This is a book summary of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel (Amazon):
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- All content in quotation marks is from the authors unless otherwise stated.
- All content is organized into my own themes (not the authors’ chapters).
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents:
The Science of Successful Learning: Make It Stick (Book Summary)
What is Learning?
“When we talk about learning: we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.”
requires memory, is an acquired skill, should be effortful, builds on prior learning, and is an iterative process
- requires memory (so what we’ve learned is still there later when we need it).
- is an acquired skill (and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive).
- is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful, and stronger when it matters (when the abstract is made concrete and personal).
- depends on prior learning and builds on prior knowledge (we interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know; the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning).
- is an iterative process (requires that you revisit what you have learned earlier and continually update it and connect it with new knowledge).
Mental Models & Structure Building:
“There do appear to be cognitive differences in how we learn, though not the ones recommended by advocates of learning styles. One of these differences is what psychologists call ‘structure building’: the act, as we encounter new material, of extracting the salient ideas and constructing a coherent mental framework out of them. These frameworks are sometimes called mental models or mental maps … A mental model is a mental representation of some external reality.”
- “Repeated effortful recall or practice helps integrate learning into mental models, in which a set of interrelated ideas or a sequence of motor skills are fused into a meaningful whole that can be adapted and applied in later settings.”
- “People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.”
- “Mental models are forms of deeply entrenched and highly efficient skills or knowledge structures that, like habits, can be adapted and applied in varied circumstances. Expert performance is built through thousands of hours of practice in your area of expertise, in varying conditions, through which you accumulate a vast library of such mental models that enables you to correctly discern a given situation and instantaneously select and execute the correct response.”
- “Structure building is a form of conscious and subconscious discipline: stuff fits or it doesn’t; it adds nuance, capacity and meaning, or it obscures.”
- “High structure-builders learn new material better than low structure-builders. The latter have difficulty setting aside irrelevant or competing information, and as a result they tend to hang on to too many concepts to be condensed into a workable model (or overall structure) that can serve as a foundation for further learning.”
- “High structure-builders develop the skill to identify foundational concepts and their key building blocks and to sort new information based on whether it adds to the larger structure and one’s knowledge or is extraneous and can be put aside. By contrast, low structure-builders struggle in figuring out and sticking with an overarching structure and knowing what information needs to fit into it and what ought to be discarded.”
Desirable & Undesirable Difficulties:
“Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, who coined the phrase ‘desirable difficulties,’ write that difficulties are desirable because ‘they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering. If, however, the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.'”
- “Short-term impediments that make for stronger learning have come to be called desirable difficulties.”
- “To be desirable, a difficulty must be something learners can overcome through increased effort.”
- “This paradox is at the heart of the concept of desirable difficulties in learning: the more effort required to retrieve (or, in effect, relearn) something, the better you learn it. In other words, the more you’ve forgotten about a topic, the more effective relearning will be in shaping your permanent knowledge.”
- “Difficulties that don’t strengthen the skills you will need, or the kinds of challenges you are likely to encounter in the real-world application of your learning, are not desirable.”
- “While some kinds of difficulties that require increased cognitive effort can strengthen learning, not all difficulties we face have that effect. If the additional effort required to overcome the deficit does not contribute to more robust learning, it’s not desirable.”
3 Steps of Learning in the Brain
“Every time you learn something new, you change the brain—the residue of your experiences is stored … Learning is at least a three-step process:
(1) initial encoding of information is held in short-term working memory before being consolidated into a cohesive representation of knowledge in long-term memory (working memory refers to the amount of information you can hold in mind while working through a problem, especially in the face of distraction; long-term memory capacity is virtually limitless: the more you know, the more possible connections you have for adding new knowledge.).
(2) Consolidation reorganizes and stabilizes memory traces, gives them meaning, and makes connections to past experiences and to other knowledge already stored in long-term memory.
(3) Retrieval updates learning and enables you to apply it when you need it.”
“The brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed. This process of converting sensory perceptions into meaningful representations in the brain is still not perfectly understood. We call the process ‘encoding,’ and we call the new representations within the brain ‘memory traces.’ Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory.”
