Make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning

By Becky Thompson

This is an interesting time to think about learning – almost every fact is at my fingertips via Google and if I need to know how to do something, YouTube has a tutorial with detailed steps. This is a different time from when I attended school – information all around me, all the time. I’ve begun wondering how access to seemingly endless information affects how students approach learning and how it affects retention.

Recently, I came across the book, Make It Stick, which offers strategies for successful learning – not the learning in schools necessarily, but the type of learning that makes people into efficient and lifelong learners.

From the very beginning, I noticed the book offers a positive outlook for people who previously struggled to learn and assures them that their difficulties are not who they are. The book explains that every time someone learns something, it opens new pathways in the brain with the implication that anyone is capable of learning anything. This positive view of learning is exactly what students need to hear when they are struggling with math, science or any other subject.

The authors, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, balance the positive with reality – mainly, that learning can be difficult and sometimes takes a lot of hard work. More specifically, they believe learning that is harder is more valuable. Students who struggle with understanding a complex concept and yet figure it out for themselves find that this learning is deeper and it stays with them much longer than when a concept is presented as fact. Their research shows that when the brain has to work the learning sticks.

Not only does the book offer the idea that learning is supposed to be difficult, but the authors detail that learning should include making mistakes. Students are often discouraged with errors, especially when early mistakes make it seem as though the content is impossible to grasp. However, the authors illustrate that the more mistakes students make, the more they move towards mastery. In reality, making errors will not set them back, so long as you, as an educator, check their answers and correct those mistakes and keep moving forward.

Through the lens of cognitive psychology, the authors also have researched these ideas using empirical evidence to reach an understanding of how people learn. They offer strategies on learning, but also explain how some of the go-to methods used by students are wrong. Many students believe that learning requires reading and re-reading content, and the book shows that this process is both time consuming and unproductive. The authors further state that reading and re-reading gives students a false feeling that they know the concepts. Their research shows that a better strategy is to answer questions on the reading and really determine what stuck and what didn’t. Doing practice questions, the hallmark of our training at Loren Academic Services, helps students know what is leaned from the reading and what didn’t stick. Plus, this saves time in further study because students know exactly where to focus their efforts. The process of retrieval, they explain, also changes the brain and improves the possibility of remembering the content longer.

The book also presents research on several other learning strategies like spreading out the learning into small blocks and memorizing details over time. Or, think about learning like practicing when learning a sport, where one of the greatest strategies is to mentally rehearse. Another strategy is elaboration – the process of putting the information into your own words and making connections to other things that are already known. Also, sometimes if students decide to learn something new because they have an interest or need to learn it, these connections make for more meaningful experiences.

My main critique with the book is the way the authors rolled through the majority of the strategies in a rather perfunctory manner, leaving me wanting more research and further detail on the various brain studies.

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