Are you frustrated with being unable to recall some of the incredible material you learn from books, articles, and podcasts?
Fortunately, you can use some of these effective learning techniques from experts to make sure you actually remember all these learnings and can put them into action!
Peter C. Brown, the author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, wrote his books with experts of Psychology Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. Make it Stick draws on recent scientific discoveries to clarify our misunderstanding of how to learn effectively. The good news is, their recommendations will make learning less repetitive and more effective!
The Three Biggest Ideas from Make it Stick
Peter broke down the three biggest ideas from his book:
Making the learning easy and clear does NOT help it stick.
The trick to making it stick is to challenge your brain to wrestle with the material.
Our intuition will lead us astray towards repetition and the ineffective exercise of short-term memory.
The common notion is that we must get information INTO the brain, but the real benefit is when you get information OUT of the brain: That is done by what he refers to as ‘wrestling’ with the material. This includes activities like:
Retrieving the material from memory
Connecting the new material with preexisting knowledge
Trying to explain it to someone else
“One of the great things of being a human being is: The brain is wired to wrestle with this stuff once you’ve engaged it in the problem.” – Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
Mixed (Not Mass) Training
Peter illustrates these ineffective methods through analogy: To practice a putt 20 times in succession focuses on short-term memory and does not improve your ability to recall the training in the future: This is called ‘Mass Practice’, where you perform a simple task repetitively. Alternatively, he suggests a method of learning that he calls ‘Mixed Training’. This is a method where you dedicate your focus of working-memory to one task, but frequently switch between a few tasks.
Sticking to the previous analogy, with Mixed Training you would alternate between various types of shots and putts under different conditions, then force yourself to recall the necessary putt in the middle of a series. Your brain creates different connections when it’s required to recall the information, these embed it deeper in your memory, similar to how your brain subconsciously contemplates information in your sleep. But this is not limited to mental training, it works the same with physical training as well!
Spaced Training, Mental Models, and the Hippocampus
“Letting your brain wrestle with it, coming back—that added effort of remembering—and then building on that remembering with another effort. It is a desirable difficulty—a spaced kind of practice.” – Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
Besides Mixed Training, Spaced Training is another potent technique for learning. It consists of spacing out your study periods in gradually more distant intervals to help combat forgetfulness. Spaced Training can be illustrated by the Leitner System, where correctly answered flashcards are placed in boxes that are studied less frequently and incorrectly answered cards are returned to the first box to refresh your memory.
By understanding a little bit about how our brain’s hippocampus works, we can make more sense of how these methods of learning work so effectively. The hippocampus serves as the birthplace of memory, where it exists temporarily as a ‘memory trace’ unless our brain makes gaps between it and preexisting information. These gaps manifest through the connection of neurons, thoroughly embedding the knowledge into your brain. So, how do we promote the creation of these connections?
Wrestling with the material is a general representation of your desired strategy, but a specific strategy is working with pneumonic devices, such as a Memory Palace. These devices help create mental models to organize and further comprehend knowledge. A Memory Palace is a memory technique where you visualize a room and associate aspects of the room to the information you’re trying to recall. Then when you need to recall the information, you simply ‘walk’ through your Memory Palace until you approach the aspect associated with the desired piece of information and – boom! – there it is.
“Building these mental models—adding more knowledge to them, understanding how they relate—opens the world to other learning.” – Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
Forgetting: Humans’ Universal Pastime
“Forgetting is the human condition. That’s why you’ve got to find a way to interrupt the forgetting. This idea of retrieving from memory—that’s a way to tie the knot, to keep that memory. Anything that you want to be able recall later, periodically, HAS to be recalled from memory.” – Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
Unfortunately, forgetfulness is a necessary condition of the brain and it is here to stay. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, pioneered the ‘Forgetting Curve’. This is a graph which represents the exponentially increasing difficulty of retrieving a memory as the time after exposure to the information increases. It illustrates how we lose roughly 70% of the information immediately, then the remaining 30% gradually. This graph was instrumental in the development of the Leitner System, eight decades later.
Peter recalls a story:
“I thought of—for some reason—a child putting cranberries on a thread and going to hang them on the tree, then discovering that they were falling off the other end of the thread—because there was no knot! If every cranberry is some kind of learning you want to hang on to—it’s like a string of pearls—you need a knot every one of them. You need to practice each of those periodically.” Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
He then jokes that we’re all losing our cranberries eventually!
The Benefit Is Not in Leaving, It’s in Returning
Peter tells us about one of his favorite studies involving a simple shift in the training protocol for microsurgeons. The initial training involved watching a training video, then performing a relevant simulation, four times in one day. But in this study, half of the doctors participating went through the training over four weeks, with one training video and its respective simulation done on the same day. A month after completing this training, all the doctors were tested and those who spaced their training out performed far better than those who did all the training in one day.
Peter then refers to Dr. Carol Dweck and her theory of the growth mindset. He discusses how this theory has shown that your intellectual abilities aren’t fixed and limited by your genes. To a large degree, they can be increased by intentionally building mental models to form connections and increase the wiring in the brain. You don’t interpret the difficulty as failure or that you aren’t getting it, you carry on forward and alter your strategy slightly.
An Inspirational End and Some Homework
“If you interpret the difficulty as: I’m not getting it—I don’t have what it takes. That’s too bad! You could say: I’m not getting it YET!” - Peter C. Brown on The Science of Success
Peter recommends checking out his book, Make it Stick, because it offers all of the available research and it’s laid out with examples in a reader-friendly manner. He asks that you inquire of your own life where you’ve had challenges while learning with ragged and random strategies but ended up surprising yourself with your own success. Then he suggests the Science of Learning and ends with a recommendation of new tools to create flashcards and quizzes on your phone in order to memorize things.