Make it Stick

"For the most part, we are going about learning in the wrong ways, and we are giving poor advice to those who are coming up behind us."

- Make it Stick, page 21

Make it Stick is about learning.

Rather, it’s about revisiting what we’ve been taught about learning, looking at the science and research of learning, and suggesting new ways for us to learn better, more effectively, and in a way that sticks.

It covers topics such as learning design (the section on testing will rock your world if you’re a teacher or trainer), as well as how to make the most of your learning.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

If you want to make learning stick, you’ve got to put in the effort

"No matter what you may set your sights on doing or becoming, if you want to be a contender, it’s mastering the ability to learn that will get you in the game and keep you there."
- Make it Stick, page 200

Generally, we seem to misunderstand learning. We’ve been taught and lead to believe that learning should just happen, that it should be easy, or that it doesn’t take effort.

The research suggests it does.

The authors help us understand that rereading text and massed practice (of a skill or new knowledge) seem to be the preferred strategy to study, they are also the least productive.

Did you get that?

For a lot of us, we’ve spent our whole academic lives rereading textbooks and cramming for long hours at a time with the false belief that it will improve our learning and retention of that information or skill.

And though the brain isn’t a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, we do increase our neural pathways when memories are retrieved and learning is practiced.

Where we can often fall short is in how we practice and retrieve those memories.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Use testing as a tool for learning, not a way to measure it

"A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk-taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting."
- Make it Stick, page 90

Ok, this one’s going to be a little bit hard for some of us to swallow. The authors address this right in the beginning. There’s been a growing focus over the years on using (standardized) testing as a way to measure whether or not students, teachers and school boards are meeting their educational goals. How’s that working out?

What if we stopped thinking about testing as a dipstick to measure learning and starting using it as a tool for improving it?

The authors tell us that one of the most significant research findings on this topic is using active retrieval (testing) to strengthen memory. The findings suggest that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit. This goes back to the first point: effort equals stronger learning.

So how do we do this?

  • Quiz early, quiz often. When we do, we make learning stick. Psychologists call this the “testing effect”. To be most effective, retrieval has to be repeated over and over, spaced out over a period of time so that it becomes effortful. One study showed that when students read a passage of text and took a test asking them to recall what they read, they retained 50% more of the information a week later than those who read the same text but did not get tested. 50%!!
  • Provide feedback, not consequences. Testing doesn’t have to have marks associated with it to be effective. In fact, the opposite might be true. A study of an 8th grade science class showed that when students were provided with low-stakes quizzing and feedback three times in the semester, they out performed students who only reviewed the material (but were never quizzed).
  • Teach students how to quiz themselves. Self-quizzing is one of the best habits a learner can create. It immediately helps learners identify their areas of strength and weakness with a topic and helps to create a more informed and beneficial learning strategy. When we don’t quiz ourselves we tend to overestimate how well we’ve mastered the material.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Move beyond learning styles and focus on mindset

"The idea that individuals have distinct learning styles has been around long enough to become part of the folklore of educational practice and an integral part of how many people perceive themselves."
- Make it Stick, page 131

At some point or another we’ve all probably found ourselves telling a teacher, a professor, or maybe a trainer, that we just don’t do well sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture, or that we don’t retain information unless we can review the slides after.

It’s easy to think that we’re at a disadvantage if an instructor is presenting us with information in a way that we don’t connect with. And though it’s true we have preferences for how we would like to learn, the authors show us that we don’t necessarily learn any better when the instruction lines up with those preferences.

Rather than being focused on learning styles, what seems to make the biggest difference in how people learn is how you see yourself and your abilities.

It’s your mindset. The research by Standford professor, Carol Dweck, suggests that most of us have one of two kinds of mindset—or how we view the external world and our abilities in it.

Having a “growth mindset” is really holding the belief that your intelligence is largely within your own control.

What we know when it comes to mindset and learning is that if you have a growth mindset, it’s important to focus on learning goals over performance goals and with effort and practice, you can increase your learning and your intellectual ability.

Here’s why: When you try hard and learn something new, the brain forms new connections (remember those neural pathways we talked about?), and these new connections, over time, increase your intelligence.

When it comes to learning, mindset seems to be a difference that matters more than others.

This, in part, is why it’s better to focus on mindset than on learning styles.

Based on a commissioned review to investigate this claim, a team of researchers found that though it seems to make sense that people do better when they are provided information in a format that aligns with their learning preference, the review showed that there are actually very few studies that are actually designed to be capable of testing this.

What the review also showed is that it is more important that the mode of instruction match the nature of the subject being taught.

This book has the potential to be a game-changer in any formal (or informal) learning environment.

Written in a way that is based on science but easy enough to understand by most, this book will easily be a regular reference for me and my team as we continue to design learning experiences.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the book comes at the end, where the authors provide tips, strategies, tools and case studies for students, life-long learners, educators and trainers.

When it comes down to it, it’s about being more effective in our learning and getting a greater return on investment (ROI) for our time and energy. It helps to show that the strategies and old-school way of learning just aren’t cutting it in the 21st century workplace or education system and what we can do about it.

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Matt Tod

ABOUT Matt Tod

Matt Tod is an international speaker, leadership facilitator, published writer and is passionate about helping people reach their full potential. Matt is the former Executive Director of Youth Programs for the Institute for Health and Human Potential and the current Director of Training & Development for North America’s largest youth-run Charity and Educational partner, Free The Children the innovative social enterprise, Me to We...
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