Make It Stick

The Science of Successful Learning

Make It Stick: Six Tips for Students

The most effective learning strategies are not necessarily intuitive

Several years ago, the three of us embarked on a book project to explain how learning and memory work.  Two of us, Roddy Roediger and Mark McDaniel, are cognitive scientists who have dedicated our careers to the study of learning and memory. Peter Brown is a storyteller.  We thought a book was needed because people generally are going about learning in the wrong ways. Empirical research into how we learn and remember shows that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort. Even college and medical students—whose main job is learning—generally rely on study techniques that are far from optimal. At the same time, the psychology of learning, which goes back 125 years but has been particularly fruitful in recent years, has yielded a body of insights that constitute a growing science of learning: highly effective, evidence-based strategies to replace less effective but widely accepted practices that are rooted in theory, lore, and intuition. But there’s a catch: the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive.

In our new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, we not only highlight the relevant research, we focus on telling stories of people have who found their way to mastery of complex knowledge and skills. Through these examples we illuminate the principles of learning that the research shows are highly effective.   In this blog, we present 6 tips for students that are synthesized from our book.

Six Tips for Students

Opt for active practice over review.  If you are learning a skill, a foreign

language or any other topic, practice retrieving it from memory rather than

rereading your text or reviewing instructional material. Recalling what you have

learned makes the learning stronger and more easily recalled again later.

 

Space your practice. Space out your practice sessions, letting time elapse between

them.  Massed practice (like cramming) leads to fast learning but also to rapid

forgetting compared to spaced practice. Spacing helps embed learning in long-term

memory.

 

Get plenty of sleep. Students think all-nighters are a good way to study, but

sleep helps memories consolidate and may make retrieval of learned information

better (relative to being sleep deprived).

 

Switch between the study of different topics. If you have final exams coming up in

a week on history, chemistry and psychology, it is better to study these topics on

each day rather than only studying one subject.

 

Test yourself. Make up practice tests and take them repeatedly as you study. This

step permits you to practice retrieving information from memory, making the

pathways to the learning stronger so you can recall it easily later  when you need

it – and it also permits you to assess what you know and what you do not know.

 

Take notes by hand and not by computer. When typing, students tend to record

information as though they were taking dictation. When they handwrite the notes

they write more slowly, so they have to think harder about the material to distill

it.

Most of the advice provided above is explained more fully in Make It Stick, which also provides many more tips on effective study strategies drawn from a wide body of research, not just opinion. We believe that all students can be effective by “studying smarter.”

Mark McDaniel, Ph.D., Henry L. Roediger, III, Ph.D., and Peter C. Brown are coauthors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

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