This is the first in a series of blogposts 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). Drawing on evidence from the science of learning, the book offers practical advice for teachers and students on the effectiveness of certain learning strategies and tries to show that the most effective learning strategies are often counterintuitive.
This week’s blogpost focuses on the first chapter, ‘Learning Is Misunderstood’. First, an explanation of what the science of learning is and what it offers for education.
Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
The science of learning
The science of learning is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that aims to increase our knowledge of how human beings learn by drawing upon evidence from the natural, cognitive and psychological sciences, and through so doing improve educational outcomes. It offers several benefits for education, such as helping to debunk untenable scientific theories about learning, some of which have gained widespread acceptance. These include ‘neuromyths’: pervasive beliefs about the brain which are insufficiently supported by scientific evidence. For example, the widespread belief that we only use around 10% of our brain capacity. This neuromyth is often considered fact, but there is no scientific evidence to support it.
Another benefit is illustrated in Make It Stick. The authors argue that the science of learning can show us the effectiveness of certain learning strategies. They try to show that this is particularly important because our intuitions about the effectiveness of learning strategies are often inaccurate. The ‘most effective strategies’, the authors write, ‘are most often counterintuitive’ (p. 2). Some of the counterintuitive claims they support with scientific evidence are that learning is more effective when it is effortful and we are bad at assessing the success of our own learning (p. 3).
There is considerable scepticism in education about the science of learning. A degree of scepticism is healthy; we should be sceptical, in particular, about claims concerning the immediate or straightforward application of scientific findings in education, which might underestimate the difficulties and complexities in bridging the gap between scientific findings and their practical application in the classroom. A healthy degree of scepticism involves possessing an awareness of the limits of the science of learning. (On this issue, see this CIRL blogpost and the articles in the most recent issue of CIRL’s journal, entitled ‘Are there limits to the science of learning?’ and ‘The limits of the science of learning’.)
Excessive scepticism, however, sometimes becomes hostility or wilful ignorance. Showing the benefits the science of learning offers for education could help alleviate excessive scepticism towards it. Make It Stick illustrates some of the most significant benefits the science of learning offers.
The claims of Make It Stick
Make It Stick’s main argument is that the most effective learning strategies are often counterintuitive (p. 2). The authors argue that much of what we think we know about learning ‘is taken on faith and based on intuition but does not hold up to empirical research’ (p. 21).
The potential implications of this are significant. The authors argue that the learning strategies most employed by students are highlighting, underlining, and repeatedly going over notes and texts, but these are among the least effective strategies (p. 15). Students receive advice that they should employ such learning strategies from credible sources. The authors provide real-life examples of occasions where students have been given advice on learning and study methods that is inconsistent with evidence from the science of learning. This includes advice by an Ivy League college (pp. 12-13).
Some of the principal claims in support of the book’s main argument are the following (key terms are explained in the bullet points):
1. We are poor judges of our own learning (p. 3).
2. Learning is more effective when it’s effortful (p. 3): research suggests that ‘when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer’ (p. 9).
3. Re-reading and ‘massed practice’ are ‘among the least productive’ of learning strategies, even though they are ‘by far the preferred study strategies of learners’) (p. 3; see also pp. 9-10).
- ‘Massed practice’ is defined as the ‘rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom’ (p. 3). The paradigmatic example of massed practice is cramming for an exam.
4. While retrieval is more difficult and feels less productive when learning through spaced practice or interleaving, the additional effort required ‘produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it’ (p. 4).
- ‘Retrieval practice’ is the process of ‘recalling facts or concepts or events from memory’ (p. 3).
- ‘Spaced practice’ is the process of spreading learning over time (as contrasted with massed practice). For example, spreading learning and practice over several days rather than a single day, by studying or practising for an hour each weekday rather than five hours on one weekday. Evidence suggests that spaced practice is more effective for long-term retrieval. The space needs to be longer than very brief intervals; research suggests that very brief intervals are no better for learning than massed practice.
- ‘Interleaving’ is the practice of teaching several different but related topics or skills concurrently, rather than teaching single topics or skills linearly. Evidence suggests that applying learning across interleaved topics or skills is better for long-term retention.
5. On problem-solving, the authors write that trying ‘to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning’ (p. 4).
6. There is insufficient empirical support for the claim that learning is better when students ‘receive instruction in a form consistent with [their] preferred learning style’ (p. 4).
