20 September 2017

Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel

Posted by Callan Bentley

This past spring, when I attended the InTeGrate workshop called “Teaching About the Earth Online,” one of the participants recommended the book Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. Months later, the volume finally moved up in my reading queue to the top. It’s a fascinating account of the empirical research about how people successfully learn. I found it absolutely engaging and stimulating, in particular the first several chapters. Much of how we think about learning and teaching is based on myth and lore, and several widely-deployed practices are not supported by scientific study.

The book’s big revelation for me is that testing (or quizzing) is a learning strategy. Durable learning results from effortful “retrieval practice.” Educators like me can embrace this realization by frequently deploying scheduled low-stakes quizzes, either before or right after the lesson, and giving feedback. If “before the lesson” sounds bizarre for the scheduling of a quiz, that’s exactly why you should read this book. Many of its lessons are counter-intuitive. But research shows that struggling with a problem before being taught how to do it, while frustrating, actually results in better assimilation of the lesson once the instructor teaches it. This is the beauty of the Make It Stick philosophy: Hard work is hard. But it works better than illusory learning that feels easy. The standard practices of re-reading chapters and highlighting them over and over and cramming before the test may feel like you’re learning, but you’re really just building familiarity with the text, or your lecture notes. This is called “massed practice,” and the authors of Make It Stick assert that you should stop wasting your time on it immediately.

Another shocking revelation along this same theme — “make it difficult” — is that if the text that a student is reading is made slightly blurry, or is presented with a word missing out of each sentence, the extra work that the brain has to do to make sense of the text actually results in better understanding of the concepts, and better recall. How crazy is that? Professors and teachers, you should make a special effort to present lecture material in a different order than the textbook presents the material. The extra effort students have to make to parse the different orders forces them to discern the underlying concepts rather than just a clever turn of phrase their professor puts on the book’s content.

Failure should be embraced as part of this process, but we need to change how we think about it. It’s not a reflection of the student’s inner worth or inability, but a curve in the road to success. Envisioning failure this way, as something to be accepted and conquered, is essentially an attitude change. It becomes a tool for mastery, an essential experience that should be looked forward to — and learned from. Perseverance in the face of failure is key to success. Failed tries are useful information to the dedicated learner.

The book’s chapters are written in a good mix of anecdote and peer-reviewed empirical research. Two of the authors are education researchers, but the lead author, Peter Brown, is a storyteller and writer. The stories he tells to open each chapter range in focus from business people to surgeons to pilots and sports coaches and active duty military. In each case, there are elements of each protagonist’s story that illustrate a key lesson from educational research, with the descriptions of the actual studies following the more compelling human tale. There’s rather more sports talk than suits a non-sporty person like me, but even I could choke it down.

The second half of the book was less compelling to me, perhaps because I was already familiar with some of the ground it covered: the Dunning-Kruger effect, Bloom’s taxonomy, the fraught idea of Multiple Intelligences & learning styles, memory palaces and other mnemonic devices, the general psychology/neurology of learning. However, the final chapter ties it all together with specific advice for various populations (students, teachers, trainers) and that I saw as a really useful distillation of the book’s main lessons.

Students, for instance, will be reminded that their number one strategy for more effective studying is not re-reading the chapter with highlighter at the ready but instead to initiate a program of self-quizzing. Making mistakes is to be an expected part of this process, so long as the students learn from those mistakes and refocus their efforts on the portions of the material where their performance is sub-par. Use a quiz such as the “Concept Checks” or end of chapter review in the textbook, or make up your own quiz. Convert the key points into questions, and then answer them. Syntax gets too much attention; you should focus on the underlying precepts. As you read, pause every couple of chapters and quiz yourself on what you just read. This will seem slow and clunky at first, but the effort you expend will be rewarded. More effortful recall results in a better-trod pathway of the mind, and more durable learning. Review your self-quiz results and do it again. And again. Write your answers out for real, don’t just dismiss a given question with “Yeah, I know that one.” Space your effort out in time, and mix it up with other related activities. Elaborate on the ideas you learn; don’t just parrot the same language in which the book presents material. Fluency with the text generates an illusory sense of mastery – but you don’t want to know the text. You want to master the underlying ideas.

All told, I think Make It Stick is going to revolutionize the way I teach; in particular with regard to frequent scheduled low-stakes quizzing.