Ways to Make Learning Stick

Totidem Verbis

Book Summary

Recently I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel, 2014). This interesting read emphasizes the importance of learning but challenges conventional ways we have approached learning, such as rereading, highlighting, block study times, rehearsing material over and over again, and practicing a skill repeatedly. The book offers practical ways to approach learning so learners will retain the concepts. Several of the ideas presented can be helpful in teaching within OKWU’s AGS programs. The following is a short summary with some specific takeaways for your consideration. Page numbers are listed in parentheses.

One of the main principles in the book is retrieval, the act of going back to concepts repeatedly to pull them out of one’s memory. The key here is that “retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting” (3). Recommended methods to practice retrieval are “low-stakes quizzing and self-testing, spacing out practice, interleaving the practice of different but related topics or skills, trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution” (21). In retrieving a memory of a topic, the memory changes and becomes “easier to retrieve again later” (41).

Another key principle developed is mix-up practice. The idea here is to vary learning, to study one concept, then another, then another and another, never going too deep or mastering any one topic in one sitting. A closely related strategy is that of spacing-out learning. The authors recommend spacing out “study and practice in installments and allowing time to elapse between” (63) to strengthen learning and memory. Interleaving is closely related also; it is introducing different topics instead of a single concept that is studied and drilled until mastered. The underlying theme to each of these approaches is the idea of going broad instead of deep. They contrast with common methods in learning of extended blocks of time devoted to one subject and cramming as much as possible for recall on a test.

The latter, commonly used principles may result in an easy way to approach learning. However, easy is not the goal. It is recommended for students to move from topic to topic before feeling comfortable with the learning. The authors encourage learners to “embrace difficulties” (Chapter 4) and teachers to create “desirable difficulties” (226) with the understanding that it is beneficial for students to struggle, even to fail, if corrective feedback is given to help them adjust their path of learning. The authors advise instructors to be transparent by explaining to students why they have structured class a certain way.

It is interesting to note that the key topics in the text are repeated and developed further in subsequent chapters. In other words, they are spaced out and mixed up and interleaved. The reader adds layer upon layer of different topics as he progresses through the book, a model for teachers to follow in the classroom.

Specific Classroom Methods Proposed

  1. Explain learning to students (225). Teachers need to communicate an understanding of learning and prepare students for how they will learn in the classroom. Investing time in explaining would be a worthwhile investment. If students understand the why, they will be more open to approach learning in a new way.
  2. Teach students how to study (226) using retrieval, interleaving, spacing, etc. Again this is time invested well to help students learn how to study effectively. Students will understand better if the concepts are explained and modeled to them.
  3. Create desirable difficulties (226). Because this approach goes against the norm in the classroom of making learning as easy as possible and appealing to everyone, clear communication to students and if applicable, to parents, would be required. It would be important to build a common understanding and paint a picture of the reason for the challenges and difficulties. Sharing success stories from using the methods would be encouraging to students and parents.
  4. Set up testing groups (230) where each group discusses and debates a question without referencing notes or text. This is a good strategy for classroom time as it is purposeful, involves all students, and gives each one an opportunity to verbalize concepts.
  5. Free recall (231) is an exercise where students write for 10 minutes at the end of the day what they remember from the day’s lessons, another favorable strategy for class time. It is only 10 minutes, but provides a check-in point and sets the stage for learning the next day. Also it could be a formal way to tie up the learning activities of the day.
  6. Summary sheets (231), similar to #5, is an exercise Monday for students to illustrate the prior week’s lesson through annotated drawings. In this way, students pull together the concepts and have the opportunity to make connections and visualize concepts. It would be a valuable launching into the new week’s lessons.
  7. Learning paragraphs (232) is a similar strategy to #5 and #6 where students write a short paragraph in response to a question posed by the teacher. Writing the responses gives the students a specific time in class to practice retrieval. The teacher could choose which strategy of 5, 6, or 7 to use as time allowed.

All in all, these strategies would be purposeful use of class time. A key to good classroom management, whether face-to-face or online, is intentional instruction. It is the teacher purposefully making decisions on what is covered in what way and to what degree. This approach to learning gives students an opportunity to develop skills in learning to use throughout life.

My challenge to you is to try one or more of the suggested methods and let us know the results.



Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Making it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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