I'm a huge learning nerd and if you can learn effectively it means you can acquire new skills more quickly and perform better at whatever you are doing whether you're trying to ace an exam or learn how to grow a business. But in order to learn effectively we first need to learn how to learn.
So I'm going to dive into my favourite book on learning - Make It Stick. It's a book I've read multiple times and which helped me to massively improve my grades in medical school and ace my surgical exams and I still use the principles today when building ed-tech companies like Virti.
Make It Stick is written by cognitive psychology professors Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel from Washington University and covers their work collaborating with other researchers on a 10-year study about how to apply cognitive psychology to improve learning practices. I absolutely love this book because it backs up everything the authors say using scientific research so that you know insights are reliable. As a learning book it uses stories to illustrate points and provides actual examples of effective and ineffective learning from interviews with learners and educators and highlights case studies which anyone reading can instantly relate to. I found the case studies of medical students and doctors really helpful when studying for my exams and the authors go to every effort to utilise some of the learning techniques they outline in the book itself to ensure you remember key points. They deliberately repeat and interleave topics like active recall and spaced repetition throughout all book chapters and this is something that I've been doing in my blog on learning so that key learning points are repeated in different contexts to help you to remember them for longer.
Learning is Misunderstood
Make It Stick starts off with a powerful story of a pilot landing a plane with a stalling engine and uses this example to demonstrate how practice rather than simply reading is the best way to learn. Most people hold false beliefs about learning that lead them to use ineffective study methods, such as rereading and highlighting which feels productive but is actually an ineffective way to learn. These ineffective strategies and learning myths are ingrained in our educational system and taught to us by teachers, coaches, parents, and pretty much everyone with the authors actually calling out some examples of educational websites that have published ineffective study techniques online.
By contrast, the most effective learning strategies are often counterintuitive. That’s why Make It Stick teaches you how to learn and study based on data about how our brains comprehend and retain information.
So if you want to improve your learning, you need to define your goals for learning and studying. The book suggests that the two main goals of learning a new skill or concept are:
- Comprehension: You want to gain a deep understanding of the underlying principle in order to understand how it applies to different situations.
- Retention: You need to remember the information when a problem or situation calls for it, and when you get a chance to build upon it with more advanced knowledge.
When you’re learning something new, instead of simply memorizing the information from your textbook or lecture notes, you’ll gain a more meaningful understanding if you identify the underlying principles that will guide you when you call on this knowledge to solve real-world problems. In order to extract the main principles, you need to be able to weed out information that isn't necessary. By practising you will quickly be able to identify common themes and principles across different examples.
Once you recognize the principles, you can connect those principles with prior relevant knowledge. This process—called structure building—creates context, which deepens your understanding.
Structures help you create mental models, which bring together interrelated concepts or skills into one fluid skillset.
To illustrate this the authors use the example of pilot training where pilots shifted their approach from initially spending time learning from powerpoint slides and instead opted to go straight into simulator training as a more efficient way to learn quickly. A flight simulator uses active recall and learning is spaced, interleaved and involves realistic mental processes to what the pilot will do in real life. This helps to make abstract concepts concrete and build context to help pilots and instructors calibrate their judgement of where they need to focus to master flying.
Another example is driving a car which requires knowledge of traffic laws as well as motor skills to push the brake pedal and turn the wheel with the right amount of force. At first, it feels like you’re juggling several skills at once, but experience merges them all into a mental model that enables you to drive without consciously thinking about each individual action.
Mental models are essential for achieving mastery—such as the driver who appears to react instantaneously when another car abruptly cuts into her lane or suddenly brakes right in front of her. The more mental models you have, the better prepared you are to navigate any situation. Additionally, practicing your mental models in a variety of contexts improves your ability to apply them in different situations. For example, if you’re skilled at driving a car on different surfaces, in different weather and environmental conditions, you’ll be better able to apply those skills to driving other vehicles like a bus or an RV as you understand the principles of how any vehicle handles.