- “Spaced and interleaved exposure characterizes most of humans’ normal experience. It’s a good way to learn, because this type of exposure strengthens the skills of discrimination—the process of noticing particulars—and of induction: surmising the general rule … It’s thought that this heightened sensitivity to similarities and differences during interleaved practice leads to the encoding of more complex and nuanced representations of the study material—a better understanding of how specimens or types of problems are distinctive and why they call for a different interpretation or solution.”
“The process of strengthening these mental representations for long-term memory is called consolidation. New learning is labile: its meaning is not fully formed and therefore is easily altered. In consolidation, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces. This may occur over several hours or longer and involves deep processing of the new material, during which scientists believe that the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences and to other knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Prior knowledge is a prerequisite for making sense of new learning, and forming those connections is an important task of consolidation.”
- “Sleep seems to help memory consolidation, but in any case, consolidation and transition of learning to long-term storage occurs over a period of time.”
- “Consolidation helps organize and solidify learning, and, notably, so does retrieval after a lapse of some time, because the act of retrieving a memory from long-term storage can both strengthen the memory traces and at the same time make them modifiable again, enabling them, for example, to connect to more recent learning. This process is called reconsolidation. This is how retrieval practice modifies and strengthens learning.”
- “When you recall learning after some time has elapsed and your grasp of it has become a little rusty, you have to make an effort to reconstruct it. This effortful retrieval both strengthens the memory but also makes the learning pliable again, leading to its reconsolidation. Reconsolidation helps update your memories with new information and connect them to more recent learning.”
- “It’s the effortful process of reconstructing the knowledge that triggers reconsolidation and deeper learning.”
“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval—testing—interrupts forgetting.”
- “Learning, remembering, and forgetting work together in interesting ways. Durable, robust learning requires that we do two things. First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely. Second, we must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked. The task is more than committing knowledge to memory. Being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important … As you learn new things, you don’t lose from long-term memory most of what you have learned well in life; rather, through disuse or the reassignment of cues, you forget it in the sense that you’re unable to call it up easily.”
- “Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory. How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth.”
- “Periodic retrieval of learning helps strengthen connections to the memory and the cues for recalling it, while also weakening routes to competing memories.”
- “Because of the vast capacity of long-term memory, having the ability to locate and recall what you know when you need it is key; your facility for calling up what you know depends on the repeated use of the information (to keep retrieval routes strong) and on your establishing powerful retrieval cues that can reactivate the memories.”
- “Retrieval practice that you perform at different times and in different contexts and that interleaves different learning material has the benefit of linking new associations to the material. This process builds interconnected networks of knowledge that bolster and support mastery of your field. It also multiplies the cues for retrieving the knowledge, increasing the versatility with which you can later apply it.”
Retrieval in Detail
Retrieval practice is recalling facts or concepts or events from memory … Practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material does. This is the ‘testing effect,’ also known as the ‘retrieval-practice effect’ … Empirical research shows us that the testing effect is real—that the act of retrieving a memory changes the memory, making it easier to retrieve again later … To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort.
“The kind of retrieval practice that proves most effective is one that reflects what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later. It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later.”
“Psychologists have uncovered a curious inverse relationship between the ease of retrieval practice and the power of that practice to entrench learning: the easier knowledge or a skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit your retention of it. Conversely, the more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it.”
- “Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention … When the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.”
- “When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.”
- “The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”
“Repeated retrieval not only makes memories more durable but produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily, in more varied settings, and applied to a wider variety of problems.”
- “Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting … Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.”
- “Repeated recall appears to help memory consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to strengthen and multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved.”
“After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.”
- “When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed … A little forgetting between practice sessions can be a good thing, if it leads to more effort in practice, but you do not want so much forgetting that retrieval essentially involves relearning the material. The time periods between sessions of practice let memories consolidate. Sleep seems to play a large role in memory consolidation, so practice with at least a day in between sessions is good.”
Reflection as retrieval:
“Reflection is a form of retrieval practice (What happened? What did I do? How did it work out?), enhanced with elaboration (What would I do differently next time?).”
- “Reflection is the act of taking a few minutes to review what has been learned in a recent class or experience and asking yourself questions. What went well? What could have gone better? What other knowledge or experiences does it remind you of? What might you need to learn for better mastery, or what strategies might you use the next time to get better results?”
