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Make it Stick - Review

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Two cognitive scientists and a storyteller team up to write a book about successful learning—this is the premise that lies at the heart of Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel’s Make It Stick.


The posting below is a review by Kathryn E. Frazier, Department of Psychology, Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, of the book, Make it Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel, Harvard University Press, 2014. The review is from Currents in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 12, No. 1, September 2020.  Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kathryn E. Frazier, Email: Currents in Teaching and Learning [ ] is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that fosters exchanges among reflective teacher-scholars across the disciplines. It is a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Copyright © 2020 WSU, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. 


Rick Reis


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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Make it Stick - Review

Two cognitive scientists and a storyteller team up to write a book about successful learning—this is the premise that lies at the heart of Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel’s Make It Stick. The result is an accessible and actionable text for faculty, students and lifelong learners across disciplines. While some of the claims made about learning and memory may not appear groundbreaking to those familiar with the scholarship of teaching and learning, or cognitive science, the authors directly apply this work to teaching and learning in two valuable ways. First, the authors critique prominent study habits, and dismantle beliefs about learning that often plague both faculty and student efforts, e.g., that “learning styles” should dictate teaching, or that effective teaching should make learning feel easy. Second, beyond providing a firm foundation in cognitive science, the authors translate this scientific knowledge into clear, specific, and impactful recommendations that the reader (learner or instructor, scientist or novice) can immediately put into action. 

I first read this text as part of a faculty book club coordinated by my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Faculty across disciplines participated, representing communication sciences, education, psychology, English, biology, chemistry and business administration. Make It Stick resonated with faculty across disciplines. Beyond general principles about student learning, faculty also reported finding specific recommendations immediately relevant and applicable to their courses. Two of our faculty actually ended up using the text, itself, in their courses one in an upper- level Cognitive Psychology course, and another in a Communication Sciences first-year seminar in which the faculty member drew from the detailed footnotes to locate pertinent readings for students. 

Make It Stick is organized by topic with each chapter focused on a different learning strategy or challenge. Importantly—a real strength of the text, and a compelling reason to read the book sequentially from beginning to end—is the authors’ use of their own writing to illustrate the techniques and research that they advocate. For example, the authors emphasize that learning is an iterative process. Indeed, they revisit central topics throughout the text, drawing connections while activating the readers’ prior knowledge. In a clever display of “walking the walk,” the authors invite the reader to experience how well the evidence-based techniques presented work over the course of the text. Chapter 1 lays out the premise and claims of the text with the hook that successful learning is an acquired skill and most of what we think we know about the learning process is misguided and counterproductive. Chapters 2 through 7 outline specific techniques to support successful learning, often taking a misconception about learning as their starting point. Chapter 8 presents an invaluable integration of the full text paired with specific recommendations for the classroom. Woven into the authors’ discussion of empirical work on memory and learning, each chapter includes narrative vignettes which illustrate learning-in-action from the lives of real people (a neurosurgeon, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant in jump school, and a college baseball team to name a few). Contextualizing problems of learning and memory in these interesting and diverse examples elevates the text, while also highlighting specific strategies to enact the principles discussed. 

Following the introductory first chapter, chapters 2 and 3 delve into the research on improving knowledge retention. Chapter 2, “To Learn, Retrieve,” presents a brief history of the research on forgetting and is an evidence- and anecdote-filled defense of testing. Testing, at least, that is done well: what the authors describe as repeated, low stakes retrieval practice that is spaced over time, effortful and followed with corrective feedback. The cognitive and neuroimaging evidence presented is balanced with examples from the operating room, the football field and, of course, the classroom, providing the reader plenty of possibilities for implementation. Well aware of prominent testing skepticism and fatigue (on the part of both students and instructors), the authors dismantle the argument that testing only increases rote memorization. Instead, they argue that in order to promote the higher order, creative thinking we want from our students, a solid foundation of both factual and conceptual knowledge is required. Ch. 3, “Mix Up Your Practice,” demonstrates how testing—and other forms of practice—can move toward these higher order processes through interleaving. Tackling firmly held beliefs in learning that prioritize massed practice (e.g. students cramming for exams, or faculty creating assignments that repeatedly tap the same skill), the authors argue instead for mixed bursts of practice that individually stop short of mastery. 

