The way we acquire new knowledge, and the way we retain old memories, are intricately intertwined. In Make it Stick, two psychology scientists, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel, alongside storyteller Peter Brown, the connections between the two are unravelled. How to secure information into our long-term memory banks has puzzled humanity for centuries. The 2014 book uses scientific data to connect the two, and in doing so, teaches us to learn better.
We forget approximately 70 per cent of the information we read or hear. In Make it Stick, it says, "people generally are going about learning 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."
The authors provide a solution - three study techniques that transform how we learn and our brains connections. They found by testing ourselves, intermittent practice and learning a variety of skills we can improve our memory retention for anything.
Looking at decades worth of empirical studies, the authors behind Make it Stick have discovered the best way to learn - and hold on to that information for years. From data in the field, the effect of coaching methods can be analysed, given a value, and monitored over a lifetime.
What they found was that "the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive". "When we find ourselves believing our work is easy, we're not taking in much knowledge. Learning that's easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow." It's only through challenges, context and making mistakes that we learn something new.
Unfortunately for us, our perception of when we're learning well as opposed to when we're not is misaligned. Staying up all night to cram for exams at university may have disillusioned us into believing we knew the topic, but within a few days, 50 per cent of all we learnt is gone from our memory.
From long-term studies in the field, ranging from classrooms to sports fields to the police, the authors have detailed how to move away from ineffective strategies towards long-term learning.
Boost Your Memory
To learn and understand a new concept, we must recall it many times until it is fixed in our mind. However, immediately recalling everything doesn't make you learn. Cramming and intense rereading of content is proven to be ineffective learning methods.
By taking our time and recalling new information over a matter of days or weeks, we can move a new piece of information from our short-term to our long-term memory. A study from 2011, published in the Journal of Education Psychology, found that middle school students could boost their grades through active memory recall. A class was allowed to review their notes three times before taking an exam, and the class's average was a C+. A similar class received three pop quizzes before their test and averaged an A-.
The dramatically improved test scores are because "the effort of retrieving knowledge strengthens its staying power." While tests may remain unpopular in school and beyond, having a series of lower-stakes quizzes with quality feedback can improve learning.
Ensuring the tests aren't a make or break situation can significantly help lower test anxiety. If left unreined, it can hamper test scores and cause untold misery to thousands of pupils.
Variety is Key
For decades the most recommended study technique was to focus on one thing at a time with deep intensity. Make it Stick couldn't disagree more - through field research, they've found the best way to learn is to intersperse our studies with other topics.
Spaced retrieval of knowledge prevents reflexive, familiar behaviour from being mistaken for an in-depth understanding. By leaving gaps between our studies or practice, what we've learnt can move from our short-term memory to our long-term memory.
As we learn new things and we experience more in the world, our brain changes. This is referred to as brain plasticity, the ‘rewiring' of the neural circuits that dictate how we think, act, and behave. The process takes time. When we cram for a test, we don't give our brains sufficient time to make new connections, and within a few days, the knowledge is gone. For effective learning, we must give ourselves enough time for brains to remodel themselves.
Taking a period of reflection after practice shows us what we understand well, what we need to work on and what's still a mystery. Having an accurate understanding of where we need to improve can accelerate our learning.
Striving to learn and fix new ideas in your memory isn't a perfect process - mistakes are natural, and research shows they're a part of the process. By engaging in long-term memory retrieval, you develop more cues that trigger you to find the information in your brain. When you remember it, you reconsolidate what you know, building a stronger foundation.
Generation learning is the process of attempting to solve a problem without being shown how. It's hard work and prone to errors. To solve the task, you must contextualise it to what you know already, strengthening connections in your brain. This involves elaboration, "the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know." Reflecting on what aspects worked in your attempt and what didn't, creates a deeper understanding.
"Desirable difficulties" are short-term problems that make completing a task harder but improves the learning quality. A baseball team practised hitting three types of ball throws. Before batting, the player was told the sequence of throws, allowing them to prepare. The second team practised the same ball throws but were unaware of what spins were coming their way. While the second team outperformed the first, they perceived themselves to be the worst team. The task was significantly tougher for them, but the pay-off spoke for itself.
Avoid the Illusion of Knowledge
The Dunning-Kruger effect states that those who are least competent at completing a task rank themselves as the most capable. They are blissfully unaware of their limitations, leaving little room for personal growth.
It's easy to fall victim to the effect yourself without a comprehensive structure of self-review and quizzing. Our memories can, and do, regularly fail us. Our "hunger for narrative" in our daily lives leave us searching for meaning in situations where there isn't one. Memories can be manipulated by our peers - if their recount doesn't match ours, we redefine our memories to reflect theirs.
Daniel Kahneman describes two systems of thought - system one, our reflexes performed without thinking, and system two, our controlled system that requires conscious judgements. System one is much more vulnerable to biases and distortions.
Our brains are made of neurones - a nerve cell that relays information from your brain to your body. For decades scientists believed neurone development, known as neurogenesis, stopped shortly after birth. However, recent research has found the brain continues to transform over our lifetimes.
As we learn new things, our brains change their structural plasticity - more neurone connections form between areas of the brain as our understanding increases. Neurones consist of a cell body, where information is stored, an axon that's protected by a myelin sheath, and dendrites. Information passes down the myelin sheath and dendrites into neighbouring cells and is transferred around the body.
The more we learn on a topic, the thicker the myelin sheath becomes on associated neurones in the brain. This helps transfer information. As we become more knowledgeable, our brains become better at learning. There is no limit to how much we can learn - and our brains support us through structural changes as we go.
To learn something new, the authors of Make it Stick have laid out a blueprint of what you need to do. Don't rush to acquire information and instead spread out your learning over a long period to ensure the knowledge reaches your long-term memory. Vary your practices rather than investing all your time and energy into acquiring a single new skill. Not only will you learn the new skill better, but you'll pick up a plethora of new talents along the way.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, don't be afraid to make mistakes. They're part of being human and an essential part of the learning process too.
Our brains are capable of rebuilding and transforming themselves to support you on your learning journey. Follow these simple tips to help your brain grow, and it will repay you in return.
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