To Learn, Retrieve
Knowing a skill is one thing—but remembering it when a situation calls for it is what counts. Make It Stick uses an awesome example from neurosurgery to illustrate this point highlighting that doctors and surgeons are presented with a huge variety of emergencies and conditions on a daily basis and by reflecting on what they have encountered they can build up mental models for applying principles to new cases and surgeons can visualise and practise techniques in their mind to help them remember the steps of a procedure or skill.
Many people try to burn information into their memories by rereading, but this approach only commits the information to their short-term memories, making it inefficient in the long run. Instead, the most effective way to improve retention of new information is through active recall, which is any exercise that requires you to recall what you’ve learned. You can practice active recall with quizzes, flashcards, self-testing, and reflection, when you assess how you approached a particular problem and how you can improve next time.
The authors suggest following three principles to maximize the benefits of your retrieval practice:
1) Effortful retrieval leads to better retention. The harder your brain has to work to retrieve the information, the more firmly it cements it in your memory.
One way to create this “desirable difficulty” is by using generation, which requires you to generate the answer from memory (for example, using flashcards or short-answer questions instead of multiple-choice questions). Another way is to delay your retrieval practice long enough that your memory has gotten a little fuzzy and your brain has to work harder to retrieve the information.
2) Repeated testing improves retention. Regular testing deepens your comprehension, which improves your ability to apply the knowledge in different contexts. And the longer you continue regular testing—even after you feel that you’ve mastered the skill—the longer-lasting your retention will be.
The most effective testing schedule is to build in a slight delay before the first test, and then follow up with regular testing at various intervals.
3) Corrective feedback is crucial to prevent students from remembering the wrong answer, and to reinforce the correct information.
Corrective feedback is most effective when it’s slightly delayed, because immediate feedback can become a crutch in learning and mastering the material. Corrective feedback allows learners and instructors to spot gaps in a learner's knowledge and adapt teaching accordingly.
Mix Up Your Practice
Now while practice testing may not be widely adopted in education as the best way to learn in sports its a different matter. The authors highlight this discrepancy though examples of children learning sports and how we are taught to practice, practice, practice when learning a sport or a new skill. They use a specific example of how children in a gym class tossing bean-bags into buckets did best when the distances of the buckets were varied rather than when placed at a static distance. The basic idea is that varied practice like tossing bean-bags at mixed distances improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation to another by developing a broader understanding of the relationships between different conditions.
Spacing out your retrieval practice creates desirable difficulties that improve your retention. Instead of focusing on one skill or topic at a time spacing gives your brain the time it needs to strengthen new knowledge and store it in your long-term memory through a process called consolidation.
There are two strategies that naturally space your practice:
1) Interleaved practice mixes your learning among multiple related topics or skills. For example, if you're learning physics, mix up the problems—doing an acceleration problem, then a volume problem, then another acceleration problem. Not only does interleaving space your practice, but it also helps you make mental connections to the other subjects you mix in.
The key to interleaving is to switch to the next skill or concept before you’ve finished practicing one. It feels frustrating to switch gears before you’re ready, but this method improves your long-term retention.
2) Varied practice involves practicing a skill in different contexts. This strategy strengthens your understanding of the underlying principles and your ability to apply that skill in a variety of situations, as in the example of improving your driving skills by practicing in various weather conditions.
To illustrate the importance of challenging yourself the book uses the example of marine training which is really tough and where the difficulty level is increased as you progress. This shows how short-term impediments make for stronger learning and which are referred to as desirable difficulties by psychologists.
To help understand how difficulty can be desirable the authors outline learning as a three step process:
- initial encoding of information in the short-term memory,
- then consolidation gives meaning to this information as it moves to the long-term memory
- and then retrieval updates information and helps us to apply what we have learned, we remember events by building on what we already know and making new connections as we learn new content.
