On Learning and Making it Stick: A Review for Invested Leaders, Educators, and Coaches

UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork lauds Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press, 2014) for its “startling implications for how we can improve our own learning, teaching, and coaching.” In doing so, Bjork emphasizes how the innovative research by Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel “shows us how more positive attitudes toward our own abilities—and the willingness to tackle the hard stuff—enables us to achieve our goals.” Written with the assistance of Peter C. Brown, a novelist and freelance writer, Roediger and McDaniel take to task existing “empirical research into how we learn and remember” to insist “that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted” (ix). Certainly, in an era of ever-competing demands upon our time, energy, and resources, how we understand, assess, respond to, and facilitate learning matters. Concluding “the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive,” Roediger, McDaniel, and Brown frame their study around Donald Rumsfield’s quotable application of the Johari Window in his 12 February 2002 claim that “[t]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know” (ix, 9). 

Too few of us understand what Rumsfield was trying to say. In fact, Roediger and his partners contend, though he was roundly ridiculed for this pronouncement, Rumsfield was actually on to something – a fact that strategic planners, project managers, and NASA scientists have long understood given the prevalent application of the Johari Window model in the business, military, and scientific communities. Indeed, they argue, “[i]t turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference” (9).

Doubling down upon their primary assertion that “when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer,” the study’s authors maintain it is also “stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal” (11). And herein lies the glue that binds together the disparate theories espoused throughout Make It Stick: its narratives, vignettes, and case studies that offer practical applications of the principles identified by Roediger and McDaniel as foundational to effortful and, therefore, durable learning. Interspersed throughout his partners’ articulate and compelling analysis of habit strength, interleaved and varied practice, active retrieval, spaced reading, variation, reflection, mastery, and desirable difficulties, Brown’s illustrative narratives make the complexities of cognitive neuroscience more readily accessible to coaches, trainers, teachers, and other learners.  Along the way, they collectively debunk the conventional “wisdom” of rereading texts and the “single-minded, rapid fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory” with “practice-practice-practice” (3). Decrying the widespread and inherently misplaced “[f]aith in focused, repetitive practice of one thing at a time until we’ve got it nailed,” Roediger and McDaniel lament how the “myth of mass practice” has become “so pervasive among classroom teachers, athletes, corporate trainers, and students” (47). In fact, they maintain, to our long-term detriment, “the less challenging, massed form of practice is encoded in a simpler or comparatively impoverished representation than the learning gained from the varied and more challenging practice which demands more brainpower and encodes the learning in a more flexible representation that can be applied more broadly” (51-52).

Helpfully, among its vignettes about educators, aircraft pilots, Rhodes Scholars, market speculators, “memory athletes,” and successful business professionals, Make It Stick offers a number of strategies and underlying principles to help professionals of all stripes facilitate a broader, more durable application and deeper encoding of learning.  Ultimately, though a close, critical reading of the text offers a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of its primary claims, Roediger and McDaniel privilege a number of specific practices to obviate what they see as the “two liabilities” that “hobble” even “the most diligent students” – the “failure to know the areas where their learning is weak…and a preference for study methods that create a false sense of mastery” (17). To counter these “liabilities,” they recommend spaced reading, allowing time for the learner to “forget” what he or she has previously studied and, therefore, to exert more effort to retrieve or recall the information. This exertion, they insist, makes learning more durable and “interrupt[s] the process of forgetting” (28). Accordingly, they recommend frequent low-stakes retrieval and, even more impactful, self-testing by the learner. This “repeated retrieval practice is crucial to long-term retention” (58). 

Dismissing “cramming” as “binge-and-purge learning,” they recommend spacing out and interleaving one’s studies, thereby ensuring learning “doesn’t become a mindless repetition” (63). Interleaving and spacing the study of multiple related topics and areas over a period of time allows learners to reflect upon their learning and to improve their ability to encode, consolidate, and retrieve information while overcoming “desirable difficulties” (68). This exertion, even in the face of interim failures, leads eventually to mastery for those learners who embrace what Carol Dweck calls “the growth mindset” as they solidify their understanding into more lasting and durable mental models.  Moreover, embracing the difficulty of this type of generative learning, as Bjork notes in his assessment of Make It Stick, “trigger[s] encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering” (98). 

Of particular note, Roediger and McDaniel maintain that educators and trainers must resist “the curse of knowledge” which is “our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task that we have already mastered” (115). In my practice as a professor, for example, I readily understand that form almost always informs meaning in literature. Nevertheless, as my students engage the sonnets of William Wordsworth, the odes of John Keats, the epigrams in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or the underlying pain and despair in Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” I must not project onto them my now almost intuitive understanding of the immutable relationship between form and content. Furthermore, beyond simply telling them this relationship exists and having them read a series of sonnets, odes, and villanelles in isolation, Roediger and McDaniel would encourage me to vary, space out, and interleave our engagement with the assigned forms of verse and to have my students do the same on their own as they study and prepare for a series of low-stakes formative assessments or rounds of dynamic testing that reinforce how form informs meaning. This method allows me to provide critical corrective feedback along the way, guiding students towards mastery without having to “cram” for a static summative assessment like a midterm examination. Indeed, such dynamic testing “offers an assessment of where one’s knowledge or performance stands on some dimension and how one needs to move forward to succeed” (151). Over time, such practice leads to mastery and, when asked to explicate “London 1802,” for example, students will note for themselves that its sonnet form underscores William Wordsworth’s ambivalence about the issues and challenges facing England and its transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. 

Maximizing upon cognitive multipliers and embracing “grit, curiosity, and persistence” rather than innate intelligence, Make It Stick asserts, sustained deliberate practice yields positive results for most learners (183). Along these lines, Roediger and McDaniel place the onus primarily upon learners, their environmental factors, growth mindset, discipline, and deliberate practice – all of which contribute to complex mastery (199). To facilitate this learning, teachers, trainers, and coaches must “explain how learning works” by emphasizing and reinforcing the practical benefits of overcoming desirable difficulties, incorporating “retrieval practice, generation, and elaboration” and designing “quizzes and exercises to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier” (227). In this fashion, effective, learner-centered instruction - whether in the classroom or the professional workplace - encourages educators and trainers to “[s]pace, interleave, and vary topics and problems … so that students are frequently shifting gears as they have to ‘reload’ what they already know about each topic in order to figure out how the new material relates or differs” (228). The result, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel insist, is mastery and durable learning. 

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