With the expansion of access to the internet and the launch of the “Information Age,” some educators began to argue that the focus of learning should not be retrieval from memory. Instead, they called for a focus on teaching students how to access and use the vast amount of information available at their fingertips. However, others pushed back on the idea that memorization is no longer important. In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel support this argument and present ideas on right (and wrong) strategies for learning.
The key points of the book are made in the first chapter and the rest of the book focuses on explaining those points in greater detail while describing real-life examples and supporting research. From their opening example, they powerfully demonstrate the importance of having key information strongly embedded into memory so that it can be accessed and utilized for complex tasks. I suspect that many successful learners have picked up on the strategies they suggest in the book, but the authors argue that most people are still using learning strategies that are not effective.
Throughout the book, the authors focus on learning as a universal process: learning multiplication tables, how to fly an airplane, or improving your batting average in baseball follow the same principles of learning and memory. People with a background in cognition and brain sciences looking for a more fine-grained discussion of different types of memory pathways may find this frustrating at times. Although the subtitle is “the science of successful learning,” the content focuses more on examples of the science in context than on the science itself. However, there are some useful ideas that may inform your teaching and are worth sharing with students. Here are three suggestions for applying a few key points from the book:
Encourage students to use strategies of self-testing instead of simply rereading notes or highlighted text
One of the primary points made in the book is that many students study by re-reading notes and text, even though this strategy is not effective. Instead, focusing on retrieval, which requires a greater depth of processing, will ensure that their learning sticks long-term. Even if you don’t give formal quizzes on a regular basis, you can end each lecture by throwing out a question about something you said during the class. The mental effort of trying to recall the answer (without looking at their notes) will help students to develop the memory of what you taught. The authors also note that technology such as clickers can be useful for embedding quick knowledge retrieval opportunities into a lecture. (Although I have not tried them myself, new apps such as Socrative and Plickers allow you to gather student responses using your tablet or cellphone instead of needing a clicker for each student; each student must have a web-enabled device for the former.)
Make quizzes and assignments cumulative
Instructors and students are often tempted to focus in-depth on one topic and then move on to the next, only revisiting the previous material in a final exam. Students often focus on a particular skill or type of problem before leaving it behind until that final exam. As the authors explain, though, spacing out retrieval practice over time creates stronger memories that are more easily retrieved. Cumulative quizzes or assignments throughout the term may also help students to knit together different ideas and concepts, further strengthening the memory of them. If students are quizzed or test themselves on early material repeatedly over the course of the term, studying for the final should be much less stressful.
Change things up
Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel emphasize that mass practice of a particular skill is not as effective for long-term learning but is often emphasized because of the noticeable short-term gains. Whether working on analyzing circuits, studying famous artists, or hitting baseballs, greater improvements occur when studying or practicing a variety of skills, rather than mass-practicing one thing at a time. Mixing concepts from previous chapters or units into a problem set will change things up while at the same time encouraging cumulative learning.
Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning provides a variety of additional ideas and strategies for effective learning that you and your students may find helpful. Let us know if you’ve implemented any of the strategies and whether or not they improved student learning.