Thursday, December 15, 2016

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (Book Review #76 of 2016)



Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

This work is compiled by a writer working with a psychologist and a cognitive scientist. They answer the question: What works? This is useful if you're trying to learn something, but I found the most immediate application as an undergraduate faculty instructor (that is really the target audience. There are plenty of examples for teachers and it gets a bit repetitive in that regard). If you've ever read a Tim Ferriss book (4-Hour Workweek, etc.) you'll be familiar with some of the concepts. Other books that Make it Stick will encourage you to read are Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, Angela Duckworth's Grit, and Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein. (If you have read these, don't bother with this one.)

My key takeaway from the book are that flashcards and quizzes are good. I have used Anki flashcards for year (free, powerful) to help retain languages and other needed info. Anki has an algorithm for displaying words in order of need-- spaced repetition. The authors give the science backing this up. Similarly, in a classroom setting frequent quizzes are shown to help students retain information better than infrequent exams. Cramming leads to fast forgetting, but consistent quizzing retains it. They cite the example of a professor who moved from giving a couple exams to nine quizzes explicitly dated in the syllabus. Students reported higher satisfaction and attendance was better as well.

When reading or studying something, you should not just read, highlight, and repeat. You need to rewrite chapters in your own words. (Basically, study it like you have to teach it.) Mistakes are good-- mistakes change the brain and build retention. Don't just practice one thing over and over again, mix it up.

The authors have a chapter on cognitive biases and various psychological studies you may have already seen in media (on in these authors' article in Scientific American). They cover Kahneman and Tversky's "System 1" and "System 2," as well as topics like false memories. They tell the story of the famous marshmallow test and the better outcomes of people who show resistance to immediate reward in exchange for greater long-term reward. Grit is important, as is understanding that there is no such thing as "learning styles." There are not "audio" or "visual" learners, etc. according to current science. Everyone can learn using the methods in the book-- it is a matter of time, repetition, and mixing up styles to exercise your brain. Our intelligence is "fluid" and we can increase them through doing exercises focusing on working memory.

The authors talk about memory champions such as Joshua Foer. These use mnemonic devices and have ways of compartmentalizing items in their brains to achieve truly astounding feats with memory. Having retrieval cues is also important.

The older I get, the more aware I am of the "curse of knowledge"-- we all underestimate how long it takes someone to learn what we have learned. I forget when talking to a 19 year old student that his thoughts will not be as well-developed as mine on a topic, nor does he have the various memories of various events that I do from having grown up in a different time period. This is one of the main challengers for an educator-- finding ways to present material to students in engaging ways such that they will retain it (and not bore yourself over time) and remember that incoming groups may know less and less about a topic every year. Frequent quizzes are one clearly-demonstrated way. I give this book 3 stars out of 5. You can get most of it from other books and articles. (This book may have been ground-breaking when it came out, but it's overpriced now.) But it's short and delivers.

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