is basically that many of the things we often assume about learning are wrong. Here are some of them: we learn best by reading and rereading a passage until we really understand it. WRONG! We learn best when we isolate a skill and practice it over and over again. WRONG! We all have learning styles that are the way we learn best. WRONG! IQ (or something like it) imposes relatively firm limits on how much information we can absorb. WRONG!

    In this pretty easy-reading book, Peter Brown summarizes some of the latest findings in cognitive science, and many of these findings contradict what is often assumed about learning. First, many k-12 and college students are taught to (and do) use the ‘reread and highlight’ method to try and absorb content. Well, while this works to an extent, it leads more to an illusion of mastery than mastery. What works better? Read the content and quiz yourself; information retrieval is the key. Retrieving helps to build stronger connections in the brain that will lock information into memory. What’s more – and this is another chapter – the harder the retrieval, the stronger your retention of what is retrieved. (So, writing a short essay recalling the concepts works better than true/false and multiple choice recall.)

    Another myth? While we all certainly have learning preferences (I like to receive my information in written form), that doesn’t mean we learn best when receiving information in that form (I can do as well when I receive information audibly as when it is written, even though I prefer the latter). Brown reviews literature that shows that, at least as of now, there is no evidence that shows that how one receives information substantially affects how well we learn the material (after all, hearing or reading a phone number is immaterial to what i am remembering: not the sound or sight of the number, but the number itself). But what they do find is that whether one is an “example learner” or a “rule learner” does have an impact in how well one learns. That is, those who see and practice a math problem and are able to see what the rules are behind the example and commit the rule, rather than the example, to memory will tend to learn better. Also, another factor that affects how well we learn is our mindset, whether we learn for mastery or learn for performance. Those who learn for performance – so that they can show how good they are – tend to tackle learning new things (things that might make them look bad) with trepidation, but those who learn for mastery aspire to acquire new skills openly, without regard to whether they will fail before mastering.

    These are just some of the lessons from this book. Whether you are a student, teacher, professor, coach, trainer, or any other professional whose job entails teaching others, this is a good book to have. (I’m a professor in a College of Education, and I definitely plan on allowing what I’ve gleaned from this book to inform my practice.) It is quite informative not only by way of learning theory, but backs up the theory with both empirics and suggestions for practice. Good one.

  2. A. Mazonian
    159 of 167 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    How the Mind Learns – a how to guide, with stories, July 28, 2014
    A. Mazonian (United States) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Hardcover)

    Is there anything new in this book? I believe there is sage advice in it for many of us.
    That our brains adapt is good but also bad for studying. We become bored.

    For many of us, we were never taught how our minds work and how we should leverage its natural processes to learn. Sometimes, practice or studying feels painfully slow and we often switch to another method that feels good. Unfortunately, we often fail at assessing how much we’re learning and have actually learned.

    Some students were never taught how to learn, and had few, if any, good teachers/mentors.
    Some teachers were never taught how to teach, and have forgotten what it was like to be a student.
    This book is for those both groups. The examples and advice for teachers and corporate trainers is also well written and useful.

    If you have had good teachers or learning examplars, you might find this book less valuable than will most people.

    PROs: This book will show you how to structure your learning and assessment processes to learn and confirm you’re actually retaining the material. It provides 27 pages of endnotes on scientific studies that support its recommendations. Having read and applied the principles of both MIS and WSSK (see below), I can say they do work, very well.

    CONs: Be prepared to look for what you want. Most of us will focus on the prescriptions of Chapter 8: e.g. avoid rereading as a primary study method, and do use the blank paper assessment test, etc..

    While reading, I noticed two points made by the authors that will shape your experience:
    1) page ix in the Preface: “first author is a storyteller”
    2) page 200: “early readers (of the book draft) urged the author to get specific with practical advice”

    I agree with reviewers Soumen, T. Pagni, Economist: yes, the book could’ve been much shorter and focused on the advice.
    I also agree with the numerous reviewers who praise it: yes it provides excellent practical insight into the best ways to learn (both physical and mental tasks).

    I will now use the book to evaluate the book.
    1) Interpret/Elaborate/Infer from what I’m reading:
    Why is a storyteller the first author? I’m glad they told me. I’m now prepared to wade through long winded stories to find the main points.

