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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, but we also 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 post, we present six 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 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.”

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