In my last post, I reviewed and summarized some of the myths of learning that Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel offer up in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. They explain that students study inefficiently, by rereading huge chunks of text, and ineffectively, by mistaking fluency with the material for knowledge of the material.
This is borne out in my experience. When I surveyed a group of 150 high school students about what they would do to study for a major test, I got answers like:
- “I look over my textbook and really focus on the material.”
- “I look over notes and attempt to jog my memory by reviewing previous lessons. Reading over the textbook also helps if I have time.”
- “I generally re-read relevant chapters in the books I use to study and review notes.”
- “Skim the book and notes.”
- “Review notes, read a textbook, read more textbooks, play video games.”
That last method certainly might not sound very effective, but the critical insight that Brown et al. offer is that none of these methods works. They all trade massive amounts of study time for little in test performance.
For students, the obvious response is, “Okay, I get it, I’m studying wrong. But what should I do instead?”
Thankfully, Make It Stick’s authors don’t leave us stranded, contemplating our failures. They offer a number of scientifically proven strategies for both learning and retaining course material. Students who switch to these forms of studying are likely to spend less time studying, while increasing their overall performance (sure sounds like win-win to me!). These are only a few of their many recommendations — if you want to know more, buy the book!
Strategy #1 — Embrace the Power of Testing
Instead of rereading, Brown et al. identify testing as the critical method of learning and studying. By “testing,” they don’t mean high-stakes tests given in school. Instead, they recommend that learners embrace the power of forcing your brain to recall things it does know and clearly identify things it does not. Fascinatingly, the harder the material is to remember, the more benefit gained from trying to remember it. Another name for testing is “retrieval practice,” and it’s exactly what students do when they make flashcards. The authors explain that the benefits of testing are twofold: “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” (20).
Remember those myths of learning? Retrieval practice counters a number of them — it is difficult (which helps the memory stick), it helps you focus on the most important parts of the material (rather than a whole chapter or book) and it identifies exactly what you do and don’t know, eliminating the fluency effect.
Even better, it works even if you get the answer wrong or can’t remember the answer at all. The authors’ research indicates that “Every time you work hard to recall a memory, you actually strengthen it. If you restudy something after failing to recall it, you actually learn it better than if you had not tried to recall it” (203) [Emphasis added]. That’s astonishing. Even when you get things entirely wrong, the mere process of trying to remember them correctly helps you in the future.
Students who are looking to take advantage of this method should immediately switch from rereading to retrieval practice: flash cards, study guides with blanks for the terms or definitions, and quizzing by a parent or friend are all easy ways to take advantage of the power of this method. Students should also practice summarizing in their own words what they just read or learned in a class. It’s an easy way to start to mentally consolidate the material. Taking two minutes while waiting for the next class to start to write down what you learned in the last class pays huge dividends down the road when it comes time to take the test.
Strategy #2 — Space Out Your Practice
The second key strategy or technique for improving learning is also relatively simple — space out practice or studying. Big blocks of singly focused time is called “massed” practice, and while it feels like it’s working at the time, the gains don’t last. Spacing out practice feels more frustrating—when you start up again, the material is hard to recall—but that feeling of struggling to remember is actually your brain making new connections to the material. As a bonus, multiple short sessions are better than one long session even if the total time is less—and it’s certainly easier to schedule lots of short sessions around other schoolwork and activities than it is to find one long uninterrupted block of time. So: study in smaller chunks, and you can both learn the material better and spend less time on it!
Strategy #3 — Mix Up Your Practice
Another way to get the benefits that come from a little struggling is to switch back and forth between different subjects during learning. This is called “interleaving,” and it’s a good way to make your brain more flexible and increase long-term retention. If you have two tests to study for, don’t do all of the studying for the first test and then all of the studying for the second — switching back and forth before you have the material down cold is the best way to keep your brain on its toes. Brown et al. explain that used together, spaced practice and interleaved practice produces vastly better results: “Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower” (47).
The big message here is that learning that feels difficult is more productive than learning that feels easy. When you make your brain work harder during the learning process, you are setting yourself up to succeed in the recall process (aka “the test”).
Strategy #4 — Generate a Solution Before You Know the Correct Answer
A hot new technique in education is pretesting — giving students a test on the material before they’ve learned it. (Benedict Carey offers a short introduction to the pretesting theory in his recent article in the New York Times Magazine). The idea is that when you are forced to think about what the answer might be before you know for sure, your brain pays more attention to the actual answer. It’s like solving a puzzle: getting the questions in advance piques your brain’s curiosity, so it attunes more carefully when the material is finally introduced.
Students, it’s unlikely that you can convince all of your teachers to give you the final exam on the first day of class, but you can still use this strategy: when you start to read a chapter, look at the title of the chapter and any section headings before you start reading. Predict what the chapter will be about, what key terms might be included. If you have a textbook that has questions at the end of each chapter, this is even easier: try answering the questions before you read the chapter. You will remember the chapter better even if you get the questions 100% wrong. Pretty cool.
These are a few of the most useful strategies for current students, but they’re by no means the full set of content in the book. When I initially generated the list of key strategies from the book, I came up with fourteen specific, easy-to-implement ideas for improving learning and studying for students. Students who are interested in being more efficient and more effective (and who isn’t?) should check out Make it Stick.
The final post in this series will consider how teachers can apply the same types of strategies in their classrooms to improve student learning.