In this post I review key takeaways from the book “make it stick” and delve into its practical applications for educators—how instructors who teach face-to-face or online can help their students learn better, and for course and curriculum designers—how they can support learning through unique course design strategies.
The book begins “…people generally go about learning in the wrong ways…” and authors describe how the methods we typically use to learn—reviewing material again and again to get that ‘A’ for instance, or practicing the same skill for hours on end until mastery, are essentially ineffective (pg. xi). They don’t work, and ‘make it stick’ explains why. Despite the title, “… Science of Successful Learning”, the book is more about the practical than the science though the authors do a fine job of referencing research to support their claims. For these and other reasons, the book is enlightening—refreshingly so. I approached the book with few expectations; with the numerous titles out there on learning—How we Learn, The Science Behind Learning, Accelerated Learning, etc., I’m a bit skeptical. Though most concepts presented in the book aren’t new, like the debunking of learning styles*, the methods described on how we learn provide a new perspective on teaching and developing coursework. For instance forgetting is good; good when we space out learning then forget enough that we have to retrieve it later and relearn it. Another, changing up topics frequently is also effective—just when we think we are beginning to ‘get it’, it’s a good time to move on to another topic.
Make it Stick Applied to Teaching & Course Design
“Make it stick” is a how-to book geared to students and life-long learners that describes how to not just remember, but how to apply, analyze, and synthesize concepts. This post presents a different perspective, how the principles in “make it stick” can be applied to teaching and to the development of curriculum and courses—online and face-to-face. We could just as easily substitute ‘teaching’ for ‘learning’ in the opening quote, ‘people generally go about teaching in the wrong ways’. In this context ‘people’ refers to teachers, professors, trainers, tutors, coaches and parents, as well as curriculum and instructional designers. I’m in the latter category and used principles from the book when developing an online, four-unit professional development course for faculty.
The book is a fairly easy read with enough challenge and complexity to make it a page-turner. It’s also cleverly written; authors embed some of the learning methods described in the book in the writing. For example they use ‘interleaving—which is a method of introducing a new idea or concept, then layering in an additional concept (or concepts)—for instance concept ‘a’ is introduced in a chapter, and just when you start grasping it, authors switch to concept ‘b’, then come back to concept ‘a’ in the next chapter, while introducing concept ‘c’. Concept a, b and c (and d, e and f) are interleaved throughout the book in this way, turning up in subsequent chapters with different examples to illustrate each. Just when you might have forgotten concept ‘a’, it appears again, along with yet another topic. This technique, switching topics frequently and interleaving, represent two methods authors described in the book, one is to mix it up (vary) and space-out, content frequently, before you’ve mastered the material (pg. 46 – 49). Then review the material later, retrieve concepts when you’re on the brink of forgetting them altogether. Apparently this repeated retrieval, going back to concepts again and again, embeds the knowledge and skills (pg. 29), and is far more effective than concentrated study sessions of re-reading, reviewing and highlighting text passages. The second concept interleaving, which is the idea that learning two or more subjects, or practicing two or more skills, is a more potent that massed practice focused on one topic.
- Learning is deeper and more durable when it requires effort. This idea explained in chapter four, ‘embrace difficulties’ which authors describe difficult learning as desirable due to the idea that the brain encodes and consolidates learning when learning it’s ‘effortful’; is strengthened through mental representations associated with retrieval and making connections (pg. 73).
- * Learning styles debunked; there is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learners preferred style of learning, e.g. auditory, visual, etc.
- Learners are susceptible to the ‘illusion of knowing’. It’s not uncommon for learners to ‘not know what they don’t know’. Being aware of what one still needs to learn, or what skill needs developing is known as metacognition, and it’s part of overcoming the illusion of knowing. Chapter five lists tools learners can use to gain a sense of knowing. Educators play a critical role in helping students overcome the illusion of knowing by providing constructive feedback (pg. 126).
- Learning requires a foundation of knowledge, which supports the idea that we do need to learn foundational concepts even in a world where we can “Google it’. It seems that when knowledge is deeply entrenched in long-term memory it supports the learner’s ability to make connections with other knowledge held in one’s memory (pg. 76). ‘Googling’ a fact or concept will likely be stored in the learner’s short-term memory, and while useful in certain contexts, it does not replace a learner having a knowledge base to call upon when working on complex projects or initiatives.
