Book Review - Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
The way we're learning isn't working.
And conventional wisdom about learning is wasting our time.
Whether we're a student, a business professional, or a lifelong learner, we likely aren't succeeding at the type of intentional skill development that will lead to lasting impact, at school, in the workplace, or in our personal lives. Cramming for a test might make us feel as though we've mastered something. Attending an expert presentation at a conference might help us to feel more adept at a career-related skill. Even reading a book may lead us to feel more intelligent in a particular domain. These sentiments are common, but they are illusory. We feel like we are learning, but in actuality, we are wasting our time. New advances in neuroscience and psychology, the subject of "Make it Stick," reveal that true learning requires a different tact from what is commonly practiced in our schools, workplaces, and organizations.
In "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning," Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel dispel the most pervasive "learning myths" of our time. Seeking to disprove the patently false assertions that we have come to believe, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel tactfully deconstruct learning myths so that we might become more wiser, more skilled, more adept at the art of learning.
The book begins with a blistering attack on the notion that learning ought to be "easy." Citing numerous peer-reviewed studies alongside compelling anecdotes from real-life learners, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel establish that all learning is effortful. Through science and story, the authors describe how most information only makes it into our short-term memory. When learning is easy, the brain doesn't encode information into longterm memory for future retrieval and application. When learning doesn't include "desirable difficulty," it is quickly forgotten. Easy learning, though desirable to some learners, is in fact not learning at all.
After deconstructing "easy" learning, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel proceed to establish a framework for learning with "desirable difficulty," the level of challenge needed to transfer information in short-term memory to long-term intelligence. While the book introduces several strategies that are specific to schools, organizations, and life-long learners, their framework consists of three insights that scale to any learning exercise: quizzing, spacing, and reflection.
Of the three, quizzing (a.k.a. self-testing) is perhaps viewed as the least favorable in today's learning communities. Still, the authors convincingly argue that recalling information in response to a topical question is the surest way to encode information in long-term memory. While corporate trainers (myself included) tend to view quizzing at times as somewhat juvenile, the research data proves that no method is so effective at cementing skills for future application. Today's instructors have an obligation to quiz their learners and to quiz them frequently, but the authors don't leave the burden for learning with the instructor. They argue instead that learners ought to take responsibility for their own learning, committing to self-quizzing after readings, lectures, conferences, and meetings if they want time spent learning to turn to be time well-invested.
The spacing of learning material, specifically the spacing of quizzes and effortful recall activities, is also critical to crystallizing our knowledge as intelligence. When we effectively space learning materials, we repeatedly return to review important subject matter. The authors contend that learning is never a one-time event. If we want to teach a skill in a college lecture or a corporate classroom, it ought not to be a one-time event. We need to follow-up on the event with micro-learnings and quizzes so as to eliminate the "forgetting curve." Similarly, today's learner is most efficient when they study multiple subjects simultaneously, so as to "interleave" study materials. When we explore multiple topics at the same time we naturally space out our study, and we remember more of what we sought to learn. For example, if we want to teach computer programming, we would do well not to teach programming languages in bulk, but to trade-off between content areas. Rather than teaching all of HTML before teaching CSS, we would teach some HTML, then some CSS, then quiz on and learn more HTML, before returning to CSS and beginning the cycle anew.
Of the ideas in the book, I found their thoughts on reflection to be the most compelling, particularly for adult learners. Reflection is a process of elaborating on experience that asks us to remember what happened, evaluate what happened, and plan for improvement during subsequent experiences. While reflection is important to all learners, it may be especially critical to busy workplace professionals, who likely need fewer lectures and conferences and more opportunities to debrief and discuss.
The book isn't perfectly applicable to life in 2020. It avoids the subject of equity in education. If quizzes and test are so important in our schools, the authors should have suggested how to use them in a way that does not disadvantage those with less frequent access to technology or study materials. The book also describes a case study in which police learn to use lethal force to stop perpetrators, a passage that comes off as callous and upsetting after a summer of racial injustice. Future editions of the book would do well to omit this example, focusing instead on how we can learn to make our organizations more inclusive and equitable.
Still, the book offers an approachable, science-based framework for learning more effectively. Whether we are a student or someone who makes their living teaching others, we would do well to read "Make It Stick" closely and carefully. We would do even better to quiz ourself on its subject matter, read it alongside other books on learning, and reflect on how we might transfer its contents to our daily practice.