Make it Stick: A College of Engineering Guest Lecture Recap

On April 16, 2018, Peter C. Brown, co-author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, visited the College of Engineering for a day of workshops and presentations.

Brown shared “3 Big Ideas About Learning”:

  1. Get it out to get it in.
  2. Some difficulties are desirable.
  3. Intuition misleads us.

Learning works by getting it out, not getting it in.

Often we attempt to study by reading, re-reading, and reviewing. Successful learning, however, involves retrieval. Retrieving the information from memory and using it is what makes it transfer to long-term memory. Class discussion, homework problems, quizzes after reading, and other low-stakes assessments provide students with extra opportunities to retrieve the new information.

Some difficulties are desirable.

The productive struggle to understand a new concept and to apply it to a real-world situation is part of what makes it stick. Making everything completely simple and clear may work to learners’ disadvantage. For example, starting with only part of a formula or a few details about a situation can help learners to focus on what they already know and what is new information. It can help them to identify questions and make connections to prior learning.

Intuition misleads us.

Re-reading creates the illusion of knowing, causing learners to choose this low value strategy. According to Brown, 84% of students use re-reading as their primary study strategy, compared to 11% who use practice tests. Massed practice–repeating the same concept many times in a row–moves concepts into short-term memory but not long-term memory. Instead, mixed practice (with a combination of item types) and spaced practice (where new concepts are revisited over a longer period of time) help learners to consolidate their learning.

An example of the value of mixed practice: Brown described two groups of participants. One group practiced tossing bean bags into a basket 4 feet away. The other group alternated between tossing bean bags into a basket 3 feet away and another 5 feet away. When tested at the end of 12 weeks, the second group was more accurate from 4 feet, even though they hadn’t practiced at that distance.

How to Make it Stick

Brown suggested two things:

  1. Be transparent about how learning works.
  2. Model effective strategies in class.

Being transparent about how learning works includes sharing the above information with students–that retrieval is important, that mixed and distributed practice are important, and that we expect them to find the work challenging.

Modeling effective strategies can include incorporating more opportunities for retrieval and practice into a course. For example, asking more questions, low-stakes quizzing of reading assignments, more frequent quizzes instead of only one or two exams. Other strategies involve asking students to synthesize information through free-recall exercises, summary sheets, write to learn exercises, and peer instruction.

Putting it into Practice

  1. Strengthen your own understanding of this blog post by describing it to a colleague.
  2. In one course, identify one concept that’s critical to student success. How might you tweak the presentation of that concept to create desirable difficulty? How might you provide opportunities for students to revisit the concept more often throughout your course?
  3. What opportunities for retrieval and practice do you include in your course? If you were to add more opportunities, what other changes might you need to make?