Tips for Instructors/Faculty/Teachers to Help Learning ‘Stick’
The following tips section is a summary of concepts presented in the book. The final chapter of the book, Make it Stick, also outlines some general tips for teachers, though authors caution that teachers must find what’s right for his or her classroom (pg. 225). Agreed. But still the tips are worthy of careful consideration.
- Focus on active learning methods—retrieval, elaboration, reflection, generative learning. This idea of active learning is not new, but the book provides excellent suggestions for active learning that can be applied to the classroom and online. One example I particularly like is the use of ‘summary sheets’, where students are required to submit a single sheet at the end of a week that illustrates the prior week’s material with drawings annotated with key ideas, arrows and graphs (pg. 231). This could be done in an online course where learners share their summary diagrams with each other via a forum, or group’s are assigned to create a collective summary diagram for a given week and post it for sharing.
- Create ‘desirable difficulties’ where learners struggle with material, make mistakes and even fail, yet do ultimately receive corrective and constructive feedback from the instructor.
- Provide constructive feedback — once learners have wrestled with the concepts and material (as above). This method not only strengthens learning but creates an open and challenging learning climate
- Incorporate frequent, low stakes testing.
- Provide opportunities for elaboration, reflection.
- Explain to students how learning works—sharing with students what empirical studies have revealed on how people learn will help students manage their own education. The other benefit—teaching becomes transparent; students see the purpose behind the methods, e.g. reflection exercises, frequent quizzes, etc. Students may also see that learning is supposed to be challenging and difficult and that making mistakes and not always succeeding is part of the learning process. The book does a good job outlining how to explain learning to students (pg 225 – 230).
Practical Applications for Course/Curriculum Designers
- Create frequent and varied active learning exercises — focus less on content that students consume through reading and watching, and more on doing. Active learning in online courses, though more challenging to create, supports effective and dynamic learning experiences (Austin & Mescia, n.d.).
- Use quizzes as exploratory, reflective learning exercises with the primary purpose to help students learn. This means creating quizzes that provide immediate feedback, even during the quiz, where students can check their answers. In order for this to be effective the feedback needs to be specific, describing why an answer is correct or incorrect. The feedback is an opportunity to reinforce concepts and can prompt students to dig deeper into a subject area. If using the quiz feature in a LMS, it’s possible to provide customized feedback, even include Web links to further resources.
- Incorporate concepts frequently throughout the course in a variety of contexts by creating learning exercises and assignments that require students to draw upon concepts from previous modules/units of learning. Do not approach learning modules or units as independent ‘chunks’ of learning, but fluid and porous ‘blocks’ that draw upon previous concepts that interlock and build a structure. It’s a common term in online course development to ‘chunk’ learning into segments, yet it’s critical to thread concepts consistently throughout the modules/units.
- Don’t make it too easy — make students work at learning, e.g. by posing more questions and opportunities for discovery through discussion and interaction with other students. Though structure and outline of purpose for activities is the framework, students need to find solutions and solve problems wrestling with concepts and ideas. This last component is perhaps the most challenging to structure within an online course.
Examples of Methods Applied from ‘make it stick’
1) Interleaving in an online course: As mentioned earlier in the post, I applied the idea of interleaving in an online course I recently created. Rather than topics introduced as separate units of instruction within independent modules, I threaded concepts from previous modules into the new ones. Concepts from prior modules were referenced frequently in different contexts, and in the learning activities participants are required to incorporate concepts from previous units along with newly introduced concepts, as well as to draw upon their knowledge and experience. I also incorporated frequent, cumulative quizzes for review in each module that covered concepts from all modules. Quiz settings were adjusted so that learners can check their responses before moving on to the next question and the feedback provides a review of the concept.
2) Generative learning is a method discussed in the book. It’s a process where students are given a problem to solve before being taught the concepts or method. The idea is that learning is stronger when students invest more energy and effort looking for a solution. Critics of this teaching method say it’s more time-consuming and not as effective as direct instruction. In Ontario, Canada this method of generative learning is introduced in select public schools to teach Mathematics.
“He (the math teacher) presents a problem at the start of class, and lets the students try to figure it out. Hopefully, he says, the students will struggle. “That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,” — Old School or new? Math teachers debate best method as Canadian scores fall, Liam Casey
I give ‘make it stick’ five-stars, not only for the concise, crisp writing but the thought-provoking and actionable content. Teachers, instructors and course designers will no doubt find the book useful, at the very least it will provide a refreshing take on learning. The book’s website, makeitstick.net provides a good overview of the content by chapter.