Make it stick is a book about learning faster, and remembering more, which is a lofty goal endeared by any ambitious individual. 

Unfortunately, our default way of learning is terribly ineffective.

Perhaps this has happened to you as well, asking a person’s name just to forget it a minute later. What’s worse is that we think to ourselves, gosh, I have a very bad memory. Just if I was a bit smarter…

After reading more than 15 books on learning and pick-performance, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern: when it comes to learning, it doesn’t matter what kind of brain you have, what matters is how you use it.

In fact, from Einstein, Mozart to Elon Musk, studies have demonstrated that world-class performers and prodigies reach that level of achievement due to the learning methods, practicing strategies, and the mindset they have, and not something that they are born with.

I. What you will learn in this review

  • How our intuition fools us into adopting ineffective learning strategies.
  • 5 practical learning strategies proven by neuroscience to significantly amplify your learning speed.

II. The Illusion of learning

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

This is how most of us initially study and try to learn: We start reading the text, underline and highlight the material.

Then we dedicate our time to rereading them. We get fluent in the text and terminology which feels like learning.

This familiarity with a text which is the product of rereading creates an illusionof learning. This fluency with the text is a misleading indicator of what you have learned, and how much you will remember.

This way of learning is often very easy and comfortable. In fact, many teachers believe that learning should be made easier and faster.

This intuition that leads us to rereading strategy is compelling and difficult to ignore for two reasons. First, as we keep repeating, we notice an increase in our performance. Second, we fail to notice that this improvement is coming from our short-term memory and will fade away quickly.


III. The 5 Learning Techniques to Make it Stick

1. Retrieval practice

In essence, retrieval is trying to remember what you have already studied or learned.

This is one of the most effective techniques of learning that burns the material into your brain. This should be the core strategy of your learning.

How to use retrieval practice 

When you study lecture notes or read a book, pause periodically and ask yourself:

  • What are the key ideas?
  • What terms or ideas are new to me?
  • How would I define them?
  • How do the ideas relate to what I already know?

The harder it is to recall a new learning from memory, the greater the benefits. When you try to recall a fact, it would be like carving out the road to the fact which makes them stick to your mind.

How it feels: Compared to rereading, retrieval and self-quizzing may feel uncomfortable and frustrating especially when the new learning is hard to recall. The irony is that this is exactly how you actually know that it’s working and you are in deep learning mode.

2. Space out your repetition

Spaced practice means leaving a considerable time between your practicing sessions.

How to use spaced Retrieval

Establish a schedule for self-quizzing sessions with some time to elapse between each session. How much time?

Depends on the material. If you’re trying to remember words, names, faces, etc., practice the retrieval within a few minutes after the first encounter.

New material from a text must be revisited within a day or so of your first encounter with it. After the second visit, you would need to let at least one week to pass before the next rehearsal.

What your intuition tells you to do: If you’re like me, your intuition might convince you to dedicate stretches of time to mass practice; that is, single-mindedly engaging with repetitive practice until you pass out.

Why spaced repetition is effective? When you leave some space between your retrieval practice or self-quizzing, some material is already forgotten.

At this stage, when trying to recall, you are reconstructing what you have already studied from your long-term memory. This effort engages more neuronal pathways and strengthens the memory traces.

3. Interleaving

I’ll explain this one with a favorite example of mine. This is from a real study.

A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket.

Now here’s the question. Which group your intuition says that has been the winning one? Well …

The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two-and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets. How much better? A significant 215 percent better.

How to use interleaving technique: Most textbooks bundle specific study subjects together. For instance 20 exercise on computing the volume of a spheroid. Followed by 25 exercise on computing the volume of a cone, etc.

You must break this kind of batch practicing. Solve a problem in one category then jump to another category. 

How it feels? Blocked practice, mastering one type of problem before moving to the other types, feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery.

On the contrary, interrupting practice of one type to move to the other types feels disruptive, counterproductive and boring.

The irony is that even when learners are gaining mastery much faster from this interleaving technique, they still persist in feeling that blocked practice is more efficient.

4. Elaboration

Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material and it’s one of the most powerful techniques to make it stick.

Personally, I find this technique remarkably effective. Using it, I can remember titles of all the chapters to the book I have read in addition to the key ideas for each chapter.

How to use Elaboration?

 A potent form of elaboration is to come up with an analogy, metaphor, or visual image for the new material which is incredibly powerful to make the materials stick.

For instance, if you’re trying to learn the principals of heat transfer, you may comprehend conduction better if you imagine warming your hands around a hot cup of coffee in a snowy winter.

Another amazing way of using elaboration is trying to explain it in simple terms. As Einstein put it:

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

This method is especially effective in that it debunks the illusion of learning. Next time you feel like you’ve mastered a subject, try to explain it ins and outs…

My favorite way of using elaboration is to relate the material to something I already know. The more connections you make from the new concept to the already-knowing concepts, the stickier you make it.

Elaboration is one of the key elements of holistic learning advocated by Scott Young.

5. Generation

Generation technique has the effect of making the mind more receptive to the new material.

Generation is an endeavor to come up with a solution to a problem before referring to the answer. To use an analogy, generation is like plowing the soil which makes it fertile. (Noticed how I used elaboration technique?)

You can practice generation before a class by trying to come up with some key ideas you expect to find in the material. This initial effort makes you brain significantly more receptive to what’s coming.

Perhaps you noticed the recurring theme of each technique; they are uncomfortable. If you practice them, you will notice that a couple of hours using these techniques is also exhausting.

This is a good sign as I have elaborated this article about talent and how to cultivate it.

I would love to have your feedback on the article. Especially I am curious to know if you use your own secret technique for learning and practicing.

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