Make It Stick—Quotes, notes & summary

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Summary by Ramses Oudt

Last updated

Last updated: July 21th, 2020

WORK IN PROGRESS: Adding quotes and notes.

Chapter 1: Learning Is Misunderstood

Claims Made In Make It Stick

Knowing how to learn gives you an advantage throughout life:

[W]e 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.

We learn more deeply when learning is effortful:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”

Our intuition is a poor judge; we may feel we’re learning while in reality we’re not:

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 and massed practice may feel good, but they’re one of the poorest ways to practice:

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.”

Spaced practice interrupts the forgetting interval and makes learning longer lasting:

“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.

Retrieval practice may not seem to work because it’s harder, but it’s actually one of the best ways to practice.

“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.”

Preferred learning styles is a myth. We do have different forms of intelligence, but they need to be use all if we want to learn effectively.

“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.”

Testing is a calibration tool:

“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. … 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.”

Empirical Evidence versus Theory, Lore, and Intuition

Effortful learning is better learning:

“Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.

Don’t be fooled by what’s in your working memory:

“It’s widely believed by teachers, trainers, and coaches that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give it dogged, single-minded focus, practicing over and over until you’ve got it down. Our faith in this runs deep, because most of us see fast gains during the learning phase of massed practice. What’s apparent from the research is that gains achieved during massed practice are transitory and melt away quickly.

Rereading is a waste of time:

Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content.”

Although rereading is barely effective, it’s still the preferred learning method of most students:

“It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time. Yet surveys of college students confirm what professors have long known: highlighting, underlining, and sustained poring over notes and texts are the most-used study strategies, by far.”

Rereading creates an illusion of mastery:

[R]ising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create an illusion of mastery. As any professor will attest, students work hard to capture the precise wording of phrases they hear in class lectures, laboring under the misapprehension that the essence of the subject lies in the syntax in which it’s described. Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them. However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas.”

Know how you think, so you can dispel the illusion of mastery.

The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know. Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision making.”

Quiz yourself to dispel the illusion of mastery:

[S]tudents who don’t quiz themselves (and most do not) tend to overestimate how well they have mastered class material. Why? When they hear a lecture or read a text that is a paragon of clarity, the ease with which they follow the argument gives them the feeling that they already know it and don’t need to study it. In other words, they tend not to know what they don’t know; when put to the test, they find they cannot recall the critical ideas or apply them in a new context.”

Knowledge: Not Sufficient, but Necessary

Knowing something is not enough, you need to know when and how to apply it:

“Memorizing facts is like stocking a construction site with the supplies to put up a house. Building the house requires not only knowledge of countless different fittings and materials but conceptual understanding, too, of aspects like the load-bearing properties of a header or roof truss system, or the principles of energy transfer and conservation that will keep the house warm but the roof deck cold so the owner doesn’t call six months later with ice dam problems. Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.

Testing: Dipstick versus Learning Tool

Testing is better used as a learning tool than a measurement tool:

“[I]f we stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning—if we think of it as practicing retrieval of learning from memory rather than “testing,” we open ourselves to another possibility: the use of testing as a tool for learning.”

When learning is effortful it’s more effective:

“One of the most striking research findings is the power of active retrieval—testing—to strengthen memory, and that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit. Think flight simulator versus PowerPoint lecture. Think quiz versus rereading.”

Retrieval practice shows the gaps in your understanding and solidates what you already know:

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval—testing—interrupts forgetting.”

Chapter 2: To Learn, Retrieve

Reflection Is a Form of Practice

If you don’t reflect on what you do, you don’t grow. Think every day what you did at your job, and ask:

“In neurosurgery (and, arguably, in all aspects of life from the moment you leave the womb), there’s an essential kind of learning that comes from reflection on personal experience. Ebersold described it this way: A lot of times something would come up in surgery that I had difficulty with, and then I’d go home that night thinking about what happened and what could I do, for example, to improve the way a suturing went. … What if I modified it this way or that way? Then the next day back, I’d try that and see if it worked better. Or even if it wasn’t the next day, at least I’ve thought through this, and in so doing I’ve not only revisited things that I learned from lectures or from watching others performing surgery but also I’ve complemented that by adding something of my own to it that I missed during the teaching process.”

