This is the ninth and final blog post in our series on Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel’s seminal book on the science of learning, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press, 2014). This week focuses on the second half of the eighth and final chapter, ‘Make It Stick’ (pp. 225-53). For posts on previous chapters, see our blog. Each chapter blog post is also individually linked at the end of this post.
In November, we hosted a webinar with the book’s authors, which is available on our podcast.
Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
This chapter is the most practical and prescriptive of the book. It focuses on providing specific practical advice on effective learning strategies. The chapter provides an overview of all the key effective learning strategies put forward in the previous chapters and relates each strategy to evidence from the science of learning. The authors compare each strategy with the ineffective strategies our intuitions often tempt us to pursue.
The chapter provides an overview of the key points of the previous chapters, divided up such that the advice can be applied to a particular context based on one’s role as a teacher and/or learner. Each section of the chapter focuses on advice for a particular role in learning. There are sections on learning tips for:
- students (encompassing secondary school and university students – both at undergraduate and postgraduate level) (pp. 201-17);
- lifelong learners (pp. 217-25);
- teachers (pp. 225-39); and
- trainers (pp. 239-52).
Each section is explained via real-life stories, some of which were covered in earlier chapters. Across the above groups, the fundamental principles put forward are consistent but the recommended learning materials differ (p. 200).
The second half of the chapter covers (iii) & (iv). The following discussion focuses only on (iii).
Tips for Teachers
The authors outline four strategies they recommend as methods for helping students to become stronger learners:
1. explain to students how learning works (pp. 225-6);
2. teach students how to study (p. 226);
3. create desirable difficulties in the classroom (pp. 226-8);
4. be transparent (p. 228).
Key details are described below.
1. Explain to students how learning works
A problem the authors have emphasised throughout the book is that we are susceptible to pursue ineffective learning strategies because they can feel more effective than they in fact are. For example, learning strategies that require less effort from us can feel more effective, but learning is most effective when it requires greater effort. This is one of many ‘knowledge illusions’ outlined in the book, where we believe we have learned or know more than we have in fact learned or know (on knowledge illusions, see this blog post). Knowledge illusions lead to poor metacognition and can cause us to make bad decisions about which learning and study methods to pursue.
To prevent students from pursuing ineffective learning and study strategies, the authors recommend that teachers explain to students how learning works. They view this as so important that they make a bold claim about the role of teachers in relation to this:
‘It’s the proper role of the teacher to explain what empirical studies have discovered about how people learn, so the student can better manage his or her own education’ (p. 225).
The quote above connects with another point the importance of which the authors have emphasised throughout the book, that students need to take control of their own learning. The earlier section of this chapter on ‘Learning Tips for Students’ began with the authors stating that students should manage their learning independently. The ‘most successful students’, the authors wrote, ‘are those who take charge of their own learning and follow a simple but disciplined strategy’. This was the first of three key points they put forward that should lie at the core of any student’s overall learning strategy (p. 201).
The authors outline the following fundamental ideas that are particularly important for students to understand:
- Desirable difficulties: some difficulties we encounter when learning are beneficial for learning (p. 225).
- Growth mindset and neuroplasticity: effortful learning ‘changes the brain, making new connections and increasing intellectual ability’.
- Greater effort is a sign of better learning: if learning requires little effort, ‘it is often superficial and soon forgotten’.
- Striving builds expertise: striving often results in setbacks, which provide ‘essential information needed to adjust strategies to achieve mastery’ (p. 226). That essential information can improve our metacognition. This fourth point is connected with all three points above: the difficult setbacks brought about by striving are desirable difficulties; striving requires a growth mindset; and setbacks should be typically interpreted signs of effort rather than failure. Striving ‘builds expertise’ (p. 201).
- Try solving problems before being shown solutions: evidence suggests that we become more proficient at problem-solving when we try to solve new problems before being shown how to solve them (p. 226).
The authors discuss the above points in most detail in chapter 4 and chapter 7.
2. Teach students how to study
The authors point out that students are generally not taught how to study, and when students are, they’re often not given advice on effective learning strategies. This can lead to students pursuing ineffective or sub-optimal learning strategies, such as massed practice (p. 226).
