Learnin’ ‘bout Learnin’ and Making it Stick

James Risberg
May 31, 2017 · 5 min read

I’ve been on a pretty big learning kick recently. I’ve been putting a lot of time and focus into growing my knowledge in various areas, but there’s a limit to the amount of information you can take in before your ROI tanks. To help, I decided the next thing I would learn about was learning itself. For this, I turned to Make it Stick.

Make it Stick is a fantastic book put together by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel: two cognitive scientists and a story teller. They’ve teamed up to drop knowledge about knowledge, about how we learn, remember and internalize information.

What’s it mean to learn?

They begin by exploring the meaning of really learning something. Some think of learning as reading an article or taking notes on a subject, never to go over again. These same people are surprised when they remember nothing of what they “learned.” Learning is absorbing information, remembering that information, and ultimately being able to produce that information on demand when necessary. Much of the information we take in on a daily basis we make no attempt to truly keep around, and so it’s in one ear and out the other!

Truly having a grasp on information isn’t just good for fun facts and party tricks. Building a base of knowledge about different topics allows you to access this information and build new ideas and conclusions with it. Knowledge unlocks your ability to reason about things you’re unfamiliar with, to innovate and think originally and creatively, and yes, to wow your friends with fun facts (Did you know that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people?).

The authors go over three major concepts that can be used together to maximize your learning and accelerate memory: delayed recall, interleaving, and variance.

To Remember, Forget

The key to remembering anything is simple: try to remember it. Over and over. Research has found that when you recall something, a set of pathways related to that information in the memory portions of the brain strengthen, and the more you recall something the stronger these connections become. An act as simple as quizzing yourself on a passage after reading can work to shore up these links to that information and help to set in stone whatever you’ve learned.

But wait, there’s a catch! Your quizzing can’t be too easy. Go over some info a thousand times, and you’ll be able to spit it out word for word immediately after studying. But try to remember it next week and you’ll SOL.

This is what’s knows as “cramming”, something you see on college campuses across the country the night before any major exam. This short-term flooding of information seems to do the trick: you ace that exam the next day and remember everything you highlighted last night. But when it comes time for a cumulative exam a few weeks later, you find that you’ve forgotten it all! This is what they call the “illusion of mastery,” the false sense of retaining information that you’ve recalled many times over a short period. This helps you on the day of the test but does nothing to solidify the information in the long term.

In order to really make the learning stick, you’ve got to give yourself time to forget some of it (I know, you have to forget to remember, just trust me). Now, if you’ve forgotten something completely, you don’t have much of a chance of coming up with it. But if you’ve only forgotten some information, forcing yourself to recall it actually strengthens those brain connections much more than simply rereading or cramming does. There’s a sweet spot of forgetedness (< — a word) that makes quizzing and recalling extra effective, and it’s this sweet spot you want to find.

What Goes Around Comes Around

What do you do while you wait to forget? You learn something else! What the research shows is that learning is more effective if it’s “interleaved” (see: mixed up) with learning new material. If you’ve got a fuzzy idea of a concept in your accounting class or Coursera course, move on and cover some new stuff. After a bit, go back and quiz yourself on the old stuff. Did you know it? Well, you know it better now, even if you couldn’t remember it. In this way, Interleaving and delayed recall work hand-in-hand to help move you through all the information you’re trying to learn. Constantly progress, looping back to older info to test your memory and quiz yourself. Rinse and repeat. Find that sweet spot I mentioned, keep the information you’re having trouble with near the top of the stack and push stuff you’ve mastered down.

(Brain) Muscle Confusion

If all this forgetting and repeating sounds like it may be getting boring, you’re in luck. As you present yourself with information, variance means switching up how that information is presented to keep things fresh. If you’ve been crushing flashcards, maybe switch to quizzing with a friend, then to writing out definitions from memory. Much like muscle confusion in the gym, you want to keep your noodle on its toes. This variance will develop your ability to recognize information in different settings and contexts, and will also help you get better at identifying situation where the information may be helpful.

Go Forth

If you pick up a copy of Make it Stick, you’ll notice very quickly that the book employs these very methods to assist you in learning about learning, and they seriously work. This is not incredibly new science, but it’s a problem everyone has struggled with at some point in their life so it’s very topical. It’s the same science that powers Duolingo’s language learning application, the same approach taken by athletes training for a big event or musicians practicing for a show.

Your experience scales with your exposure! If you’re not learning and growing right now, ask yourself why. If you’re not pleased with the answer (I can’t think of a good one, personally) then get on the horse and do something about it! Learn how to learn, equip yourself with the skills and know-how to learn anything you’ve ever wanted to, and keep expanding your mind.

Go forth and learn my friends!!!

James Risberg

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Probably talking about the future and gesturing a lot somewhere