The psychology of learning is one of those fields where many have opinions, but few have facts. The good news—not that you’d know it from the way people talk—is that an enormous amount of research has been done over the last several years on the topic, and while there’s still plenty more to be done, scientists have identified many strategies the help people learn more effectively. Having delved into more than my fair share of that research, I can confidently say that Make It Stick is the single best resource for the layman wanting to improve their ability to learn. It’s practical, thorough, and concise, and it uses its own principles to help the reader internalize its message.
Top 5 Key Concepts
Page 30: Prior knowledge doesn’t hinder creativity or problem-solving, it aids them
“The frustration many people feel toward standardized, ‘dipstick’ tests given for the sole purpose of measuring learning is understandable, but it steers us away from appreciating one of the most potent learning tools available to us. 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.”
Page 55: Memorization of basic facts of a subject is necessary to advance to higher-level application of that subject
“To paraphrase a conclusion from one of these studies, recall and recognition require ‘factual knowledge,’ considered to be a lower level of learning than ‘conceptual knowledge.’ Conceptual knowledge requires an understanding of the interrelationships of the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together. Conceptual knowledge is required for classification. Following this logic, some people argue that practicing retrieval of facts and exemplars would fall short as a strategy for comprehending general characteristics that are required for higher levels of intellectual behavior. The bird classification studies suggest the opposite: strategies of learning that help students identify and discern complex prototypes (family resemblances) can help them grasp the kinds of contextual and functional differences that go beyond the acquisition of simple forms of knowledge and reach into the higher sphere of comprehension.”
Page 72: Learning occurs in a three-step process of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval
“[…]The brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed…We call the process encoding, and we call the new representations within the brain memory traces. Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory. […]
“The process of strengthening these mental representations for long-term memory is called consolidation. New learning is labile: its meaning is not fully formed and therefore is easily altered. In consolidation, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces. […]
Learning, remembering, and forgetting work together in interesting ways. Durable, robust learning requires that we do two things. First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely. Second, we must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked. The task is more than committing knowledge to memory. Being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important.”
Page 76: Memory is (virtually) limitless—it’s retrieval that’s the bottleneck
“There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember as long as we relate it to what we already know. In fact, because new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning. Our retrieval capacity, though, is severely limited. […]
“[…] Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory. How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth.”
Page 141: Individual differences may help or hinder learning, but they may not be the differences you think
“Each of use has a large basket of resources in the form of aptitudes, prior knowledge, intelligence, interests, and sense of personal empowerment that shape how we learn and how we overcome our shortcomings. Some of these differences matter a lot—for example, out ability to abstract underlying principles from new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures. Other differences we may think count for a lot, for example having a verbal or visual learning style, actually don’t.”
Top 5 Practical Takeaways
Page 20: Retrieving material from memory—not simply re-encountering it—aids in learning
“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.”
Page 47: Making retrieval more difficult aids in learning, despite our intuitions
“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. 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 from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.”
Page 87: Trying to answer a question or solve a problem will solidify your memory of the material, whether you’ve encountered it before or not
“The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation. Even if you’re being quizzed on material you’re familiar with, the simple act of filling in a blank has the effect of strengthening your memory of the material and your ability to recall it later. In testing, being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still. Overcoming these mild difficulties is a form of active learning, where students engage in higher-order thinking tasks rather than passively receiving knowledge conferred by others.”
Page 152: Use dynamic testing to improve your weak spots
“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.”
Page 160: Distill the key principles from your material and incorporate them into a structure
“If you’re an example learner, study examples two at a time or more, rather than one by one, asking yourself in what ways they are alike and different. Are the differences such that they require different solutions, or are the similarities such that they respond to a common solution?
Break your idea or desired competency down into its component parts. If you think you are a low structure-builder or an example learner trying to learn new material, pause periodically and ask what the central ideas are, what the rules are. Describe each idea and recall the related points. Which are the big ideas, and which are the supporting concepts or nuances? If you were to test yourself on the main ideas, how would you describe them?
What kind of scaffold or framework can you imagine that holds these central ideas together?”
Top 5 Disagreements
Connections to Other Works
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport
- “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.” (pg. 3)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
- “In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes our two analytic systems. What he calls System 1 (or the automatic system) is unconscious, intuitive, and immediate. It draws on our senses and memories to size up a situation in the blink of an eye…System 2 (the controlled system) is our slower process of conscious analysis and reasoning. It’s the part of thinking that considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control…System 1 is automatic and deeply influential, but it is susceptible to illusion, and you depend on System 2 to help you manage yourself: by checking your impulses, planning ahead, identifying choices, thinking through their implications, and staying in charge of your actions.” (pg. 105)
- “To sum up, the means by which we navigate the world—Daniel Kahneman’s Systems 1 and 2—rely on our perceptual systems, intuition, memory, and cognition, with all their tics, warts, biases, and flaws. Each of us is an astounding bundle of perceptual and cognitive abilities, coexisting with the seeds of our own undoing. When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled.” (pg. 123)
- Die Empty, by Todd Henry
- “I call this state of mind the ‘curse of familiarity.’ Because of my awareness of something, I am often falsely under the impression that I understand it.” (pg. 65)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
- “One of the dials measures cognitive ease, and its range is between ‘Easy’ and ‘Strained.’ Easy is a sign that things are going well—no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Strained indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilization of system 2. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain. Cognitive strain is affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands. The surprise is that a single dial of cognitive ease is connected to a lage network of diverse inputs and outputs…The figure suggests that a sentence that is printed in a clear font, or has been repeated, or has been primed, will be fluently processed with cognitive ease. Hearing a speaker when you are in a good mood, or even when you have a pencil stuck crosswise in your mouth to make you ‘smile,’ also induces cognitive ease. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain when you read instructions in a poor font, or in faint colors, or worded in complicated language, or when you are in a bad mood, or even when you frown.” (pg. 59)
If I had to summarize Make It Stick with one sentence it would be this: active learning is more effective than passive learning, even when it doesn’t feel like it. The importance of exerting effort is hammered throughout the book; in virtually every instance cited in Make It Stick, increasing the level of cognitive effort required to understand something—short of making it literally impossible by, for example, writing it in a different language—also increased the level of long-term comprehension.
As with everything else that has to do with our minds, we have to be wary of relying on our intuition to guide us. Intuition can be a helpful servant but a terrible master, and only after a long time of deliberately using System 2 thinking—controlled decision-making—does intuition start to become dependable. Make It Stick provides ample evidence that this holds just as true for metalearning as for the rest of cognitive psychology. Many of its solutions are counterintuitive, but they’re backed by solid research going back decades.
As I’ve mentioned before, you should be suspicious of advice that enables you to do what you’d like to do anyway. It may be technically true that “creativity is more important than knowledge,” as the authors quote Einstein saying, but it’s easy to use that platitude as justification for not having to do that hard work of learning the nuts and bolts of your chosen subject. Likewise, passive strategies like rereading (which is done by 80 percent of college students, according to studies cited by the authors) allow you feel like you’re learning effectively without putting forth much effort, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s simply not a good strategy.
It’s certainly possible that there are exceptions to the rule, and that you’re one of them, but in keeping with the book’s theme of using objective measures of competency, why would you assume that you’re the exception to the rule without hard evidence? Given the mind’s innate tendency to self-deceive, even among the well-intentioned, there simply is no substitute for testing yourself against reality. Luckily, open-minded self-experimentation carries no downsides; whether you’re right or wrong, you will always either get on track or stay on track.
Final Score: 5/5