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Book Review

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.
2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 313
p. ISBN: 978-0-674-72901-8; List Price: $17.26 at
Over the past several months, I have been on a mission. I am
on the hunt for resources on how to help my students learn how
to learn. As I was searching the Internet for ideas, I came across a
highly recommended resource a book entitled Make It Stick:
The Science of Successful Learning." After flipping through a few
virtual pages, using the Look Inside feature on,
I pressed the Add to Cart button and I am so glad that I did!
Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology as well
as other disciplines, Brown and crew offer numerous concrete
strategies for becoming more productive learners a coveted skill
needed by students of all ages.
Brown and others begin with a chapter on how learning is
misunderstood. One of the main tenets put forth in this chapter is
that learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies
are often counterintuitive (p. 2). The remainder of the book is
a rich exploration of learning practices that really work (based
on numerous studies, replete with examples), while showing why
other commonly-used practices are actually counterproductive.
Below is a sampling of the Donts and Dos of productive
learning put forth by Brown and others (2014), based on the latest
research findings.

The Donts
Some of the most commonly used, yet least productive learning
strategies are rereading the material (for example, textbooks, notes,
articles, and other resources), underlining and highlighting, massed
practicei (that is, cramming), and blocked practiceii . For example,
though rereading textbooks is a very popular study strategy used
by more than 80% of college students in some surveys, it is often
labor in vain. Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time
consuming. It doesnt result in durable memory. And it often
involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity
with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content (p. 10). Do
not just reread material and highlight important concepts, because
familiarity mastery!
The strongly-held belief in the effectiveness of massed practice
to master a new skill is widely held by students, teachers, and
coaches alike. This belief is mainly attributable to the fast gains that
are often observed during the learning phase of massed practice.
However, what is apparent from research studies is that these gains
are transitory and quickly fade away. What is gained quickly is also

Massed practice is defined as single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something youre trying to burn into memory, the practice-practice-practice of
conventional wisdom (p. 3).
ii Blocked practice is defined as mastering all of one type of problem before
progressing to practice another type (p. 207).

lost quickly. In general, the most productive learning strategies, the

ones that result in deeper and more durable learning, are effortful;
whereas learning that is easy is like writing in sand, here today
and gone tomorrow (p. 3). With productive learning strategies,
it seems that the saying no pain, no gain once again rings true.

The Dos
Brown and others (2014) put forth eight key, research-based
strategies for enhanced learning (Table 1). Though teachers can
and should purposefully embed these strategies throughout their
courses (for example, via activities, assignments, and assessments),
for ultimate effectiveness, students must take charge of their own
learning (p. 201) and implement these learning strategies themselves, whether the teacher promotes and reinforces them or not.
Putting these learning strategies into practice is often more difficult, but has been shown to work. Short-term strategies that
require more effort and that slow learning down, like space practice, interleave practice, and others (see Table 1), are know as
desirable difficulties. The good news is that implementing these
more effortful strategies will more than compensate for their inconvenience by making learning stronger, more precise, and more
enduring (p. 68). Though one would need to read the book
cover to cover to obtain the underlying details of each of these
approaches (Table 1) and how to put them into practice to enhance learning, a couple of select themes to entice the reader are
provided below.
The first theme is for teachers and is a controversial one testing. The increased focus in recent years on standardized assessment
has turning testing into a lightening rod for frustration (p. 19).
But Brown and others (2014) call us to stop thinking of testing
as a dipstick for measuring learning and assigning grades and start
thinking of testing as a powerful tool for learning and durable
retention. Its a change in philosophy that will results in dramatic,
positive consequences. Testing, in its most basic form, is active
retrieval practice. One of the most striking research findings discussed in the book is the power of active retrieval to strengthen
memory (literally via strengthening neural pathways) and interrupt forgetting. The act of retrieving learning from memory has
two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and dont
know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the
areas where youre weak. Two, recalling what you have learned
causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens
its connections to what you already know and making it easier for
you to recall in the future (p. 20). For example, a research study in
a middle school in Columbia, Ill., showed that material reviewed
with low-stakes quizzing with feedback three times during the
course was much better recalled a month later (students averaged
92%, an A-) compared to material that was reviewed three times,
but not quizzed (students averaged 79%, a C+). These results are
not an isolated case at the middle school level, but have been
replicated a number of times at many levels. There is solid evidence that the testing effect (as it is known among psychologists)

C 2015 Institute of Food Technologists

142 Journal of Food Science Education Vol. 14, 2015

doi: 10.1111/1541-4329.12075

Book Review
Table 1Eight key, research-based strategies for enhance learning discussed in Brown and others (2014)
Learning Strategy
Retrieval Practice

Practice retrieving newly learned material from memory (for
example, self quizzing).

Spaced Practice

Leaving time between retrieval practice sessions.

Interleave Practice

When you practice, mix up (interleave) the different types of

problems you are trying to solve or characteristics you are
trying to identify.


Finding additional layers of meaning in new material, such as

relating the material to what you already know, explaining it
to others in your own words, or explaining how it relates to
your life outside the classroom (that is, expanding to a larger
Attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being
shown the answer or solution, (for example, experiential
Intentional act of taking a few minutes to review what has been
observed and learned and asking yourself questions about it.
A combination of retrieval practice and elaboration.