Chapters 4 and 5 address pitfalls in students’ learning efforts: avoiding effortful practice and relying on ineffective study practices that “feel” helpful. Presented alongside research differentiating short- and long-term memory, Chapter 4, “Embrace Difficulties” encourages instructors to create, what the authors call, “desirable difficulties” in their classrooms and assignments. Cautioning against the “myth of errorless learning”, the authors advocate creating space for students to struggle with problems, to fail and reflect, and to explicitly mark that process as learning—learning that is more durable than low-effort activities. This also serves as call to instructors to acknowledge that learning is indeed a road paved with mistakes and setbacks. The chapter concludes with ideas for incorporating this vision of learning in classroom assessment. Generative learning, which involves structured opportunities for students to work through problems prior to receiving formal instruction, and other techniques involving students’ active (rather than passive) effort and engagement are discussed. Chapter 5, “Avoid Illusions of Knowing,” extends this line of argument by reminding us that student perceptions of their learning are often inaccurate. This chapter led to a particularly vibrant discussion in my faculty reading group as we could each recall meeting with a student who had failed a recent exam only to hear them proclaim, “But I studied for hours. I thought that I knew everything!” Cognitive scientists have long told us that we are overconfident in our memories and our abilities. The authors build from this research and offer solutions that instructors can incorporate and model in their courses. While active learning is not explicitly discussed at length in the book, active learning techniques (peer instruction, reflection and simulation) are discussed here as potential strategies. 

Chapters 6 and 7 are more research-dense and take on two common assumptions that can act as barriers to learning—that we each have a learning style that constrains the ways we can acquire information, and that intelligence is a fixed characteristic that one either possesses or lacks. Chapter 6, “Get Beyond Learning Style” presents a brief history of the work on learning styles and intelligence, including research conducted in both educational and managerial contexts. The authors argue that our preference for learning does not reliably map on to our actual ability to learn. A more useful tact, the authors suggest, is to consider ways of learning that do reliably lead to long-term differences—what the authors discuss as structure building and rule (vs. example) learning. These chapters may be of greatest interest to instructors looking for theoretical frameworks and justification (in addition to empirical data) when crafting their materials. 

In the first substantive mention of the role of environment, Chapter 7, “Increase Your Abilities,” takes on the pervasive belief (certainly among many students) that intelligence is a characteristic bestowed at birth—something you either have or you don’t. Like Chapter 6, this chapter is more research- and theory- heavy than prior chapters, and focuses on neuroplasticity, growth mindset and the multitude of ways in which our environment contributes to intelligence and learning. The authors discuss socioeconomic status as a robust variable that leads to very real differences in learners’ performance. Glaringly absent from this chapter is mention of race or gender, which, as a wealth of data indicates, impact learning in similar ways. Reflecting prominent critiques of their broader field of psychology (my home discipline), the authors maintain a fairly individualist lens and end the chapter with a number of recommendations for improving one’s own memory and retention.

The final chapter, “Make It Stick,” is a highly valuable summary of the key points of the text organized as a thorough set of “tips” explicitly written for different readers—for students, lifelong learners, teachers and trainers. This final chapter is excellent for quick reference and is written in accessible and application-based language ideal for both instructors thinking through a course or assignment, and for assigned reading for students. For example, the “For Students” section lists easily implemented study tips which emphasize repeated and effortful practice. Complementing this material, the “For Teachers” section, in part, contains strategies and real examples from faculty on how to effectively support students in developing effective study habits. In my view, the book is worth adding to one’s library, if just for this final, resource-rich chapter.

Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel’s Make It Stick is a highly engaging and accessible text that neatly provides the reader with both a thorough grounding in the empirical and theoretical work on durable learning, while also offering specific, actionable recommendations for immediate implementation. The text, particularly the last chapter, has served as a reference for me in reworking assignments and in-class activities, while also stirring up inspiration for fully renovating my courses. Easily put into conversation with work on active learning and student success, this book has numerous variable lessons for novice and experienced learners.