What We’re Reading | April 19, 2016

Make It Stick

glue-38201_640Over the past few months, a group of us in English, the Library and ACERT decided to read the same book and share our responses to it. We thought of it as a sort of pilot book club, perhaps something ACERT will be fostering as part of our future community building efforts (if you’re interested in something like this, let us know!). Our first book, read by Mark Bobrow, Stephanie Margolin, and Meredith Reitman, was Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Below, Mark starts us off with a quick summary and then provides commentary, followed by commentary from Stephanie and Meredith.


The authors challenge conventional thinking about student learning, with a particular focus on how inefficient and unproductive strategies and practices are often reinforced by educators. Among their key points are:

  • “Effortful learning” is more durable than learning that comes too easily.
  • We are not good judges of our own learning, often overestimating the depth of our learning.
  • “Massed practice,” which includes cramming for exams, underlining, highlighting, and frequent re-reading over a short time span, often encouraged by teachers, does not produce durable learning.
  • Students’ most common study methods give them a false sense of mastery.
  • “Retrieval practice,” which focuses on self-quizzing, recalling concepts, elaboration rather than repetition and memorization, and is spaced out over a longer period of time than “massed practice,” leads to more durable learning. The harder it is to recall, the greater the benefit, even though it may not seem apparent at the time.
  • Testing (particularly low-stakes) can produce as much learning as studying, and more durable learning than “massed practice.”


MarkBobrowMARK: In addition to its implications for students, the book also has applications for teacher training. Just as teachers need to understand how students organize knowledge and the ways that prior knowledge influences learning, it is also important for us to understand that our curricular and instructional approaches influence how students learn, and whether they leave our courses with both effective learning strategies and the enduring knowledge facilitated by those strategies. While it is, of course, essential for new teachers to learn how to construct a syllabus, develop and deliver curriculum, design assignments, and manage a classroom, familiarity with principles of student learning can make both course planning and the classroom experience more fruitful.

Principles of student learning can be incorporated into teacher training in an organic way. For instance, while teaching effective peer review strategies, we can stress one of the authors’ points: peer instruction can be particularly effective when used to discuss new material and concepts before they are covered in class. Deeper learning occurs, they argue, when students put new ideas in their own words and relate it to material previously covered, even if the connections are tenuous, or even wrong.

Another example is assessment design.  The authors argue that frequent low-stakes testing is effective in identifying and addressing problems with comprehension and mastery. It also enables instructors to make necessary mid-course adjustments, something particularly challenging for novice teachers. As important, testing is a powerful learning tool. According to the authors, frequent low-stakes testing produces as much learning as studying, and more learning than “massed practice.” Understanding this principle can help teachers not only shape their assessment plan, but also their syllabus and assignments. In addition, training novice teachers to de-emphasize “massed practice” and infrequent high-stakes exams in favor of frequent testing and other formative assessments such as informal writing and self-reflection, can have the added benefit of providing insight into how their students are using prior knowledge at various stages of the course.


StephanieMargolinSTEPHANIE: My biggest warning about this book: don’t read it mid-semester.  You’ll immediately want to implement all sorts of new techniques, which can be completely overwhelming…learn from my mistakes. My initial impulse was to apply as many lessons as I could. However, I used restraint and started with some small changes this semester, with plans to apply more in the future.

With that, we had at least one success.  A librarian colleague and I were teaching LIBR 100, the library’s one-credit information and research course, and we wanted to apply the “frequent low-stakes testing” paradigm. We decided to use Kahoot! an online tool that builds “learning games” (which look a lot like a game show), in order to start each class revisiting topics from the prior class.  Much to our surprise, this tool built engagement: most of our students (college freshmen) loved it. Each week our students were able to test themselves – and get immediate feedback — in a fun and non-threatening way. While Kahoot! relies on multiple choice questions and does not easily adapt to all learning situations, we’ve used it where we can.

And in my teaching practice more generally, I’m more conscious of embracing the “effortful learning” for my students, striving to do so with transparency. For example, when I teach students to use Social Explorer, a tool that facilitates access to U.S. Census data, I now begin the lesson acknowledging that our work will be difficult at the beginning but that, through practice over the course of the hour, I believe that they will begin to “get it.”  In the past, I might have provided “training wheels,” struggling to make the learning easier (things like “cheat sheets” or doing more of the work with/for them), but readings like Make It Stick have made me more comfortable acknowledging the difficulty, keeping the mood light, and gradually letting go of students’ metaphoric bikes, as they start their peddling. After that, it’s all about repetition – and seeking help from their fellow students (which I strongly encourage).


meredithheadshotMEREDITH: Building on Stephanie’s point, transparency is critical. If we’re going to weave in “desirable difficulties” in order to promote durable learning, students have to know that we’re using that strategy and that we have every expectation that they will reach those high standards.

This brings to mind the work on “wise critical feedback” (Yeager et al, 2014). This type of feedback focuses on building trust between the student and professor. In particular, students of color who face stereotype threat in the classroom may feel that any difficulty on their part will be seen as a reflection of their identity, and moreover that any assessment of their ability will be influenced by that identity. In order to interrupt that cycle, “wise feedback” very clearly lays out three steps in implementation:

  1. State that critical feedback is reflective of high standards and not bias.
  2. Assure students that they have the potential to reach those standards
  3. Provide resources to students to help them reach those standards

Difficulty is good, research has shown, but in order to make it work for all students, we must attend to our shared context.



Brown, Peter C, Roediger III, Henry L. and McDaniel, Mark A. (2015). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Yeager, David Scott, et al. (2014). “Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143.2 : 804.

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