The first line in the preface of Make It Stick says it all:
“People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways.”
There is plenty of research done by cognitive psychologists to show that most of what we’ve learned about learning turns out to be wasted effort at best, and harmful at worst.
In this summary we are going to cover (a) what learning is, (b) what doesn’t work in learning, and (c) multiple strategies for making your learning more effective.
Your journey to making your learning “stick” begins now.
What Is Learning?
The definition the authors give for learning is this:
Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
Then they go on to explain their three immutable aspects of learning:
- To be useful, learning requires memory, so what we’ve learned is still there later when we need it.
- We need to keep learning and remembering all our lives. Just like we can’t advance through middle school without some mastery of language arts, maths, science, and social studies, we can’t advance in work without mastering job skills and how to deal with difficult colleagues. Then, in retirement (if you ever end up retiring) you pick up new interests you need to master. You have an advantage in life if you continuously learn.
- Finally, learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.
Learning Is An Acquired Skill
Learning is most definitely an acquired skill, and in order to develop it, you need to believe that you can do it. Carol Dweck calls this the Growth Mindset in her fantastic book Mindset, which you should most definitely read.
Every time you learn something new, you actually change your brain. This is called neuroplacticity, which is a scientific term that describes the lasting change to the brain throughout your life.
So while it’s true that some of your intelligence is determined by your genes, it’s also true that you can learn to become a more effective learner.
How well you learn, which will become an increasingly important skill in the next ten years, is completely within your control.
Understanding this, along with understanding how to deal with failure (where the most important learning occurs), will determine the trajectory of your life.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to what doesn’t work in learning.
What Doesn’t Work
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
– a quote often misattributed to Mark Twain
Before we move into what works about learning, we have to unlearn a lot of the things we thought we knew about learning.
The strategies that most people use in order to get through school with passing grades are often the least effective strategies if your goal is to actually learn the material.
The first ineffective strategy is rereading. The strategy most people employ when studying for their tests are to reread the notes they took in class along with the books that they read during a course.
The authors point out that rereading has three strikes against it:
- It’s time consuming;
- It doesn’t result in durable memory (you’ll forget what you reread shortly after rereading it)
- It often involves a kind of self-deception, where you feel a growing familiarity with the content, which you mistake for mastery of the subject.
For those reasons, you should stop using rereading as one of your strategies.
The second ineffective strategy is called massed practice, which is the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you are trying to burn into memory. The most common application of this strategy can be found in students cramming for an exam the night before.
As the authors point out, these strategies will make you feel like you are mastering these subjects, but you are not. For true mastery of a subject, those two strategies are a waste of time.
In addition to those two ineffective strategies, there’s a commonly quoted theory that people have a learning style that they learn best through.
For instance, some people are auditory learners and some other people are visual learners, and so on. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing there is no empirical research that backs up that claim.
However, there is research that suggests you’ll learn better when you engage as many of your senses as possible when you are learning.
Now that we’ve got what doesn’t work out of the way, let’s move on to what does.
What Works #1: Retrieval
Practicing retrieving new learning from memory is the primary study strategy to replace rereading.
As you are learning something, instead of just highlighting things you want to remember, pause periodically and ask yourself questions like:
- what are the key ideas?
- what terms or ideas are new to me?
- how do the ideas relate to what I already know?
This works much better for a few reasons.
First, it eliminates the reliance on the sense of mastery you’ll feel because the subject matter is familiar.
Second, you find out what you actually know. If you don’t actually understand how the knowledge might connect with other knowledge you have, you haven’t really wrestled with it and fully understand it. And now you’ll be armed with where you don’t quite understand the subject, and can go back and deepen your understanding.
Third, it forces you to understand the central precepts of what you are learning rather than on the peripheral items.
As the authors point out, your brain is not a muscle that gets stronger, but the neural pathways in the brain do get stronger when you retrieve from your memories – which is what you do when you quiz yourself.
When you start doing this for the first time it will feel awkward and frustrating. It’s also likely that it won’t feel as productive as rereading your notes.
