Learning: Make It Stick

By James M. Lang, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/23/14

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [is the story of an airplane pilot navigating his way through a midflight emergency]. It describes his range of options, the implications of his choices, and how his training helped him manage the crisis successfully.

The book’s authors—Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, [psychology professors at Washington University in St. Louis] and Peter Brown [a novelist]— use the story to complicate a distinction we teachers like to make between “facts” and “critical thinking,” especially in the digital age. Having students learn facts, memorize information, or drill on fundamentals seems pointless to many of us when so much information is available at our fingertips. Don’t worry so much about the facts, we say, you can Google those. We want you to think.

Even students buy into that attitude, the book suggests, pointing to those popular T-shirts they wear that quote Albert Einstein praising creativity over knowledge. And yet, the book notes, “You wouldn’t want to see that T-shirt on your neurosurgeon or on the captain who is flying your plane across the Pacific.”

The pilot in their story… had to master a sizable body of knowledge before climbing into the cockpit. Countless hours of drilling on basic skills, memorizing information about weather conditions and aerodynamics, committing to memory the successes and mistakes he had made in simulations and in actual flights—all of those things enabled him to think critically and creatively about how to respond in an emergency….

Make It Stick [is] the single best work I have encountered on the [human brain and how we learn]. Anyone with an interest in teaching or learning will benefit from reading this book, which not only presents thoroughly grounded research but does so in an eminently readable way that is accessible even to students.

Mastery of a subject or skill, as the book points out, requires “both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.” You can’t think creatively unless you have something to think about; you can’t think critically unless you have something to critique.

Yet despite such seemingly evident truths, I often hear faculty members speak dismissively about memorization or drilling, as if it somehow is beneath them to help students acquire knowledge that they will need to engage in the creative thinking we all hope to foster….

The book hits upon every major fundamental learning principle that I have encountered in the primary research in the field. Among the insights:

  • The practice of retrieving information from your brain is important for learning. Sometimes referred to as the “testing effect,” this principle argues that students need continual practice at retrieving newly learned content in order to make it available to them when they need it…. That practice can come in the form of testing but, as the authors point out, teachers can incorporate retrieval practice into their courses in a variety of ways, and students can likewise incorporate it into their study habits.
  • It’s better to mix it up than focus solely on one thing. Our intuition about learning would suggest that just the opposite was true, but this is one of many areas in which our intuition about learning is not well supported by the research. “Massed study” is the term researchers use to describe when students focus their studying entirely on one skill or set of knowledge before moving on to the next. “Interleaving” is when students shift their studying back and forth between different topics on a regular basis. Massed study produces short-term retention,…but if you compare test scores, the interleaving students demonstrate much higher long-term retention, even though they often report feeling as if their studying was ineffective.
  • Learning can be fun, but that doesn’t mean it should be easy. In fact,…when learners have to work at generating answers to questions, rather than simply being given those answers, they learn the material more deeply…. The authors cite a study in which students in an introductory psychology course were tasked with summarizing concepts in their own words for some course material, and with copying down information on slides for other material. In both short- and long-term tests, the students scored significantly higher on the material they had summarized in their own words than on the material they had copied….

[The book provides] invaluable assistance to educators at any level as they help to sweep away myths and misconceptions about learning and ground our teaching in what we know about human cognition….

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College (Worcester, MA). His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty.

 See also in ClassWise: “Learning That Lasts”

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