Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel

Hazel Christie relishes a polished and powerful narrative that explains how memory works

April 3, 2014

If you want to read a lively and engaging book on the science of learning, this is a must. Two cognitive scientists, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, and one storyteller, Peter Brown, have teamed up to explain how learning and memory work. The fusion is a successful one and the narrative is seamless and polished. A deceptively simple read, Make It Stick benefits greatly from its use of stories about people who have achieved mastery of complex knowledge and skills. Over the course of the book, the authors weave together stories from an array of learners - surgeons, pilots, gardeners, and school and university students - to illustrate their arguments about how successful learning takes place.

At heart, Make It Stick is an exercise in polemic. It begins with the bold statement that people are generally going about learning in the wrong ways. The strategies that many people use and that they intuitively sense to be aiding their learning, too often turn out to be ineffective and give only transient gains. In particular, the authors take issue with people who believe they are learning by rereading or by using massed practice, which involves practising something over and over in a block until you feel that you have mastered the content or the skill. For Brown et al, these strategies are a waste of time and they despair of teachers and students alike for their reliance on them.

So how does successful learning take place? Here the polemic is backed up by empirical science and is beautifully illustrated by the stories on which the authors draw. They propose two main learning principles. First, people learn better if they practise spaced repetition of key ideas. So if learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically, they remember it better. And second, the interleaving of different but related topics enhances learning, meaning that people learn more effectively than if they had simply studied a list of topics one at a time and in sequence. They are clear that these two principles have an underlying neurological basis. When we practise learning through retrieval and interleaving, we strengthen the neural networks and pathways that make up that body of knowledge and we deepen our memory of it. They recognise that this type of learning is difficult - or as they term it, “effortful” - and hence it is often experienced as demoralising by learners. But they advocate the importance of sticking with this approach because it pays great dividends in achieving the levels of deep learning of which we are capable, they emphasise.

Much of Make It Stick is concerned with explaining these principles in greater depth and in looking at the practical strategies that flow from them. In particular, they are clear that one of the greatest aids to learning is the use of tests, because people learn better when they test themselves at regular intervals. This might involve low-stake quizzes administered by a teacher or self-testing. Again they make clear that the cognitive basis for this strengthening of memory is of paramount importance. While testing shows you what you do or don’t know, recalling what you’ve learned also causes the 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. This, in essence, is how we make our memories stick.

This is a rich and resonant book and a pleasurable read that will leave you pondering the processes through which you, and your students, acquire new knowledge and skills.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

By Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel
Harvard University Press, 336pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780674729018
Published 24 April 2014

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