What Works #2: Space Out
Your learning is much stronger when the retrieval practice is spaced out. So, in addition to testing yourself shortly after you learn something, you’ll continue to test yourself on the knowledge over time.
In order to put this into practice, you’ll need to overcome your natural inclination to focus on one subject and work on it until you’ve “mastered” it.
Your intuition will tell you that you are making progress, which will reinforce your belief that your strategy is working.
However, you’ll fail to see that almost all of these gains are coming from your short-term memory, which will quickly fade over time.
Instead, by spacing your retrieval practice, you’ll be able to retrieve the knowledge more readily, in more varied settings, and apply it to a wider variety of problems.
You know, in a way that is actually useful to you as you try strive to accomplish your goals in our business and life.
Again, this way of learning is going to feel more awkward and difficult than cramming. But when you are reconstructing what you learn from your long-term memory, you are strengthening your mastery of the topic.
What Works #3: Interleaving
Interleaving is the practice of two or more subjects or skills during a single session.
Here’s the example the authors give in the book. Suppose you are trying to teach new employees a complicated new process that involves ten procedures.
The typical way of doing this is to master procedure 1, repeating it until you seem to have it down, and then move on to procedure 2, and so on.
Interleaving practice would suggest that you practice procedure 1 a few times, then switch to procedure 4, then to 3, then back to 1, and so on.
Doing it this way will feel slower than ploughing through the procedures one by one, and you’ll notice a difference, but the goal isn’t for you to have the topic in your short-term memory, it’s to master it and implant it into your long-term memory.
The research shows unequivocally that for mastery and long-term retention, interleaving practice is the way to go.
There’s another benefit that both variation and interleaving bring to the table that aren’t immediately obvious. It allows you to extract the underlying principles or “rules” that differentiate types of problems, further allowing you to be more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.
Which has to be the point of learning, right?
What Works #4: Elaboration
Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.
There are many ways you can do this, but the most powerful way would be to explain it to somebody else in your own words, while connecting it to other material you already know.
As an example, reading these books and summarising them is my way of implementing this practice into my learning journey.
Another powerful form of elaboration is to find a metaphor or visual cue for the new information. For instance, when teaching the structure of an atom, many science teachers will use the metaphor of the solar system, with the planets orbiting the sun, just as electrons spin around the nucleus.
This technique is extra powerful because there’s no known limit to what you can learn if you make elaboration a cornerstone in your learning strategy.
What Works #5: Generation
Generation is an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution.
After growing up in a school system that only rewards having the right answer in the right way, this technique might strike fear in your heart.
This is what happens in experiential learning – you set out to accomplish a task, you run into a problem, you look for information that will help you solve the problem, and then use that information to solve it.
This has the added benefit of helping you uncover the difference between what you thought the answer would be, and what it actually was. I’ve found that this helps create humility, because the answer is almost never what you expect it to be.
What Works #6: Reflection
Reflection is the act of taking a few minutes to review what has been learned in a recent class or experience, and then asking yourself some questions:
- what went well?
- what could have gone better?
- what might you need to learn for better mastery?
- what strategies might I use the next time I encounter this problem?
What Works #7: Calibration
Calibration is the act of aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so you can avoid being carried away with illusions of mastery.
For instance, airline pilots have gauges and dials in the cockpit that let them know critical things like whether or not they are on the right course to reach their destination, and whether or not the airplane is level.
Without objective feedback on what you know and what you don’t know, there’s no way to figure out where you need to improve.
What Works #8: Mnemonic Devices
Finally, mnemonic devices are tools which allow you to organise large bodies of information in a way that makes it easier to recall.
For instance, the book Made To Stick (a classic marketing book by Chip and Dan Heath) uses the acronym S.U.C.C.E.S. to help us remember what makes marketing messages stick: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional stories.
While you won’t likely be forced to recall information in the real world like you do on a test, and very little of what you do in your work will require you to make split second decisions (and thus prevent you from referring to notes you might have made on a subject), the more information you can store and recall in your brain, the more creative and innovative you can be in your solutions.
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