This is the eighth 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). This week focuses on the first half of the eighth and final chapter, ‘Make It Stick’ (pp. 200-25). There will be two blog posts on this chapter because it’s much longer than the others. For posts on previous chapters, see our blog.
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 contexts 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 first half of the chapter covers (i) & (ii). The following notes focus only on (i).
Learning Tips for Students
This section of the chapter begins with the authors putting forward three key points that should lie at the core of any student’s overall learning strategy (p. 201).
- First, students should manage their learning independently. The ‘most successful students are those who take charge of their own learning and follow a simple but disciplined strategy’.
- Second, students should adopt a growth mindset. Significant learning is often and even usually quite difficult. Setbacks should be typically interpreted signs of effort, rather than failure (consider this in conjunction with the previous chapter’s arguments on the importance of adopting a growth mindset). Working through setbacks is accompanied by striving, and ‘striving builds expertise’.
- Third, learning should be effortful. This is perhaps the central point of the book. The most effective learning strategies are effortful: ‘Effortful learning changes your brain, making new connections, building mental models, increasing your capability’. The ‘implication’ of this fact about effortful learning is a powerful takeaway the authors claim is important for all learners to know: ‘Your intellectual abilities lie to a large degree within your own control’ (p. 201). This point complements the previous two points: if our intellectual abilities are to a large degree within our control, this supports adopting a growth mindset and managing our learning independently.
The authors proceed to outline three ‘keystone study strategies’:
- retrieval practice (pp. 201-3);
- spaced retrieval practice (pp. 203-5);
- interleaving (pp. 205-7).
A section of the chapter is devoted to each of the above ((1)-(3)), with each section divided into two sub-sections, the first briefly explaining what it is and the second describing how to use it as an effective study strategy. The chapter then offers an overview of several other effective study strategies:
- ‘elaboration’ (pp. 207-8);
- ‘generation’ (pp. 208-9);
- ‘reflection’ (pp. 209-10);
- ‘calibration’ (pp. 210-11);
- ‘mnemonic devices’ (p. 211).
The following discussion covers the three keystone strategies ((1)-(3)).
What is it?
The authors recommend that retrieving ‘knowledge and skill from memory should become [a student’s] primary study strategy’. This is retrieval practice, which they define as ‘self-quizzing’ (p. 201).
How to use it effectively
When reading or studying, the authors recommend that we pause periodically to ask ourselves questions without looking at our study materials. The kinds of questions they recommend we ask ourselves are:
- ‘What are the key ideas?’
- ‘What terms or ideas are new to me?’
- ‘How would I define them?’
- ‘How do the ideas relate to what I already know?’ (pp. 201-2)
To gain material for questions for self-quizzing, the authors recommend using study questions often included at the back of textbooks. They also recommend that students come up with questions themselves and answer them independently.
It’s important, when self-quizzing, to check that the judgements of what we know and don’t know are accurate. This process of ensuring the accuracy of our self-awareness of what we know and don’t know is part of the process of metacognition and can help to develop good metacognition. In this way, effective retrieval practice can enhance metacognition.
Retrieval practice can also enhance mastery over skills and areas of knowledge. The authors recommendusing ‘quizzing to identify areas of weak mastery, and focus[ing] your studying to make them strong’.
The authors outline the greater effectiveness of retrieval practice over other study strategies, such as highlighting, underlining, and re-reading texts. It is more effective than these strategies because:
- There are many benefits to self-quizzing: ‘After one or two reviews of a text, self-quizzing is far more potent for learning than additional rereading’ (p. 202). The authors recapitulate the reasons for this from previous chapters, such as the point that re-reading tends to bring about poor metacognition by engendering ‘illusions of knowing’.
- Self-quizzing ‘helps you to focus on the central precepts rather than on peripheral material’ (pp. 202-3).
- Self-quizzing ‘provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you haven’t yet mastered’. Again, this supports metacognition.
- Self-quizzing ‘arrests forgetting’.
The authors recommend that teachers encourage students to get into a routine of regular retrieval practice throughout the duration of any educational course. This can help to prevent students engaging in ‘cramming and all-nighters’, both of which are examples of massed practice, an ineffective learning strategy.
Emphasising the central point of the book, the authors highlight the benefits of effortful retrieval: ‘every time you work hard to recall a memory, you actually strengthen it’ (p. 203). To make the greatest long-term learning gains, retrieval should be effortful.
For more on retrieval practice, particularly as it’s covered in Make It Stick, see this blog post.
Spaced retrieval practice
What is it?
Spaced retrieval practice (or just spaced practice) ‘means studying information more than once but leaving considerable time between practice sessions’ (p. 203). In short, it’s the process of spreading learning over time.
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 (pp. 4 & 47).
How to use it effectively
Again,theauthors recommend self-quizzing. To incorporate spacing into retrieval practice, create a schedule that is structured such that it involves adequate spacing: ‘Establish a schedule of self-quizzing that allows time to elapse between study sessions’ (p. 203).