The authors recommend that teachers help students understand the most effective learning strategies and encourage students to employ those strategies ‘long enough to experience their benefits’. Students may at first doubt the effectiveness of more effective strategies because they do not feel as beneficial for learning as less effective strategies, because certain less effective strategies, such as massed practice, can generate knowledge illusions. Hence the importance of encouraging students to continue employing more effective strategies for long enough to experience the benefits (p. 226).
The authors most recommend that students are taught the effective study strategies outlined earlier in this chapter: in particular, retrieval practice, spaced practice and interleaving (pp. 201-7), as well as several other particularly effective strategies (pp. 207-11). For an overview, see this blog post.
3. Create desirable difficulties in the classroom
The authors particularly recommend frequent quizzing ‘to help students consolidate learning and interrupt the process of forgetting’ (p. 226). The quizzes can be set by the teacher or completed independently by students. Earlier in this chapter, the authors defined retrieval practice as self-quizzing (p. 201). The authors state that students respond to regular quizzing most positively ‘when it is predictable and the stakes for any individual quiz are low’ (p. 227).
The authors recommend that learning materials should aim to incorporate retrieval practice (pp. 201-3), generation (pp. 208-9) and elaboration (pp. 207-8). Examples are problem-solving exercises that require students to try to solve a new problem ahead of the lesson in which the method for solving that kind of problem is taught (‘generation’); written exercises that require students to relate class material to other knowledge or areas of their lives (‘elaboration’); and exercises that require students to summarise key ideas from material covered in recent classes (retrieval practice) (p. 227).
The authors recommend that, where possible, quizzes and practice exercises should count towards a student’s overall mark, even if very little. This is based on evidence that suggests that students learn better when exercises count towards the overall course grade, even if only a little (p. 227).
As a means of promoting retrieval practice, the authors recommend that quizzes and exercises are designed such that they ‘reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term’ (p. 227). The additional benefits of this include that it helps to ‘develop deeper understanding of the relationships between ideas or systems’ (p. 227).
When teaching topics, themes, or problems, the authors recommend that these are spaced, interleaved and varied such that students frequently have to retrieve knowledge of the various areas connected with their current area of learning and figure out how new material relates or is different to other areas they’ve learned (p. 228).
4. Be transparent
The final of the authors’ four most recommended strategies for teachers is that teachers ‘be transparent’. By this, they mean that it’s best to communicate with students the ways that desirable difficulties have been incorporated into lessons and the reasons why. They particularly recommend making clear to students some of the difficulties they will encounter by employing these learning methods and why it’s important that students persist through them, to experience the long-term learning benefits (p. 228).
The authors describe examples of educators who have successfully employed the strategies outlined above in their teaching practices (pp. 228-39). These include a biology professor at the University of Washington, a psychology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a psychology professor at Washington University at St. Louis, and teachers in the public school district in Columbia, Illinois.
There are many useful strategies in those examples. These include assigning students an exercise where they spend ten minutes at the end of every day writing down everything they can remember from class, on a blank piece of paper with no access to their notes. At the end of those ten minutes, students can look at their notes to find out what they remembered and what they didn’t, and to focus on the material they’d forgotten. Mary Pat Wenderoth, the biology professor who employs this strategy, reports that this exercise ‘helps students pull learning forward and develop a more complex understanding of how the material interrelates’ (p. 231). This is one of several useful strategies from educators in the chapter (pp. 228-39).
Here’s are two questions we might consider.
1. The role of the teacher (p. 225)
Is it true that ‘the proper role of the teacher [is] to explain what empirical studies have discovered about how people learn, so the student can better manage his or her own education’ (p. 225)? Is this the ‘proper role’ of the teacher, or the institution (i.e., schooland university)?
A similar question could be raised about teaching students about effective study strategies – see section (2), above.
2. How do we use quizzes effectively when we can’t make them count towards the final grade?
The authors recommend that quizzes and practice exercises should count towards a student’s mark in the course, even if very little. This is based on evidence that suggests that students learn better when exercises are low stakes, or even very low stakes, rather than no stakes (p. 227). However, for courses leading towards national qualifications in the UK, teachers cannot, for the vast majority of courses, make any type of formative testing count towards the final grade. How can we utilise the benefits of quizzing in no stakes contexts?
Links to blog posts on previous chapters of Make It Stick:
This blog post applies some of the principles in Make It Stick concerning memory to offer practical strategies for maximising the effectiveness of revision.
The webinar we hosted with the book’s authors is available here.