    2) Find the underlying rules/principles in what I’ve read:
    – Allow time to forget. You MUST give yourself time to partially, but not completely, forget the material. Then give yourself time to struggle with recalling it.
    – Effortful (i.e. NOT effortless!) recall is good. It dramatically increases retention.
    – sustained, deliberate practice, even when it feels ponderous, is helping me learn
    – Trust the process of study, forget, retrieve.
    – Reflection is a form of retrieval practice.

    3) Scatter/Vary/Mix the information while you’re studying it.
    By mixing the precepts in with the stories, the patterns were harder to see. I had to pick up the book several times because I was so annoyed by all the storytelling. However, DURING REFLECTION away from the text, I realized they were deliberately embedding kernels in the stories and forcing me to look for them. Upon revisiting the material, I found myself *wanting* to find and connect the ideas spread across the stories and the book. Clever, and more effective than giving me a list to memorize. During retrieval practice, I actually started remembering some of the advice from the stories, moreso than from the explicit recommendations.

    4) Change the material BEFORE you’ve mastered it in that session
    What are they trying to teach me? Sometimes before they “got to the point”, they switched to yet another story (!)
    This made me really focus on connecting what I read previously to what I was currentl reading.
    Thankfully, the chapters often end with a “Takeaways” section.

    I consider this book (MIS) a valuable complement to What Smart Students Know by A. Robinson (WSSK).
    WSSK tells you in much greater detail what to do while you are a matriculating student i.e. how to approach the conventional schooling process, how to assess class/book structure, how to relate the material to what you’ve learned, what specifically you should during the pre-study, study and post-study periods.

    MIS does present specific study methods but it also presents the bigger picture of learning:
    Why the “learn via re-reading” intuition is wrong, yet feels right.
    Why the “learn via struggling” process is right, yet feels wrong.

    In general,
    WSSK fully develops the terse advice of MIS p207: Elaborate/question/interpret what you’re reading
    MIS fully develops the terse advice WSSK p118: Quiz yourself Periodically.
    Both are…

    Read more

  3. Brian Johnson
    15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The book is packed with Big Ideas., December 21, 2016

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    This review is from: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Hardcover)

    Customer Video Review Length:: 14:47 Mins

    “People generally are going about learning the wrong ways. Empirical research into how we learn and remember shows that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort. Even college and medical students—whose main job is learning—rely on study techniques that are far from optimal. At the same time, this field of research, which goes back 125 years but has been particularly fruitful in recent years, has yielded a body of insights that constitute a growing science of learning: highly effective, evidence-based strategies to replace less effective but widely accepted practices that are rooted in theory, lore, and intuition. But there’s a catch: the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive. …

    This is a book about what people can do for themselves right now in order to learn better and remember longer. …

    We write for students and teachers, of course, and for all readers for whom effective learning is a high priority: for trainers in business, industry, and the military; for leaders of professional associations offering in-service training to their members; and for coaches. We also write for lifelong learners nearing middle age or older who want to hone their skills so as to stay in the game.

    While much remains to be known about learning and its neural underpinnings, a large body of research has yielded principles and practical strategies that can be put to work immediately, at no cost, and to great effect.”

    ~ Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel from Make It Stick

    Want to learn about the science of successful learning?

    Then this is the book for you. Make It Stick is written by story-teller Peter Brown and two leading cognitive scientists who have spent their careers studying learning and memory: Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel.

    It’s a fascinating exploration of what science says about the most effective learning techniques— shining light on the techniques that actually work and those that do not work—even though we may think they do!

    Hint: Rereading, massed “practice-practice-practice” sessions, and cramming are not wise strategies. Active retrieval, interleaving, spaced repetition, reflection, elaboration, getting your mind right and practicing like an expert, on the other hand, are very good strategies.

    Here are some of my favorite Big Ideas:

    1. Fluency vs. Mastery – Don’t just go w/your feelings.
    2. Cranberries + Testing – Active retrieval is where it’s at.
    3. Curveballs – Interleave yourself some curves.
    4. Elaboration – Explain it like I’m 5.
    5. Testing – Static vs. Dynamic.

    To optimizing and actualizing and making it stick!

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