Aeschylus’s pearl, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom,” is the epigraph to a profoundly important new book: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel.
It’s extremely rare to find a book that everyone should read, but Make It Stick deserves such praise. You could consider it a book of cognitive psychology or education policy—I think it might be the ultimate self-help guide.
Facts, skills, concepts, knowhow—Make It Stick will make you more efficient and effective in every aspect of learning. It’ll even boost your perseverance. And if you follow its advice, soon your critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will improve, since these are knowledge-driven skills.
Throughout the book, stories—like a mid-flight engine failure—are used to explain well-established findings—like the necessity of practicing in realistic settings. From a struggling medical student, we learn that rereading and highlighting are not effective studying techniques, though they are often the only techniques students know. And from baseball players and math students, we learn the importance of “interleaved” practice—practicing with a mix of pitches or problems so that you not only have to hit the ball or solve the problem, you have to figure out what type of pitch or problem is coming at you.
Curveball courtesy of Shutterstock.
One highly effective way to learn is with “retrieval practice,” which boils down to quizzing. Quizzing yourself as you read, using flashcards, taking classroom quizzes—anything that dredges your memory. Retrieval practice is explored through multiple stories, including one middle school that opened its doors and minds to the benefits of storing facts in long-term memory:
In 2005, we and our colleagues approached Roger Chamberlain, the principal of a middle school in nearby Columbia, Illinois, with a proposition. The positive effects of retrieval practice had been demonstrated many times in controlled laboratory settings but rarely in a regular classroom setting. Would the principal, teachers, kids, and parents of Columbia Middle School be willing subjects in a study to see how the testing effect would work “in the wild”?
Chamberlain had concerns. If this was just about memorization, he wasn’t especially interested. His aim is to raise the school’s students to higher forms of learning—analysis, synthesis, and application, as he put it. And he was concerned about his teachers, an energetic faculty he was loath to disrupt. On the other hand, the study’s results could be instructive….
A sixth grade social studies teacher, Patrice Bain, was eager to give it a try…. The study would be minimally intrusive by fitting within existing curricula, lesson plans, test formats, and teaching methods. The same textbooks would be used. The only difference in the class would be the introduction of occasional short quizzes. The study would run for three semesters (a year and a half), through several chapters of the social studies textbook, covering topics such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China….
For the six social studies classes a research assistant … designed a series of quizzes that would test students on roughly one-third of the material covered by the teacher…. The teacher excused herself from the classroom for each quiz so as to remain unaware of which material was being tested….
There was concern that if students tested better in the final exam on material that had been quizzed than on material not quizzed, it could be argued that the simple act of reexposing them to the material in the quizzes was responsible for the superior learning, not the retrieval practice. To counter this possibility, some of the nonquizzed material was interspersed with the quizzed material, provided as simple review statements, like “The Nile River has two major tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile,” with no retrieval required. The facts were quizzed for some classes but just restudied for others.
The quizzes took just a few minutes of classroom time…. [Afterward, correct answers] were revealed, so as to provide feedback and correct errors….
Unit exams were the normal pencil-and-paper tests given by the teacher. Exams were also given at the end of the semester and at the end of the year….
The results were compelling: The kids scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been quizzed than on the material that had not been quizzed. Moreover, test results for the materials that had been reviewed as statements of fact but not quizzed were no better than those for the nonreviewed material…..
In 2007, the research was extended to eighth grade science classes, covering genetics, evolution, and anatomy. The regimen was the same, and the results equally impressive. At the end of three semesters, the eighth graders averaged 79 percent (C+) on the science material that had not been quizzed, compared to 92 percent (A-) on the material that had been quizzed….
What about Principal Roger Chamberlain’s initial concerns about practice quizzing at Columbia Middle School—that it might be nothing more than a glorified path to rote learning?
When we asked him this question after the study was completed, he paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. “What I’ve really gained a comfort level with is this: for the kids to be able to evaluate, synthesize, and apply a concept in different settings, they’re going to be much more efficient at getting there when they have the base of knowledge and the retention, so they’re not wasting time trying to go back and figure out what the word might mean or what that concept was about. It allows them to go to a higher level.”
Knowledge does indeed enable thinking at a higher level. As Make It Stick points out, switching from ineffective to highly effective instructional and studying techniques can be done right away, at very little cost, and with great benefits.