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
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
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.”