Use visualization and connect ideas:

“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”

If you learn something important but don’t often find yourself in a situation that you need the knowledge, you need to drill on it.

Only through spaced repetition can something become a reflex, and this repetition needs to happen in day-to-day life or otherwise in practice:

“To make sure the new learning is available when it’s needed, Ebersold points out, “you memorize the list of things that you need to worry about in a given situation: steps A, B, C, and D,” and you drill on them. Then there comes a time when you get into a tight situation and it’s no longer a matter of thinking through the steps, it’s a matter of reflexively taking the correct action. “Unless you keep recalling this maneuver, it will not become a reflex. Like a race car driver in a tight situation or a quarterback dodging a tackle, you’ve got to act out of reflex before you’ve even had time to think. Recalling it over and over, practicing it over and over. That’s just so important.””

The Testing Effect

A key element in learning is to interrupt forgetting:

“[A] central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.

Put in the effort when learning; simple rereading does next to nothing:

“In his essay on memory, Aristotle wrote: “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.” Francis Bacon wrote about this phenomenon, as did the psychologist William James. Today, we know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material does. This is the testing effect, also known as the retrieval-practice effect.”

Space out retrieval practice to consolidate in memory what you learn:

“To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort. Repeated recall appears to help memory consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to strengthen and multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved.”

Quiz yourself to remember what you read:

“In 2010 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested.”

We need knowledge to be creative, so make an effort to learn for the long term:

“Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

Studying the Testing Effect in the Lab

Forgetting is okay; it can lead to stronger learning. We’re prone to the illusion of mastery if we repeat knowledge in a short time-window. It’s better to spread out learning to allow for a bit of forgetting:

“When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.”

Studying the Testing Effect “In the Wild”

Tests in schools are good; they help students learn:

“The kids scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been quizzed than on the material that had not been quizzed. Moreover, test results for the material that had been reviewed as statements of fact but not quizzed were no better than those for the nonreviewed material. Again, mere rereading does not much help.

Exploring Nuances

Few people are aware of the benefits that retrieval practice (including tests) has:

“How widely is retrieval practice used as a study technique? In one survey, college students were largely unaware of its effectiveness. In another survey, only 11 percent of college students said they use this study strategy.”

Teachers shouldn’t rely on test; they should also give meaningful feedback:

“Studies show that giving feedback strengthens retention more than testing alone does, and, interestingly, some evidence shows that delaying the feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.”

Teachers should delay feedback a bit so students learn better and feedback doesn’t become a crutch:

“In motor learning, trial and error with delayed feedback is a more awkward but effective way of acquiring a skill than trial and correction through immediate feedback; immediate feedback is like the training wheels on a bicycle: the learner quickly comes to depend on the continued presence of the correction.”

The most effective tests ask learners to supply the answer. Don’t fool students or yourself with multiple choice tests. Dig up the knowledge from long-term memory instead.

Tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short-answer test, or simply practice with flashcards, appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false tests. … While any kind of retrieval practice generally benefits learning, the implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results.

Tests help us transfer our knowledge to other contexts (probably because it’s an active form of learning):

“Is repeated testing simply a way to expedite rote learning? 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…”

If teachers used (low-stakes) testing more, their students would have easier lives:

“[T]he students who were tested frequently rated their classes more favorably at the end of the semester than those tested less frequently. Those who were frequently tested reached the end of the semester on top of the material and did not need to cram for exams.”

We look negatively at tests because they’re generally high-stakes.

Quizzes should be used as a learning tool; they help teachers and students identify what needs more attention:

“Are there any further, indirect benefits of regular, low-stakes classroom testing? Besides strengthening learning and retention, a regime of this kind of testing improves student attendance. It increases studying before class (because students know they’ll be quizzed), increases attentiveness during class if students are tested at the end of class, and enables students to better calibrate what they know and where they need to bone up. It’s an antidote to mistaking fluency with the text, resulting from repeated readings, for mastery of the subject. … And this kind of testing enables instructors to identify gaps in students’ understanding and adapt their instruction to fill them. These benefits of low-stakes testing accrue whether instruction is delivered online or in the classroom.”