Musings About Make It Stick.

I recently wrapped up reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.  I checked a copy from my local library after reading what Meg Craig was posting and an instructor mentioned it at a workshop I attended.  The book was a good mix of theory and narrative vignettes.  My favorite aspect of the book was the avoidance of the authors to prescribe any particular actions for teachers beyond the natural implications of their findings.

When I was thinking about the findings of the authors in relationship to my teaching, I discovered some practices I want to start using more consistently and practices I want to use more frequently:

  • Mixed, Spaced, and Interleaved Practice – The authors of Make It Stick extol the strengths of varied practice compared to massed practice.  Since I plan to try to improve about 4 other things this year, I’m going to lean on the side of caution (read: preserve my sanity) and attempt to create/find mixed practice assignments once or twice a week.  I know it sounds small, but I figure some incorporation of mixed practice is better than none.  If the frequency of these assignments increases as the year progresses, then I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Reasonable Difficulties – From my personal experience and my teaching experiences, I’ve always believed that hard work contributes to stronger learning.  There exists a difference between hard work and trivial hard work, so it is important to recognize the distinction (something the authors of the book acknowledge).  This year, I hope to include more generation activities.  In a generation activity, students are given a problem they might not know how to solve.  While the activity sounds unusual, I know from experience that these activities are valuable for determining student prior knowledge and setting the stage for future instruction.
  • Reflection – I’ve always been dedicated to reflecting on my experiences and learning, so I will continue using reflection activities in my teaching.  On almost every quiz last year, I included a short self-grading activity for students or a reflection question.  It was interesting to read how students describe their learning (some students are very literal, while others refer to effort).  Along with this benefit, I found that a majority of students were able to predict their performance on a quiz.  Reflection helps students recognize their strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Retrieval Practice/Elaboration – Students benefit from having to frequently recall information and apply it, even if the practice feels difficult or unproductive.  An activity I use in the classroom that I immediately thought of when reading this part of the book is the Brain Dump.  During 3rd and 4th quarter, I wanted to change up how my classes were reviewing and studying for tests.  Instead of creating another game or activity, I simply walked up the front of the room and told students, “You’re going to tell me everything you’ve learned during the past unit.”  At first the process was slow going and I needed to prompt students with some questions, then students started offering up concepts, descriptions, and processes.  I wrote everything on the board.  I connected related ideas, but I think I will place this task in student hands next year as a form of elaboration.  The activity was a success because students had to retrieve knowledge and collaborated to flesh out details.  I continued to use this activity for review and I began to call it the Brain Dump after I told students we’re dumping all of the math you learned onto the board for everyone to see.  I plan to continue using this activity and perhaps assigning this task as a memory quiz at the beginning of each week as bellwork.

I recommend reading Make It Stick or Meg’s review for a different take on learning than what many people too often think.  I start my second year on Thursday, so I hope I can take all that I’ve learned this summer from books, twitter chats, blogs, talking with teachers, and a workshop to improve my teaching.


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