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Learn how to think better and 'Make It Stick'

Author Peter Brown has tips that anyone can use that will make learning stay put in the brain.

Make it stick Author Peter Brown explores what makes learning work.

Think repetition and reading for long hours are the key to learning? Not according to a new book based on the research of two Washington University professors.

"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," reads one of the opening passages of "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning," which will be published by Harvard University Press on March 31. The work is the result of 10 years of research into the application of cognitive psychology to education practices by Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, both in the Department of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. They then enlisted the help of novelist (and Roediger's brother-in-law) Peter Brown to turn their findings into a book for a mass audience.


Brown has filled "Make It Stick" with illustrative anecdotes to support the academic theories. "I have long been fascinated by [Roediger's] knowledge of how memory works," he said. "When I heard what he, McDaniel and their colleagues were finding, it seemed like big news: Most of us are going about learning the wrong way! This was something everybody needed to hear."

For example, rereading texts won't really help you learn, and neither will repeatedly practicing tasks. In fact, most intuitive modes of learning also came up short. The commonality among the authors' suggested practices is that, in order to stick, learning must be effortful and arduous. We asked Brown why.

What is it about overcoming difficulty that makes learning stronger?
"The best way to make learning stick is to focus less on getting knowledge into the brain and more on getting it out. You learn best by trying to retrieve an answer from memory, and this holds true even before we have been taught what the answer is."

How does that work?
"When the brain encounters new information, the representation of that information is pliable — the brain works at making sense of the new material by filling in gaps and connecting it to what you already know."

So the brain folds information into what is already stored?
"And every time you have to work hard to retrieve learning, it becomes pliable again, and as the brain reconsolidates it, the most important aspects become more prominent and the paths to the knowledge are strengthened. But the key to this is effort. It’s arduous retrieval practice that strengthens learning. And when you mix up your practice, and the retrieval is more difficult because you’re constantly switching between different topics, and it doesn’t feel like you’re mastering any of them, you are in fact building more complex neural connections and a more versatile ability to recall and apply the learning later."

Takeaway tips:

"Don’t bother rereading the text or watching the instructional video repeatedly," says Brown. "Instead, review the instructional material once or twice, then test yourself on the knowledge: Explain it, or practice the skill. Then leave it alone for a while. Retrieve it from memory again when you’re a little rusty and have to struggle to bring it back. When you’re struggling with something, that’s a great sign, because your brain is engaged. If it’s something you want to hang on to, make sure periodically to practice retrieving it from memory."

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