Image credit: Patrick Perkins

Reflections on 'Make It Stick'

This book was recommended to me by Paul Hibbitts, who I recently started corresponding with after using his excellent Course Hub skeleton for Grav in an effort to enhance my teaching of a course.


A central tenet of the book is that the best, most reliable and efficient techniques for deep learning are not being universally applied.

People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways.

The authors assert that learning is an acquired skill and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive. They put forward, with a wealth of well-referenced evidence, the following claims:

  1. Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful.
  2. Learners are poor judges of when they are learning well vs. when they are not.
  3. Re-reading text and massed practice are popular study techniques, but are among the least productive
  4. Retrieval practice is highly effective - much better than re-reading.

    After a test, students spend more time restudying the material they missed, and they learn more from it than do their peers who restudy the material without having been tested.

  5. Spaced practice, eg. letting yourself get a little rusty between sessions or interspersing study of two or more subjects, is harder and feels less productive, but gives longer lasting and more versatile learning.

  6. Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution results in better learning.

  7. Receiving instruction in the form of your preferred learning style does not result in better learning.

  8. Interleaved and varied practice leads to greater ability to extract underlying principles which leads to a greater success in choosing the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.

  9. Learners are susceptible to illusions about what they know and what they can do. Testing helps to calibrate judgments about what has actually been learned.

  10. New learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.

  11. Elaboration - giving new material meaning by expressing it in one’s own words and linking with the learner’s existing knowledge - avoids limits to how much can be learned.

  12. Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning.

  13. Complex mastery can be achieved by learning to extract the key ideas from new material and organise them into mental models and connect those models to prior knowledge.

  14. Rather than intellectual ability being hardwired, the brain is highly plastic and adaptive - new learnings change the brain.

Retrieval practice

I found the sections on the benefits of retrieval practice particularly interesting. As a teacher, a take home message for me is that regular, low-stake testing leads to better learning. Indeed, regular post-lecture or eg. weekly quizzes may be the most powerful means to achieving deep and lasting learning from lecture content.

Are there any further, indirect benefits of regular, low-stakes classroom testing? Besides strengthening learning and retention, a regime of this kind of testing improves student attendance.

And an interesting side-note about online vs in person:

These benefits of low-stakes testing accrue whether instruction is delivered online or in the classroom.

I got a lot out of reading this book and I’m enthusiastic to put a number of new ideas into practice in my teaching in 2018! I highly recommend to anyone involved in teaching and/or learning (isn’t that everyone?!). Finally, a big thank again to Paul Hibbitts for the recommendation! :)

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