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April 18, 2018

Author shares tips for making learning stick

Written By: Thomas Ziemer

A student sits down in a silent study space at the library, pulling out a textbook and a highlighter for a late-night review of class material to prepare for the next day’s midterm exam.

It’s a scene that plays out semester after semester on college campuses across the country. But it’s not a productive way of building long-lasting knowledge.

“Students are drawn to ineffective strategies and they often harbor illusions of knowing—yet they will come into an exam and get surprised, having spent many hours reading the material,” said Peter C. Brown, one of the authors of Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, during a public lecture April 16, 2018, sponsored by the College of Engineering Education Innovation Committee.

Instead, said Brown, students and instructors should pursue learning and teaching strategies that are actually counterintuitive.

During the lecture (which you can watch here), Brown shared three “big ideas” from his book, which he co-wrote with cognitive psychology professors Henry L. Roediger and Mark A. McDaniel of Washington University in St. Louis.

Get it out to get it in

“We tend to think, intuitively, that it’s about reading, it’s about hearing a lecture, it’s about watching a video—and that’s how we learn,” Brown said.

But practicing knowledge retrieval is more effective in building long-term memory, he said, pointing to a study in which three groups of participants were asked to learn a 50-word list. One group spent four sessions studying the list and four sessions taking tests. The second group studied six times and tested twice, while the third studied eight times and never tested. The most heavily tested group comfortably outperformed the others.

Brown said using clicker quizzes throughout class hones retrieval while also allowing instructors and students to assess which areas need more attention. It can also improve attendance and reduce test anxiety.

Some difficulties are desirable

“We try to make learning easy, clear, feeling that the clearer we make our case, the better people will get it and hang onto it,” he said. “And it turns out, in fact, that some forms of difficulty make learning stronger and longer-lasting.”

When students wrestle with a problem, their retention improves. They could do so by trying to solve a question before formally learning how, by working on different types of content in random sequences (a strategy called mixed practice), or by simulating real-world applications.

“The added effort and mental engagement causes this reconsolidation and the strengthening of the learning,” said Brown.

Intuition misleads us

Re-reading content over and over can instill false confidence, Brown said.

“Fluency with a text isn’t the same as mastery of content,” he said. “And if you haven’t worked with that text enough to say, ‘why is it like this, what if it were some other way, how is this relating to something I already know,’ your ability to recall it again later or apply it is not very strong.”

The same idea applies to practicing a skill repeatedly in one sitting.

“Practice is better when it’s spaced out, when you come back to it later and it’s hard to download, if you will, from your memory,” he said. “You try it again and, while it doesn’t feel like you’re getting it, you actually are learning much better.”

Brown recommended instructors be transparent with students when implementing new strategies in the classroom, while also modeling tactics in class, such as giving frequent quizzes and mixing in related concepts on assignments.

“One of the big questions that we face, either as learners or as instructors, is how to make this notion of desirable difficulties not only acceptable and palatable, but really the go-to strategy for students in their studies,” he said.