Make it Stick

Summary Written by Justin Gasbarre
"People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways."

- Make it Stick, page ix

The Big Idea

To learn, retrieve

"Effortful retrieval makes for strong learning and retention. When the mind has to work, learning sticks better."- Make it Stick, page 43

Can you remember a time when you know you learned something but couldn’t seem to recall it? Or have you ever tried to discuss something that you read or learned somewhere but are unable to articulate it the way you remembered it? “In very short order we lose something like 70 percent of what we’ve just heard or read,” reveal the authors. “After that, forgetting begins to slow, and the last 30 percent or so falls away more slowly, but the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improve the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.”

That data is absolutely frightening to read (to me at least). Luckily, there are things we can all do on our own to learn smarter. Here are three easy practices the authors give us:

  • Retrieval Practice: recalling facts or concepts or events from memory (not rereading). This effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. Research shows that when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. For example, think flash cards. As the authors say, “the greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.”
  • Delay Subsequent Retrieval Practice: delaying trying to recall information after you’ve learned it proves to be more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.
  • Practice Repeated Retrieval: repeat retrieving information again and again over time until you’ve mastered the material.

In summary, the harder it is to recall information you’ve learned the better! By doing so, it becomes more likely that we engrain that information into our brains for retrieval purposes and for longer periods of time.

Insight #1

Mix up your practice

"Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention and more versatility."- Make it Stick, page 47

Most of us were taught to learn with a single minded, repetitive focus. It’s the thinking that more we “practice, practice, practice” the more likely it will be that information or skills will be burned into our memory. Researchers call this “massed” practice and studies have shown just how ineffective a learning strategy it actually is.

While practice in anything is still a vital component of learning, studies indicate that when learning and training is broken up, spaced out, interleaved and varied – it eventually produces better mastery, longer retention and more adaptability. So what can we do to mix up our practices when learning? The authors give us three common ways:

  • Spaced Practice – practicing in installments and allowing time to elapse between them. This makes both the learning and the memory stronger, in effect building habit strength. How big an interval? The simple answer: enough so that practice doesn’t become a mindless repetition. Enough time so that a little forgetting has set in.
  • Varied Practice – practicing in different environments or circumstances improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another. If you always practice the same skill in the same way, from the same place on the ice or field, you’re starving your learning on short rations of variety.
  • Reflection – a form of retrieval practice. What happened? How did I do? How did it work out? What would I do differently next time?

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Insight #2

Avoid illusions of knowing

"To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress."- Make it Stick, page 105

The second insight that I took from Make It Stick was this caution of thinking you’ve learned or retained something when, in reality, you haven’t. In order to combat this, the authors suggest that the “most important [thing] is to make frequent use of testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know.”

Once we’ve learned something, it doesn’t mean we’ll remember it forever. We still have to use the information and revisit it from time to time. The authors caution us not to “make the mistake of dropping material from your testing regime once you’ve gotten it correct a couple of times. If it’s important, it needs to be practiced, and practiced again. And don’t put stock in momentary gains that result from massed practice. Space your testing, vary your practice, keep the long view.”

“The techniques for highly effective learning that are outlined in this book can be put to use right now everywhere learners, teachers, and trainers are at work,” advise the authors.

Read the book

Get Make it Stick on Amazon.

Henry L. Roediger

Roediger is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He graduated with a B.A in Psychology from Washington & Lee University (1969) and received his Ph.D. from Yale University (1973). Roediger’s research has centered on human learning and memory, and he has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of cognitive processes involved in remembering. His recent research has focused on illusions of memory (how we sometimes remember events differently from the way they actually occurred) and effects of testing memory (how retrieving events from memory can change their representation, often making them more likely to be retrieved in the future). He has published three textbooks that have been through a combined total of 20 editions and he has edited six other books.

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