“Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown: Part One

I read this book at a time when I had a huge amount of knowledge to learn, retain, and apply. My former techniques and discipline have served me well in the past so before reading this book, I myself fell under many of the same misconceptions debunked by this book. My own techniques, like reading material multiple times, copying lists, and making flashcards, has ultimately worked for me, it is not the most efficient way that I could have been learning that material. Following the theme of being mindful of how we spend our time (See “Essentialism”) if I can make any improvement in my learning process, then I will have more time for my true priorities. For other suggestions on how the brain learns most effectively and the science behind it, check out “How We Learn”, “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”, and “Mindset”.

  1. The most effective learning strategies are not intuitive.
  2. If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better. Similarly, if they interleave the study of different topics, they learn each better than if they had studied them one at a time in sequence.
  3. When we talk about learning, we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
  4. Learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.
  5. We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
  6. When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.
  7. The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in the form consistent with your preferred learning style, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research.
  8. We’re all susceptible to illusions that can hijack our judgment of what we know and can do. Testing helps us calibrate our judgments of what we’ve learned.
  9. All new learning required a foundation of prior knowledge.
  10. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.
  11. People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.
  12. The elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. Understanding that this is so enables you to see failure as a badge of effort and a source of useful information—the need to dig deeper or to try a different strategy.
  13. The best empirical studies are experimental in nature: the researcher develops a hypothesis and then tests it through a set of experiments that must me rigorous criteria for design and objectivity. (But beware as is pointed out in “How Not to Be Wrong” and the dangers of hypothesis testing)
  14. Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves the kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content.
  15. It makes sense to reread a text once if there’s been a meaningful lapse of time since the first reading, but doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time.
  16. The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know. Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision-making. (Rumsfeld strikes again, just as noted in #34 of “The Signal and the Noise”)
  17. Albert Einstein declared, “creativity is more important than knowledge.”
  18. Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment, and skill.
  19. Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.
  20. In very short order we lose something like 70 percent of what we’ve just heard or read. After that, forgetting begins to slow, and the last 30 percent or so falls away more slowly, but the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.
  21. Today, we know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than re-exposure to the original material does.
  22. Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem.
  23. Practice at retrieving new knowledge or skill from memory is a potent tool for learning and durable retention.
  24. It appears that embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces (the brain’s representations of the new learning) are strengthened, giving meaning, and connected to prior knowledge—a process that unfold over hours and may take several days.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

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