The Science of Successful Learning
By Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
Find it on Bookshop
A book on how to learn, and really make it stick, using itself as a model. Make It Stick teaches you using the techniques covered in the book. There is no better way to understand a concept quickly than to see it applied.
Make It Stick is a collaboration between Peter C. Brown, a professional writer, and Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, professors of psychology. The result is a well-researched, easy-to-digest primer for any skill level. While it targets mainly students, parents, and teachers, there is useful advice for lifelong learners as well.
There are many lessons to learn, and to truly make them stick you should read the book yourself, taking notes and quizzing yourself using the given techniques. But since I know you’re busy, here are my main takeaways.
Rereading is a common study tactic, but in reality it is rather ineffectual. It gives you the illusion of mastery by increasing your familiarity with the material, but not improving your understanding of it.
Instead, a core effective learning strategy is to use active retrieval by building in spaced repetition and testing. Quizzing yourself— sitting there and trying to answer questions without looking at your notes— is much more effective than rereading. A form of this is reflection, which helps cement experience.
Another core effective strategy is interleaved practice. This means mixing up concepts when practicing. It can be tempting to group similar problems together to test your knowledge of a single concept. Resist that urge! Jumble problem types together, interleaving them in a quiz, for maximum retention. It feels harder when you’re doing this type of practice, like you’re not understanding it. In reality, your learning lasts longer and appears more like real life. Real life problems are not going to tell you what they are conceptually related to; you have to figure that out yourself.
It’s a common misconception that people have different learning styles. Some people enjoy visual learning more, or auditory or tactile, but one specific style doesn’t actually help them learn better. Similar to rereading, a specific learning style may feel right but isn’t more effective. What is true about learning styles is this:
When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences or how the material is taught.
For example, teachers should use visual concepts to teach geometry and geography, and verbal ones for poetry. And if you are trying to learn to fly an airplane, a flight simulator is going to help you much more than a powerpoint lecture.
Starting as a Child
How do we help children to succeed? As Paul Tough says in his book How Children Succeed, success is less dependent on IQ than on grit, curiosity, and persistence. The central ingredient in childhood is encountering adversity and learning to overcome it.
Children have an innate curiosity. They love to play, explore, and ask questions. This innate curiosity, when fostered, can help a growing child develop innate intelligence. Everyone starts out with intelligence, but it must be nurtured in order to grow. When parenting or teaching children, it is important not to praise them for their intelligence, but for their effort. This allows children to respond positively to failure. They will learn and grow from the experience rather than being discouraged.
Learning as You Live
A great tactic for lifelong learning is to create mental models that you are constantly modifying. A mental model is a structured framework of knowledge, a higher-level understanding of the world. New information gets sorted into these structures, and helps you remember new concepts better. This is why you must have mastered the basic concepts of a field before progressing to higher level knowledge. The understanding builds on itself.
There is another common misconception addressed here: that intelligence is fixed over a person’s life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a few ways to increase your brainpower, which the authors call cognitive multipliers. They include: embracing growth mindset, practicing like an expert, and constructing memory cues.
- Adopting a growth mindset means that you see problems as information, not failure.
- Practicing like an expert means you approach practice deliberately and with confidence.
- Constructing memory cues means you set your memory up for success. More on that in the next section.
When you adopt mental models and embrace a growth mindset, you become a lifelong learner. This is important for everyone, but especially for teachers who are in the position to influence other learners. It is easy for teachers to be trapped by the curse of knowledge, where they have known a concept for so long that it feels easy. Then it is difficult to empathize with someone who is just learning that concept. But when you embrace being a lifelong learner, you become a more effective teacher.
Mnemonics are not tools for learning, per se, but for creating mental structures that make it easier to retrieve what you’ve learned.
Mnemonic devices are like mental filing cabinets. It is a structure you create to put information in that you want to recall later.
Images in particular cue memories. The best way to remember things is to construct a memory palace. Imagine yourself walking through a place with which you are very familiar, like your house. To remember your errand list, imagine a pile of money in your front entryway (go to the bank), a greasy monkey making a mess in the kitchen (get the oil changed in your car), and a mailbox in your bedroom (go to the post office).
Try it out- it really works!
Make “Make It Stick” Stick
Throughout the book, there are reminders to quiz yourself and spaced out repetition of key concepts. See what they did there? I was able to write a lot of this book note from memory because these learning techniques really work.
Remember, to learn well you must:
- Quiz yourself using interleaved practice. Don’t re-read!
- Match the instructional style to the content
- Encourage curiosity and problem-solving in children
- Adopt mental models and embrace a growth mindset
- Create memory palaces
Want to read more? Find Make It Stick here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I may receive a small commission. There is no extra cost to you and it allows me to spend more time writing content like this.
You might also like my notes on:
A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, PhD
Getting It Done: How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge by Roger Fisher & Alan Sharp