Please reload


3 Keys to Durable Learning

December 7, 2017


First, here is how to really mess up your own learning:  put your faith in fluency.  "Fluency" is the term cognitive psychologists use to describe the momentary (and it turns out delusional) feeling "hey, I got this!" after you have reread something several times. You have "gone over your notes/practice problems" many times and you are feeling good.  Distrust this feeling.


Rereading and repetition are the conventional wisdom--and they don't work. Sorry.  But I have good news about what DOES work. Read on.


My bottom line

I can sum it up in one sentence:  we don't learn by what goes into the mind, but by what comes out of it.  A good simple rule: 1/3 of your time should be spent reviewing the material and 2/3 should be spent in recalling the material.

This book changed me!  And what I personally do with the knowledge I gained from this book?  Two main things changed right away:  (1) I read a lot but now I take much of what was reading time for recall time and (2) I ask my students to recall information (at the beginning of class, without notes), elaborate, generate and apply new knowledge much more frequently and use more frequent low stakes testing.


This is a summary of "Make it Stick"

Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts :The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,


3 Keys to Durable Learning


1. Do what works - recall it, rehearse it and link it to what else you know

Retrieval, rehearsal and elaboration is what we should be doing. The more we force our minds to recall information (to go "get it" from where it is in mind) the more we will own it and consolidate it into our longer-term memory.  Retrieval practice can take the form of just closing a book or notes and forcing yourself to recall them. Or it can be teaching it to someone else or testing or quizzing yourself.


Rehearsing is practicing the use of new knowledge through either visualization, simulation or embodied action.


Elaboration is the connecting new knowledge with existing knowledge. 


How to do it - spaced practice, interwoven and varied

The researchers differentiate between massed, blocked practice and spaced, interleaved practice.  The research is very clear that the latter is superior but often feels less effective. 


Massed, blocked practice can be illustrated by the young student learning how to write code and just keeps trying the same thing again and again and again.  Many believe that this focused, vigilant approach is laudable and therefore effective for learning.  While it might be a sign of resilience, it is not a sign of learning.


What is more effective is to spacing and what they call "interleaving". Spacing refers to taking breaks and pauses between practice sessions. Ironically, spacing leads to some forgetting which turns out to be very important for learning. Interleaving refers to the mixing up of skills or concepts or areas of knowledge.  It is more effective for the student to practice coding for a time, then switch to, for example, learning about hardware, and then go back to coding.  A golfer should not just practice one swing again and again.  This gives the feeling of "fluency" but the superior way of practicing would be to practice your irons for 15 minutes, switch to woods, then to putting, then to chipping and re