- “Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”
“We now know of simple and practical strategies that anybody can use, at any point in life, to learn better and remember longer: various forms of retrieval practice, such as low-stakes quizzing and self-testing, spacing out practice, interleaving the practice of different but related topics or skills, trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution, distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems, and so on.”
Quizzing / Testing:
“Retrieval practice means self-quizzing. Retrieving knowledge and skill from memory should become your primary study strategy in place of rereading … One of the most striking research findings is the power of active retrieval—testing—to strengthen memory, and that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit.”
- “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.”
- “Make frequent use of testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know.”
- “In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness.”
- “It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgment of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”
“Spaced practice means studying information more than once but leaving considerable time between practice sessions.”
- “If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better.”
- “Effortful recall of learning, as happens in spaced practice, requires that you ‘reload’ or reconstruct the components of the skill or material anew from long-term memory rather than mindlessly repeating them from short-term memory. During focused, effortful recall, the learning is made pliable again: the most salient aspects of it become clearer, and the consequent reconsolidation helps to reinforce meaning, strengthen connections to prior knowledge, bolster the cues and retrieval routes for recalling it later, and weaken competing routes. Spaced practice, which allows some forgetting to occur between sessions, strengthens both the learning and the cues and routes for fast retrieval when that learning is needed again.”
- “It appears that embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces (the brain’s representations of the new learning) are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge—a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days. Rapid-fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence, spaced practice works better.”
Interleaving / Variation:
“Another way of spacing retrieval practice is to interleave the study of two or more topics, so that alternating between them requires that you continually refresh your mind on each topic as you return to it … Interleaving and variation mix up the contexts of practice and the other skills and knowledge with which the new material is associated. This makes our mental models more versatile, enabling us to apply our learning to a broader range of situations.”
- “In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete.”
- “If learners interleave the study of different topics, they learn each better than if they had studied them one at a time in sequence.”
- “Interleaving two or more subjects during practice also provides a form of spacing.”
- “Like interleaving, varied practice helps learners build a broad schema, an ability to assess changing conditions and adjust responses to fit.”
- “Interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep, and durable learning.”
- “Varied practice improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another.”
- “The retrieval difficulties posed by spacing, interleaving, and variation are overcome by invoking the same mental processes that will be needed later in applying the learning in everyday settings. By mimicking the challenges of practical experience, these learning strategies conform to the admonition to ‘practice like you play, and you’ll play like you practice,’ improving what scientists call transfer of learning, which is the ability to apply what you’ve learned in new settings.”
- “A significant advantage of interleaving and variation is that they help us learn better how to assess context and discriminate between problems, selecting and applying the correct solution from a range of possibilities.”
- “When practice conditions are varied or retrieval is interleaved with the practice of other material, we increase our abilities of discrimination and induction and the versatility with which we can apply the learning in new settings at a later date. Interleaving and variation build new connections, expanding and more firmly entrenching knowledge in memory and increasing the number of cues for retrieval.”
“Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know (the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material).”
- “The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
“Generation is an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution … The process of trying to solve a problem without the benefit of having been taught how is called generative learning, meaning that the learner is generating the answer rather than recalling it. Generation is another name for old-fashioned trial and error.”
- “Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.”
- “When you’re asked to struggle with solving a problem before being shown how to solve it, the subsequent solution is better learned and more durably remembered.”
- “Trying to come up with an answer rather than having it presented to you, or trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution, leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution, even when your attempted response is wrong, so long as corrective feedback is provided.”
- “The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation. Even if you’re being quizzed on material you’re familiar with, the simple act of filling in a blank has the effect of strengthening your memory of the material and your ability to recall it later.”
- “When you’re asked to supply an answer or a solution to something that’s new to you, the power of generation to aid learning is even more evident. One explanation for this effect is the idea that as you cast about for a solution, retrieving related knowledge from memory, you strengthen the route to a gap in your learning even before the answer is provided to fill it and, when you do fill it, connections are made to the related material that is fresh in your mind from the effort.”
- “Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot. It’s better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution. It’s better to attempt a solution and supply the incorrect answer than not to make the attempt.”
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