Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown is a research-based text on cognitive neuroscience and how to deepen and sustain lifelong learning in any area of knowledge or expertise. They recommend various practices such as varied practice, interleaving, spaced practice, retrieval, generation, reflection, and more! These practices, when used, will increase the quality of your learning and will sustain it for the long term. For educators, parents, students, and children alike who are looking for ways to improve their learning of any subject or area of interest; this will have you getting high marks on your exams, teaching your students in a way that will produce long-term results, and learning in a way that will incorporate reflection and generation to lead to expertise in your field and a more profound understanding of basic or underlying concepts in your field of expertise.
The practice of varied practice differs from massed practice or blocked practice, in which you practice a whole bunch of problems of the same type or nature at the same time, followed by another different type of problem in a sequential block. This can be seen frequently in mathematics and sports practice. Students learn how to multiply simple fractions and practice example after example, or practice hitting a curveball in batting practice followed by working on another discrete skill such as dividing fractions or catching pop flies. The research shows that learning is improved when different types of problems are presented to the learner in a varied practice so that they must first identify the type of problem and work to retrieve the type of solution needed to attain the solution. This makes sense if you think about it for a minute because you cannot expect in a baseball game to only be thrown curveballs or in life to only be presented with a previously identified math problem such as a need to multiply a simple fraction. More often, in life, we are presented with a variety of problems, unique to their contextualized situation which my obscure the solution or require quick reflexive thinking which is more likely to occur through varied practice.
Interleaving I like to think of in two ways. In the past, in my teaching, I would present one unit for 4-6 weeks with a large assessment at the end. Now, I interleave or interject shorter units that are related to each other so that students can apply their skills to various thematic concepts versus diving into one singular focus where there is no horizontal learning. Another way I use interleaving is on my commute to work. I listen to various audiobooks, but only for 10-20 minutes at a time for each one before I switch gears (I'm currently listening to over 20 books) but applying the underlying concepts of growth, learning, improvement and education to many aspects of my life to inspire and motivate myself. Interleaving is also proven by research to be more effective because it demands students to identify implicit underlying laws or patterns of ideas in the work or how they connect or relate to each other across topics. Another example of how this works is my husband's piano practice. Although he attempts to master extremely difficult pieces such as piano concertos, he does not do so singularly, but rather works on 3-5 pieces at a time, interleaving them to sustain his interest and his application of piano techniques to various styles. I've also found this is a great way to sustain student attention spans as shorter units are easier to digest for the modern, digital native.
Spaced practice is just as it sounds. You should intentionally leave space between study times or learning times. For example, you may not want to cram one long study session in right before that final. Research proves that equal amounts of time studying, but one where the time is spent spaced significantly apart, will lead to increased results. So plan studying for that final a couple of weeks before. The effort you need to expend to work at retrieving it will sustain the learning, as it is proven that the more you struggle with something, the more likely you will be to eventually master it.
This naturally leads us to the next practice, which is retrieval. Retrieval is the act of recalling, without rereading or referencing material but rather quizzing yourself. Old-fashioned techniques such as flashcards, covering up lines in a script, or taking practice tests is very useful for deepening learning. So instead of rereading and highlighting that textbook, maybe try doing the practice questions at the end of the chapter to test how much you actually know. This will give you an accurate account of how much you know in reality versus the illusion of mastery you may have created through rereading and rereading.
Generation is when you struggle with a problem first before being presented with the solution. This is something that is research-proven to be more effective than to simply be told the solution by an expert or someone who knows already. An example of this can be taken from my art history class where the professor asked us to solve the way that Stonehenge was built before being presented with the actual way it was built. Taking 20 minutes to struggle with this before him continuing his lecture not only put us in the place of our ancestors but sustained our learning of Neolithic-monument building.
Reflection is one of my favorite ways to extend and expand learning. I've actually created this blog as an attempt to "reflect" on my learning of the audiobooks I listen to and books I read. Reflection is simply asking yourself what you learned, reflect on your process and reiterate what you have retained, and how you might improve in the future. I incorporate this in my classroom culture by planning 5-10 minute "quiz" reflections on the day's lesson or the unit we had completed that week. I've found it helps the students to cement their understanding by identifying and codifying it. In addition, it helps me to identify the areas where students still need to continue their exploration of the topic.
Overall, Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown was tremendously helpful to someone who is an educator and is dedicated to lifelong learning! I believe in the future I will definitely reread this text to make sure that I have applied all of their practices to my classroom and the culture of learning I am attempting to build in my life, my family, and my classroom!
"You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book." - Dr. Seuss
- Betty Lynn