As our long-term memory is vast; in order to quickly locate and recall information we need to practise recalling information regularly to establish retrieval cues and pathways that can reactivate memories. When you recall information from your short-term memory little mental effort is required as you know it quite well already since it is recent. When you try and recall information after some time has elapsed and your grasp on the information has become a little rusty you have to make more of an effort to reconstruct it. This effortful retrieval strengthens the memory and reconsolidates it by connecting it to newer memories and makes it more pliable.
So active recall deliberately challenges your brain and requires effort to work out an answer and spacing challenges your brain to recall information after some time has elapsed. These methods require more effort than simply reading a book passively but are far more effective which is why you need to get used to embracing difficulty and challenging yourself as this will help you to learn more quickly.
Avoid Illusions of Knowing
Monitoring your own thinking is what psychologists call metacognition from the Greek word meta meaning about. In order to expand your learning, you need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you need to work on. But people are poor judges of their own knowledge and abilities, and those miscalculations can inhibit learning.
There are several reasons humans struggle to accurately gauge their own competencies:
- Perceptual illusions distort your senses and make you misinterpret images, sounds, or other sensations. For example, pilots can encounter optical illusions or, in extreme situations, illusions that make them think the plane is flying level when it’s actually tilted.
- Cognitive biases are caused by systematic problems with your way of thinking that impact your judgment and decision making. For example, herd mentality is a cognitive bias that makes people more likely to think or do something if other people think or do it.
- A “hunger for narrative”—the natural desire to create narratives that explain why things are the way they are—leads people to misinterpret situations. Narratives are a stronger influence than objective facts, yet people fail to recognize or vastly underestimate this influence. A good example here is people who feel like they are unlucky or feel like they simply can't do something due to a limiting belief.
- Distorted memories lead people to color their memories with false details, and even claim to remember something that never happened. The human memory is inherently moldable, lending itself to distortions and false memories. For example, if a witness to a crime views photos of suspects and then subsequently looks at a lineup, she’s more likely to falsely accuse someone in the lineup if she’s already seen his photo.
- Oblivious incompetence makes people overestimate their own abilities and underestimate their need to improve.
When these factors impede your ability to accurately gauge your knowledge and ability, you don’t know where your gaps in knowledge are. This is something called the fluency effect when you believe that you have mastered a topic but in fact you are only part of the way towards mastery. You’re less likely to spend the extra time practicing the things you need to work on, and when a real-life situation calls for that knowledge, you fall flat.
However, you can improve your gauge of your own competence. Use these learning strategies to help you keep an accurate view:
- Peer Instruction: Collaborative learning with your peers helps you to avoid the kinds of misconceptions you can have when you study by yourself. Your fellow students or professionals can tell if you’re doing a good job or not, and if they give you honest feedback, you can adjust and improve as needed.
- Team Learning: When you work in a team of people who have complementary skills, each member of the team has an opportunity to learn from the others. Additionally, each person’s strengths are on display, and it’s often apparent if someone is falling short.
- Apprenticeship: Learning alongside a seasoned veteran gives you a clearer view of your skill level compared to an expert’s.
- Real-World Simulations: Training under conditions that resemble what you will face in real-life situations is the best way to hone your skills and see any gaps between conceptual learning and application just like in a flight simulator.
Get Beyond Learning Styles
Aside from illusions that alter your perception of your knowledge, your learning can also be impeded by myths about your ability to learn. There’s a common belief that everyone has a learning style—such as auditory, kinesthetic, or visual—and that individuals learn best when the style of instruction matches their learning style. The authors of Make It Stick acknowledge that everyone has learning preferences but there are no better learning styles which is why I usually tell people that provided you stick to using active recall, interleaving and spacing principles you should choose the study method that you enjoy the most whether using flashcards, question banks or testing with friends.
There are two problems with the belief that certain learning styles are better than other:
- While it may be true that people have distinct preferences about the way they learn, research shows that learning isn’t inhibited if the style of teaching doesn’t match the learning style. In fact, everyone learns best when the style of instruction matches the subject of the lesson, such as using visual means to teach geometry, audio to teach foreign language, or kinesthetic to teach physics principles on motion.
