Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Making It Stick

Samford University recently delivered a copy of the 2014 hit "Make It Stick: The Successful Science of Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel to my office. Since I'd bought a copy in 2014, I concluded that this was a signal that I should actually read it. . .   I now share key ideas of the book with my students.

As this recent Business Insider article notes, most people have never been taught how to learn. Many students fall into the "either you got it or you don't" fixed mindset and assume that if a subject is not easy for them, it's not something they can learn. This book (as well as books like The New Science of Learning) helps teachers and students understand the process of learning so that they may work with and enhance that process instead of creating additional obstacles to learning or giving up altogether.

The latter chapters of Make It Stick have a number of tips for students (which I share with my classes). Some of the high points are:

1.    Practice retrieving new learning from memory. We live in an era where so much knowledge can be accessed via Google on your cell phone. We've gotten out of the habit of remembering facts and details. However, the pace at which we can retrieve information may determine whether we can make the necessary connections to solve new problems. By practicing retrieving new memories we cement those memory paths and strengthen our recall. Taking a tip from Mary Pat Wenderoth, a Biology professor featured in the book, I've reminded my students when we are doing review, to take a few moments to try to remember before turning to their notes and books for the answers.

2.    Space out your retrieval practice and "interleave" the study of different problem types. We find some level of gratification in cramming and then perfecting our retrieval of one set of things before going to the next set of things. Unfortunately, this gives us the illusion of learning without really achieving much. Instead, by letting some time lapse before we try to recall, we improve our learning and memory of the material. Just as we build strength more quickly when we give our muscles a day to rest after strength-training exercises, we enhance our learning when we take time to rest or focus on other materials. Likewise, when we study different things, using different skill sets or methodologies, we may feel that we are learning more slowly, but we are learning more effectively. Again, we are strengthening the pathways to new knowledge.

3.    Elaborate. "Elaboration" in this context means relating the new things you've learned to what you already know. When we elaborate, we connect the new pathways, making it more likely that we will actually take the new pathways when facing the next problem.

4.    Generate. When we generate answers to problems we don't currently know how to solve, we take a tour of older problems that we have been able to solve and consider whether those solutions may work. We may also try to come up with new ways of addressing those problems. When we try to answer problems before we have the process and the skills in place, or access to the answer key, we have again strengthened old pathways and primed our attention to learn something new.

5.    Reflect. When we take a few minutes to ask what went well, what could have gone better, and what we could try differently next time, we professionalize our learning process. This is activity that many professions undertake. Medical communities routinely discuss their diagnoses, patient results and their mistakes in an effort to improve their analysis, process, teamwork and patient outcomes. Athletes review film and discuss their past competitions with their coaches to improve their next performance.

6.    Calibrate. Calibration means that we are checking our results against a standard. If we think that we have performed fairly well, but have not examined our performance against a model or a rubric, or gotten feedback about whether we've met the standard, we may be deluding ourselves. you may and responses against a rubric or a "best of" student answers from a prior exam.

7.    Mnemonic Devices. We have all developed acronyms for remembering essential information. The ancient Greeks were able to recite their epic tales of heroism and woe by memory by constructing a house in their mind. They begin the epic poem by "walking" into the foyer of the house and using the objects they imagine they see to evoke the first opening lines. They would progress through the poem by moving into the other rooms and using the sequence of items seen to recall the subsequent lines. Oxford students call these mental edifices "memory palaces."

Many of my students have embraced these ideas and begun to trust the scientific research behind the techniques. When they achieve success in their classes, however, is when it really sticks!

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