I highly recommend Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning by Brown et al. to anyone interested in teaching. The book is well-written, combining research findings on learning with interesting stories and examples. This reading was by far the most helpful one so far. The authors return to their main points—namely, testing to learn, spaced repetition, and interleaving—throughout the book, so I felt like I had a solid grasp of the concepts by the end.
Apparently a huge amount of research indicates that tests improve learning way more than rereading textbooks or notes, which are common methods of studying. Rereading text makes students feel more comfortable and fluent with the material, which gives only the illusion of mastery. Tests, whether administered in class or self-tests at home, force students to retrieve the information they learned from memory and effectively stall the forgetting process. This retrieval takes effort and is harder than simply reading through notes, but recalling information in this manner makes future retrieval during exams or real-world situations much easier. Tests also make apparent what students do and do not know, as people often misjudge their performance and overestimate their competence. The authors suggest giving low-stakes, frequent quizzes in class to increase retention of material.
Students usually cram for exams in one, mass effort right before an exam. Research shows that spaced repetition of studying (which should consist of testing, according to the authors) over several days is a better method. Waiting a day or more between self-tests causes a little forgetting, so when students do try to retrieve the information, they have to work a little harder and are more likely to recall that information in the future. Variable training and interleaving, which is mixing up types of problems instead of categorizing them, can improve discrimination skills by forcing students to figure out the commonalities and differences between examples. I wrote in my last blog post that some of the research findings on learning seem conflicting. While many studies point to the benefits of interleaving, some of the other readings also emphasize the importance of organization and structure in courses to help guide the development of students’ knowledge. These other readings suggest making the categorization of concepts explicit for the students, which would seem to contradict Make it Stick. Or, maybe it is beneficial to define the organization during lectures but then utilize interleaving on tests?
Reading this book made me think about my own study habits. My studying strategy differs somewhat by class, so, for example, I studied for calculus tests differently than for history. I realized that I use many of the techniques they warn against, like highlighting, underlining, and rereading notes. However, this system has always worked well for me. As I continued reading, I concluded that I do actually follow many of the authors’ suggestions, albeit while rereading and highlighting. After reading through my notes one or two times, I cover up parts of the pages and test myself on the material. I create narratives as I go, putting the information into my own words, and try to talk myself through the particular process or system I am studying. The authors refer to this practice as elaboration, which they encourage. I am also one of the few people in the world who does not procrastinate horribly, most of the time anyway, so I usually start studying for a test a week or so in advance, looking at my notes briefly every day or every other day. According to this book, my studying process could potentially be more streamlined; for example, going straight to testing myself instead of rereading first.
The authors are pretty up front in affirming that students will not like these new approaches. Learning in the manner they advise feels harder and does not provide the instant gratification of massive studying efforts that render quick, if temporary, improvements. I like their suggestion, which is to be up front with the class about research on learning (that is, why the students have to take so many quizzes or why they should try working through a problem first before looking at the solution) and to lessen anxiety by making quizzes or tests more frequent but less costly to the students’ grades. While I have definitely taken their strategies to heart, I do not think we should totally do away with highlighting, underlining, and reading through notes. Less time spent in each of these activities, yes. More testing, spaced repetition, and interleaving, also yes. Maybe I am stubborn, but I feel that taking and reviewing notes is an important skill to possess. Furthermore, students have been taught their whole lives that they should take notes (not to say that they do all take notes), and notes are not necessarily a horrible study device, especially if used properly. I think that some of the more traditional study techniques can be slightly modified or incorporated into those discussed in this book to boost learning but also maintain some sense of familiarity and comfort among the students.