- A focus on learning styles tends to limit a student’s views of her own abilities and potential. That limitation can affect the student’s confidence to try new things, how much effort she puts forth, and her perseverance in the face of obstacles.
In reality you don't have any significant limitations that can't be overcome through using evidence-based study techniques and hard work and you are in charge of how you learn and how much time you spend practising.
Increase Your Abilities
In addition to the myth of learning styles, the myth that intelligence is fixed also impedes people’s learning. When people believe they’re born with a predetermined capacity for learning, they don’t put as much effort into learning. Several factors affect IQ scores, including a person’s genes, their environment, socioeconomic status, and nutrition.
Intelligence isn’t fixed and Make It Stick highlights research that shows that self-discipline, motivation and focus are much more important and impactful on success in life. They actually use follow-up studies from a famous 1970s experiment which you might have seen where researchers left children alone in a room with a marshmallow and instructions not to eat it. In the follow up studies the children who delayed their gratification and showed more discipline grew up to be more successful in their careers and lives.
Here are three strategies for raising your abilities:
1) Have a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets understand that effort and discipline are critical to learning, so they work harder, take more risks, and view failures as learning opportunities. By contrast, people with fixed mindsets believe intelligence is fixed and that it determines success, so they become helpless in the face of failure because they attribute it to their lack of innate ability. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck outlines this in detail in her book Mindset which is definitely worth reading to destroy ay limiting beliefs around innate abilities versuses abilities we are capable of learning.
2) Perform deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is crucial to reaching mastery, and it’s distinct from mere repetition because it’s solitary, it’s goal-oriented, and it consistently pushes you past your current ability. Pushing yourself, failing, reflecting, and trying again are necessary to create mental models and achieve mastery.
3) Use memory cues like mnemonics. Memory cues help you organize and retain information using familiar triggers. Memory cues include mnemonic devices like acronyms or more complex tools like memory palaces.
Thesde are all examples that effortful learning builds new connections and capabilities in our brains and that the path to mastery is all about self-discipline, grit and persistence rather than any innate ability.
Put These Strategies Into Practice
The final chapter of Make It Stick is one of my favourite book chapters of all time as it acts as both a summary of the previous chapters while also giving practical strategies and tips for learners and teachers. It does this by breaking down the previous concepts like active recall and spacing and interleaving but it also uses case studies of actual learners and teachers who have turned their grades or abilities around by adopting these strategies. For me this made things very relatable and helped me to implement these evidence-based learning techniques into my own study routines as I knew if someone else had done it there was no reason that I couldn't.
So now that you understand the principles of effective learning, here are some tips for applying them:
- Active Recall: Apply active recall by pausing regularly to ask yourself questions about the key concepts in the material you’re learning, by creating quiz questions and flashcards to test yourself and by reflecting on things you have seen or done in work.
- Interleaving: Structure your study schedule so that you mix up study topics and try to avoid following book chapters which focus on a single topic or concept. If you are using question banks randomise your questions across all topic areas or set aside time at the end of the day or week to mix in questions from other subjects to help build a wider context for what you are learning.
- Growth Mindset: Try to define concepts before finding the definition, and try to solve math and science problems before learning the formula. Use desirable difficulty to make recalling information hard and therefore more memorable.
- Spacing: Come back to topics regularly and leave time between testing sessions so that you need to apply more effort to recall information which strengthens long-term memory recall.
- Elaboration: Just like the Feynman Technique explaining the topic to someone else helps you to find additional layers of meaning and relate it to what you already know in your own words.
- Mnemonics: Think of a metaphor or image that demonstrates the principle you’re learning to help create mental cues.
- Calibration: Challenge your beliefs about how you learn and your abilities by using objective feedback to understand whether you have mastered a topic or whether you are simply fluent. Testing the application of your knowledge is the best way to do this.