Mnemonic Devices

The act of using an objective instrument, such as a quiz or test,

to clear away illusions and adjust your judgments to better
reflect reality.
Useful way to store information, not a learning tool per se;
mnemonic is from the Greek word memory.

Strengthens the memory (literally via strengthening neural
pathways), tells you what you do and dont know, and
interrupts forgetting.
Arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential
for holding onto the knowledge you want to gain, but feels
more difficult than massed practice.
Improves discrimination and identification abilities; improves
success in a later test or in real world settings where you need
to discern the type of problem you are trying to solve. Blocked
practice may feel more productive, but research shows that in
the long run this feeling is not correct.
Increases the strength of the newly learned material and the
number of connections between the newly learned material
and prior knowledge, helping you to remember it later.
Makes the mind more receptive to new learning.
Involves several cognitive activities that lead to stronger
learning, for example, retrieving from memory, connecting to
new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing
what you might do differently next time (that is, make
Develops sound metacognitive skills, being able to determine if
your sense of what you know and can do is accurate or not.
Act as mental file cabinets to help organize, store, and retrieve
information when you need it.

Table 2Ten productive study activities

1. Explain to students how learning works and what strategies are most effective.
2. Make reading a text or studying lecture notes active by periodically pausing to ask yourself questions, without looking for the answers, such as: What
are the key ideas of todays lecture? What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define the terms in my own words? How do the ideas relate to
what I already know?
3. Establish a self-quizzing study schedule that allows time to elapse between study sessions. The questions at the end of each chapter, as well as online
resources, serve as starting points for developing self-quiz questions.
4. Rewrite the lecture notes in your own words, make sure to assess your understanding of the material as you go. What do you know and what needs
5. Work on homework problems without using an example as a guide (solving problems without the help of external aids).
6. Write out your responses to lecture learning objectives and study guides without looking at the lecture material. If no study guide is provided, design
your own.
7. Talk about the material in a study group, ask each other questions, and provide each other with feedback.
8. Organize what you are learning into a visual representation, such as a concept map, an outline, or picture.
9. Interweave material from different lectures and sections of the course; think about how the material fits together; how is the material connected to
the course learning objectives?
10. Keep a learning journal or blog. Some ideas of what to write about include: Write down key ideas from memory after each lecture session. Reflect on
what you learned the previous week. Are there any concepts that are confusing to me? Tie what you are learning to happenings in your everyday life
or what you see going on in the world around you. Ask yourself What new problems can I now explain or solve because of what I have learned?

works whether implemented by the teacher or by the student

(for example, self-quizzing). So, just like fruits and vegetables,
quizzes are really good for you!
The second theme is for students studying for tests. Brown and
others (2014) describe an all-too familiar scenario. A college professor answers a knock on her office door. Its a first-year student in
distress, asking to discuss his low grade on the first exam. The student attended all the lectures and took diligent notes on them. He
read the text and highlighted all the critical passages. Why didnt
he do better on the exam? The problem is the student had used
largely ineffective study strategies, ones that resulted in familiarity
with the text and lecture notes, producing the illusion of mastery,
rather than true mastery, of the material. The illusion of mastery
is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what
we know (p.16). The student was not an accurate judge of his
knowledge and, as commonly occurs, he overestimated how well
he knew the material. The student viewed himself as the model
student, diligent to a fault, but truthfully he did not know how
to study. So what study strategies would have been more effective?
Some study strategies that would assist in producing true mastery

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for the student include: 1) using the set of key concepts in the
back of each chapter to test himself on what he knows (and what
he needs to work on); 2) defining the key terms from memory
and use them in a paragraph to explain their meaning and application; 3) converting the main points in the text into a series
of questions and then later trying to answer the questions from
memory; 4) rephrasing the main ideas in his own words as he is
reading; 5) relating what he is learning to what he already knows;
and 6) searching for examples in addition to the ones provided in
the text. To gain true mastery, students need to employ effortful
study strategies that cause them to be deeply engaged with the
course content, so much so that they themselves become content
builders, not just memorizers of information from PowerPoint
slides that are flashed before eyes during lecture. This engagement will also help students develop sound metacognitive skills,
allowing them to judge what they know and what still needs more
As I read Make It Stick, I found myself jotting down numerous study activities ones from the book as well as ones the
book inspired of what I could do in my classroom to help my

Vol. 14, 2015 Journal of Food Science Education 143

Book Review
students learn better and what my students could to for themselves
to learn better. Table 2 contains 10 items from the list I complied,
starting with an obvious, but often overlooked one Explain to
students how learning works and what strategies are most effective. I am confident that you will come up with many more ideas
and that the learning of our students will deepen and become
more durable because of it! Bottom line, learning how to learn is
a critically important skill that we need to intentionally develop in
our students. As emphasized by Brown and others (2014) in the
opening paragraph of chapter 8 - No matter what you may set

144 Journal of Food Science Education Vol. 14, 2015

your sights on doing or becoming, if you want to be a contender,

its mastering the ability to learn that will get you in the game and
keep you there (p. 200).

Shelly J. Schmidt
Scientific Editor, JFSE
Professor of Food Chemistry, Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Univ. of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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