7. Adeptness at ‘extracting the underlying principles … that differentiate types of problems’ enables learners to better identify ‘the right solutions in unfamiliar situations’ (p. 4).
8. We are susceptible to ‘knowledge illusions’ that lead to false judgements about what we think we know or have learned. The authors argue that one of the reasons we opt for ineffective learning strategies is that they produce the illusion of learning and gaining knowledge (pp. 15-16). Such illusions can create a false sense of mastering skills or areas of knowledge. Even ‘the most digilent students’, the authors write, ‘are often hobbled by two liabilities: a failure to know the areas where their learning is weak … and a preference for study methods that create a false sense of mastery’ (p. 17).
- ‘Knowledge illusions’ are used to refer to cognitive illusions where an individual has the belief that they know or have learned more than they know or have learned, which are brought about through engaging in ineffective learning strategies that produce such beliefs (pp. 15-16). Knowledge illusions are examples of poor metacognition, in that they concern what an individual believes they know about what they know (p. 16).
9. A foundation of prior knowledge is a requirement for all new learning (p. 5).
10. Learning is most effective when it is contextualised: ‘Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning’ (p. 6).
11. You have an advantage at developing mastery over a skill or an area of knowledge if you ‘learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge’ (p. 6).
- A ‘mental model’ is ‘a mental representation of some external reality’ (p. 6).
12. Every ‘time you learn something new’, the authors write, ‘you change the brain’. Moreover, ‘the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control’ (e.g., constructing mental models) (p. 7). While the authors do not use the terms, these claims concern neuroplasticity and growth mindset, respectively.
- ‘Neuroplasticity’ is the brain’s capacity to physiologically adapt in response to experiences.
- ‘Growth mindset’: Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindset suggests that individuals tend to adopt two types of mindset: ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’. A fixed mindset involves beliefs that one’s abilities are fixed, whereas a growth mindset involves beliefs that one’s abilities can develop.
Recommended practical strategies
The authors recommend several practical strategies for teaching and learning in conjunction with their argument that the most effective learning strategies are often counterintuitive. Where a strategy directly relates to one or more of the claims above, these are mentioned in parentheses:
- Employ retrieval practice (claim 4). Retrieval practice, the authors write, ‘strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting’ (p. 3). Spaced retrieval practice ‘arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto … knowledge’ (p. 4).
- The authors state two benefits of retrieval practice: first, ‘it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve’; second, ‘recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which … makes it easier for you to recall in the future’ (p. 20).
- An example of a recommended retrieval practice strategy is to set students quizzes shortly after learning (for example, after reading a text or hearing a lecture) (p. 3).
- ‘Go wide’ (claim 6). Rather than focus on preferred learning styles, the authors recommend that teachers help students to draw upon ‘all of [their] aptitudes and resourcefulness’ (p. 4).
- Employ formative testing (claim 4). ‘In virtually all areas of learning’, the authors write, ‘you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness’ (p. 5). Formative testing is powerful as a method of ‘active retrieval … to strengthen memory’ (p. 19).
- Make retrieval effortful (claims 2, 3 & 4). The authors argue that the more effortful retrieval is, the stronger the benefits for learning (p. 19). They recommend encouraging students to quiz themselves rather than re-read (p. 20).
- Elaborate rather than repeat (claims 9 & 10). ‘Elaboration’ is used to refer to ‘the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know’ (p. 5). This helps to contextualise learning, as well as to relate it to and build upon prior knowledge. The more that students can explain about the ways that their ‘new learning relates to [their] prior knowledge, the stronger [their] grasp of the new learning will be’. Moreover, the more they can do this, ‘the more connections [they] create that will help [them] remember it later’ (p. 5).
- Organise learning into mental models (claims 9 & 11). To better develop mastery over a skill or an area of knowledge, the authors recommend that students ‘learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge’ (p. 6).
- Encourage a growth mindset (claim 12). Among the benefits of this the authors mention are that it can help develop resilience (p. 7). (For practical strategies on developing a growth mindset in connection with developing resilience, see this CIRL blogpost.)
- Employ spaced practice (claims 3 & 4). One example the authors mention is to get students to practise spaced reading of texts. Evidence suggests that spaced practice is far more effective for learning than re-reading in short spaces of time (e.g., through massed practice) (p. 14). On spaced practice and spaced reading, the authors write:
‘It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession … yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time’ (p. 15).
