I have always been extremely curious about the most effective techniques to enhance my learning capabilities. ‘Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning’ by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel is possibly the best piece of work I have come across on this topic. Here are some quick thoughts on the book. I highly recommend it for anyone trying to optimise their learning in any area of their life.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Traditional methods of learning are often ineffective and unnecessarily time consuming.
  2. Effective learning requires effort. It involves processes like: retrieval, spaced repetition, interleaving, elaboration, reflection and calibration.
  3. Repeated performance in testing that simulates real life conditions builds confidence and leads to mastery.

🎨 Impressions

The book reinforced my already known notions of effective learning and also taught some new techniques like interleaving and generation (attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer) to make learning more purposeful, effective and time efficient.

📖 Who Should Read It?

Anyone interested in increasing the efficiency of their learning or studying methods.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • I have realised the need to incorporate techniques like spaced repetition outside of just flashcards into other areas of learning.
  • I need to trust the process with the techniques outlined in the book even if they may feel daunting and unnatural in practice. These have been tried and tested and would give me superior results.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  • “It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later. As the sports adage goes, “practice like you play and you will play like you practice.””
  • “It’s not the failure that’s desirable, it’s the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn’t that sometimes only failure can reveal.”
  • “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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Some Key Takeaways

What we mean in this book when we talk about learning: we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.

We’re all susceptible to illusions that can hijack our judgment of what we know and can do. Testing helps calibrate our judgments of what we’ve learned. A pilot who is responding to a failure of hydraulic systems in a flight simulator discovers quickly whether he’s on top of the corrective procedures or not. In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness.

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.

The need to understand that when learning is hard, you’re doing important work. To understand that striving and setbacks, as in any action video game or new BMX bike stunt, are essential if you are to surpass your current level of performance toward true expertise. Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.

You might also like: Thoughts: ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’

It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time.

The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. 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. In effect, retrieval—testing—interrupts forgetting.

Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.

Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.

While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility.

Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot. It’s better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution. It’s better to attempt a solution and supply the incorrect answer than not to make the attempt.

To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.

Dynamic testing has three steps. Step 1: a test of some kind—perhaps an experience or a paper exam—shows me where I come up short in knowledge or a skill. Step 2: I dedicate myself to becoming more competent, using reflection, practice, spacing, and the other techniques of effective learning. Step 3: I test myself again, paying attention to what works better now but also, and especially, to where I still need more work.

Embrace the notion of successful intelligence.   Go wide: don’t roost in a pigeonhole of your preferred learning style but take command of your resources and tap all of your “intelligences” to master the knowledge or skill you want to possess. Describe what you want to know, do, or accomplish. Then list the competencies required, what you need to learn, and where you can find the knowledge or skill. Then go get it.

Adopt active learning strategies like retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving. Be aggressive. Like those with dyslexia who have become high achievers, develop workarounds or compensating skills for impediments or holes in your aptitudes.

People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder.

A focus on looking smart keeps a person from taking risks in life, the small ones that help people rise toward their aspirations, as well as the bold, visionary moves that lead to greatness. Failure, as Carol Dweck tells us, gives you useful information, and the opportunity to discover what you’re capable of doing when you really set your mind to it.

When Michelangelo finally completed painting over 400 life size figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he is reported to have written, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” What appeared to his admirers to have flowed from sheer genius had required four torturous years of work and dedication.

• Some kinds of difficulties during learning help to make the learning stronger and better remembered. •  When learning is easy, it is often superficial and soon forgotten. •  Not all of our intellectual abilities are hardwired. In fact, when learning is effortful, it changes the brain, making new connections and increasing intellectual ability. •  You learn better when you wrestle with new problems before being shown the solution, rather than the other way around. •  To achieve excellence in any sphere, you must strive to surpass your current level of ability. •  Striving, by its nature, often results in setbacks, and setbacks are often what provide the essential information needed to adjust strategies to achieve mastery.

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