Review of "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning"

This is a book about what people can do for themselves right now in order to learn better and remember longer. - Brown, Roediger, McDaniel

This book discusses effective strategies for learning and gives intuition for why they are effective. The strategies are practical and presented as vehicles toward understanding and insite through case studies of people who have used them effectively. Their is science behind these strategies; they are synthesized from a ten year study focused on the intersection of experimental cognitive psychology and education.

The simplicity of strategies is what makes this book remarkable to me. I have spent time trying to become a better learner. The strategies of others who I considered gifted learners left me observing superficial behaviors. For example and rather obviously, skilled learners read material, but what prevents them from forgetting it and how do they integrate it with other knowledge? This book reveals what most skilled learners are doing internally.

Effortful Learning

Spaced retrieval and heterogeneous study are the primary strategies suggested in the book; they encourage effortful learning. Effortful learning is the research backed, counter-intuitive notion that we should encourage difficulty while learning. In other words, we should dynamically set learning difficulty such that learning is never easy.

Spaced retrieval mitigates forgetting. Studies have shown that retrieving knowledge that is not immediately available strengthens our ability to retrieve it in the future. In contrast, the benefits are marginal if uniform retrieval is done in mass; forgetting and explicitly working to retrieve knowledge is critical to the learning process.

Few topics can be used in the absence of context; this may be one reason why uniform massed practice is difficult to generalize (something discussed in the book). Learning different concepts simultaneously result naturally in comparisons of concepts; ultimately structuring information in our mind.

Understanding is constructed in three steps process: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Encoding is the process of putting knowledge into short term memory, consolidation structures the knowledge for longer term memory, and retrieval improves accessibility. When used regularly, these strategies enrich our understanding by repeating the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval process.

A Practical Strategy for Learning

For myself, the most fundamental component is to remain mindfully engaged in learning. This means constantly assessing whether I understand the material. However, left at this, the process of learning will be terribly inefficient. There must be concrete actions taken to assess understanding and develop insight. In the following list I describe three actions, taken from this book, that can promote engagement.

  • Testing: This will aid retrieval and mitigate confusing familiarity with understanding. Unfortunately, human instincts are not great at assessing understanding; regular assessment mitigates these bad instincts. When reading, I have two concrete actions to assess myself: 1) If reading a paragraph does not raise at least one question than I am probably not understanding the material and 2) I have been trying to make a habit of inputing concepts and testing myself using mnemosyne.
  • Generation: Generation should improve our understanding by improve our model of the concept, it should encourage rule building. When reading, we can promote generation by asking ourselves lots of questions: “How does this material relate to the last sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc?”, “What is the author’s intent here?”, “What does this material remind me of and why?”, “Can these concepts be captured in a more general abstraction?”, “What are the concepts this material depends on?”. For myself, I must remain mindful that my answers to such questions should contain substances.
  • Elaboration: This is where internalization will happen. Here we want to explain things in our own words. However, we must take care to not loose precision when explaining our understanding and insights in our own words. Letting time pass between exposure to the material and elaboration is key to avoid confusing familiarity with building understanding. We should also think carefully about exactly how and where other concepts are needed. I think elaboration needs to be done at differing levels of details. I think this should promote our ability to explain concepts to people of varying expertise. For instance, I am currently thinking of the following levels: a five minute description to a person who has no background in the material, an untimed description to an expert in the concept or neighboring concepts, an untimed description given as a course where we must start from the most basic principles. When giving these descriptions, I try to avoid analogies; I seem to use them when I cannot put some issue to words and that probably is an indication that I need to understand something better. I find I often use them when I cannot properly explain a concept.

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