- Employ self-testing (claim 8). Self-testing is especially useful in helping to avoid students falling into knowledge illusions (pp. 17; 21): ‘Testing helps calibrate our judgments about what we’ve learned’ (pp. 4-5). The authors recommend self-quizzing, including low-stakes quizzing, as a useful strategy to avoid knowledge illusions (p. 17):
‘One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know’ (p. 21).
- Two other strategies the authors recommend are interleaving (claim 4) and distilling underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems (claim 7). The two are related insofar as interleaving and varied practice are recommended strategies for developing the skill in claim 7, of fostering adeptness at ‘extracting the underlying principles … that differentiate types of problems’ (p. 4).
Strategies the authors advise against
The authors recommend against the following strategies:
- Repetition, where this isn’t spaced or interleaved – for example, simply re-reading.
Repetition is poor for embedding learning into memory: ‘you can’t embed something in memory simply by repeating it over and over’. It’s only effective for short-term memory – for example, remembering a phone number (p. 12). Repetition needs other learning methods to supplement it to be effective; by itself it does not help to develop good long-term memory (p. 14).
The authors offer an eye-opening real-life case where ‘years of repetitive exposure’ did not result in effective learning (p. 13). They also offer an example of re-reading as a repetition exercise (p. 3), referring to studies in which there was shown to be ‘no rereading benefit at all’ for learning (p. 15).
The authors put forward three problems with re-reading in particular:
1. it is time-consuming;
2. it does not result in durable memory;
3. it gives the illusion of learning and mastery (p. 10). (See claim 8.)
- Massed practice (pp. 3; 9-10). For example, cramming for an exam. (See claim 3.)
- Tailoring learning to preferred learning styles (p. 4). (See claim 6.)
What the authors mean by ‘learning’ and ‘mastery’
Two of the most important concepts in education are ‘learning’ and ‘mastery’. The authors define these as follows:
- Learning denotes the process of ‘acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities’ (2). Learning is ‘an iterative process that requires that you revisit what you have learned earlier and continually update it and connect it with new knowledge’ (pp. 21-2).
- Mastery requires both knowledge and conceptual understanding. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient condition for mastery (pp. 17-19). Mastery ‘requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it’ (p. 18). (On strategies for developing mastery, see this CIRL blogpost.)
Several of the points above are open to objections and give rise to questions. Here are some questions we might consider:
- In claim 5, as an example of a purportedly counterintuitive learning strategy, the authors put forward the claim that trying ‘to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning’ (p. 4). How is this counterintuitive?
- In response to claim 9, that ‘a foundation of prior knowledge is a requirement for all new learning’, we could ask, Can this be non-propositional knowledge (e.g., knowing how to do something)? Consider learning a skill, such as learning a musical instrument or learning how to ride a bike: does this require a background of propositional knowledge (i.e., factual knowledge, knowledge ‘that’ something is or is not the case), or a background of ability knowledge (i.e., knowing how to do something)?
- The authors argue that testing is most effective for learning when formative rather than summative (pp. 5; 19-20). What are the implications of this for current debates about assessment?
- On the importance of making learning matter to students, the authors write:
‘Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal’ (p. 11).
To illustrate, they give the example of an airline pilot who perked up during a class when he realised that what he was being taught could save his life. How can we apply this in teaching – for example, when we are teaching long before high-stakes assessment? We can often make what is abstract concrete and personal, but that is not always enough to give students the impression that what they are learning really matters.
- On the clarity of explanations given by teachers, the authors write:
‘When [students] hear a lecture or read a text that is a paragon of clarity, the ease with which they follow the argument gives them the feeling that they already know it and don’t need to study it … [but] when put to the test, they find they cannot recall the critical ideas or apply them …’ (p. 17).
What are the pedagogical implications of this? Should we not try to make explanations as clear as possible? Or should we strive to do this but always be sure to supplement clear explanations with other teaching and learning methods to alleviate the risks?
As we explore the book further in future blogposts, we will return to address these questions.
The following are useful introductions to Make It Stick:
- book’s website;
- description by the publisher;
- summary of chapters with accompanying visual guides (mind-maps, etc);
- video introduction (just under 6 minutes);
- podcast on the book, featuring one of the authors, Peter Brown (1 hour 11 minutes long).
 Carol Dweck, Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2006).