The authors emphasise that massed practice is ineffective for long-term learning. ‘Lots of practice works’, they write, ‘but only if it’s spaced’ (p. 205). By contrast, lots of massed practice will not be effective for long-term learning.
The key question concerning spaced practice is, how long should the spaces be? The authors’ answer is that it ‘depends on the material’:
- For learning simple things such as sets of names and faces, you have to ‘review them within a few minutes of your first encounter, because these associations are forgotten quickly’ (pp. 203-4).
- To learn new material in a text, this ‘may need to be revisited within a day or so of your first encounter with it’; after that, ‘perhaps not again for several days or a week’.
- ‘When you are feeling more sure of your mastery of certain material, quiz yourself on it once a month’ (p. 204).
The above points about the length of recommended spaces can be supplemented by research on the benefits of daily, weekly and monthly reviewing. See the following blog posts for an overview of reviewing strategies; more on how long the spaces should be; and advice on employing spaced practice for maximising the effectiveness of revision.
The authors discuss effective strategies for using flashcards. They recommend that if you use flashcards, ‘don’t stop quizzing yourself on the cards that you answer correctly a couple of times. Continue to shuffle them into the deck until they’re well mastered’. Even once mastered, ‘revisit [them] periodically, perhaps monthly’. The reason for this is that ‘Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory’. This process of periodically recalling learning from memory is one of the main reasons why retrieval practice is beneficial for learning.
For more on spaced practice, particularly as it’s covered in Make It Stick, see this blog post.
What is it?
Interleaving is the process of studying more than one type of problem or example related to the area we’re trying to master. For example, when trying to learn mathematical formulae, ‘study more than one type at a time, so that you are alternating between different problems that call for different solutions’. For most areas, study can be interleaved by mixing up the examples (p. 205). The authors recommend interleaving as an effective strategy for spacing out retrieval practice (p. 204). Evidence suggests that applying learning across interleaved topics or skills is better for long-term retention.
How to use it effectively
The authors recommend against using the structures of courses and textbooks as good examples of how to structure study. Most textbooks and courses are structured in blocks (for good reasons), rather than in an interleaved way. This can tempt us to structure our study in the same way. But interleaved practice is a much more effective learning strategy than blocked practice (p. 206).
The authors recommend that we mix up our practice: ‘If you find yourself falling into single-minded, repetitive practice of a particular topic or skill … mix in the practice of other subjects [and] skills’ (p. 206). For more on mixing up practice, see this blog post.
The authors explain why interleaving is more effective for developing problem-solving skills than other forms of practice, such as blocked practice, as follows:
‘Mixing up problem types and specimens improves your ability to discriminate between types, identifying the unifying characteristics within a type, and improves your success in a later test or in real-world settings where you must discern the kind of problem you’re trying to solve in order to apply the correct solution’ (p. 207).
Here are four questions we might consider.
1. Does ‘retrieval practice’ really mean self-quizzing? (p. 201)
Some would argue that retrieval practice is defined more broadly than self-quizzing, and that self-quizzing is an example of retrieval practice, rather than being definitive of it.
2. Is interleaving as narrow as it’s defined in this chapter? (p. 205)
Again, some would define interleaving more broadly than it’s defined here – i.e., more broadly than the focus in this chapter on problems and examples. At the start of the book it’s defined more broadly, as the process of teaching or studying several different but related topics or skills concurrently, rather than teaching or studying single topics or skills linearly (p. 4).
For the earlier discussion of interleaving in Make It Stick, see this blog post.
3. Why students revise using massed practice
‘[M]ost students, given their misplaced faith in massed practice, put off review until exam time nears, and then they bury themselves in the material, going over and over it, trying to burn it into memory’ (p. 205).
Are these the main reasons students employ massed practice? Aren’t the main reasons motivation, busy schedules, and competing desires (e.g., to socialise)?
4. Massed practice
This chapter answers a question I raised about chapter 3 (see the first question under the ‘Discussion’ section in this blog post). While the authors have argued throughout the book that massed practice is an ineffective learning strategy, they acknowledge that massed practice has short-term learning benefits which can be gained quickly (pp. 47-8). The question I raised earlier was whether, in light of these benefits, there are some contexts and purposes for which massed practice is an effective learning strategy. For example, final revision the day before or morning of an exam: if cramming has short-term benefits, surely at those times it could be a useful learning method.
In this chapter, an answer emerges:
‘A habit of regular retrieval practice throughout the duration of a course puts an end to cramming and all-nighters. You will need little studying at exam time. Reviewing the material the night before is much easier than learning it’ (p. 203).
The answer to my question would be that massed practice would not be as beneficial for learning in a last-minute scenario (i.e., the day before or day of an exam), even in the short-term, as reviewing would be, as long as the reviewing follows a habit of regularly reviewing up until that point. So, it seems there aren’t any situations in which massed practice should be recommended as a learning strategy.