Make It Stick: What I’m Learning About Learning this Summer
The first new book I read this summer was Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by a novelist (Peter C. Brown) and two cognitive scientists (Henry L. Roediger, III and Mark A. McDaniel). The authors focus on integrating current cognitive neuroscience—how the brain stores and retrieves information—with practical learning in the classroom and beyond. I highly recommend the book. The authors’ findings have been so helpful to me as a learner and teacher that I want to share some of them with our Living Science community.
In study after study and story after story the authors showed that repetition (they call it “massed practice”) and re-reading are not only time consuming but downright ineffective in producing long-term acquisition of knowledge and even physical skills. What intrigued me, though, was what was effective.
Learning is better when it’s harder
“The more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it.” (79)
This is the most counterintuitive concept of the book. The authors explain, particularly in Chapter 4, “Embracing Difficulties,” how effort strengthens future ability to retrieve knowledge. To create “desirable difficulties” in learning, the authors recommended several practices.
Give Yourself Time to Forget:
Space Out Your Practice
Whether you’re working on a new physical skill, memorizing your lines for a play, or mastering a new concept, let enough time lapse between practice sessions for you to forget some of the material. The brain acquires new knowledge by strengthening and consolidating memory traces and integrating them with prior knowledge over a matter of hours and even days, so it’s working even when you are doing something else. Furthermore, the difficulty you have in retrieving the new knowledge helps to consolidate it and to strengthen retrieval cues.
Study More Than One Thing:
Interleave and Vary Practice
Although we often prefer to master one concept before moving on to the next, Brown recommends mixing different skills or types of problems as students learn new concepts. For example, batting practice on mixed pitches resulted in more improvement than practice in which batters focused on a single type of pitch (79-80). Although we may not feel that we are “getting it” when we start something new before we feel we’ve mastered the last concept, research shows that this approach increases retention and discrimination, the ability to select the appropriate knowledge or skill for the task.
I’ve been experimenting with these practices in my own learning, and am looking for ways to incorporate them into my classroom this fall. It’s amazing that God designed our brains so that difficulty actually helps us! The authors had much more to say, so stay tuned for Part 2. (Or if you are ready to read the book, you can find it here. Be sure to use AmazonSmile!)