Thursday, July 9, 2015

Make it stick- the science of successful learning

Students struggle with really learning information. At test time, teachers often wonder why some students appear to look at review material as if it had never been seen before. This is especially true when comprehensive reviews occur. Clearly there is a disconnect in student learning and teacher presentation. Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel's book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, addresses this issue.

Their eight chapter book discusses how learning is misunderstood and then addresses a spectrum of methods to improve learning and wraps up with a large chapter (55 pages) that addresses implementation and provides some case studies to demonstrate how to pull it all together. While the authors incorporate lots of stories throughout the text to demonstrate their points, they balance nicely and really reinforce the ideas.

They premise the book with three ideas: learning requires memory, we need to learn and remember throughout our lives and learning is an acquired skill. This means that it behooves us to learn how to improve our learning with a special emphasis on improving our memory.

The chart below showcases some of the authors' key ideas.

                KNOW this, DO this
NOT this
·         Learning is more durable if it is effortful
·         We do not judge our knowledge well
·         Quizzing and self-testing work to assess and cement learning
·         interleaved (mix up what you are practicing- addition and subtraction facts, volcanoes and glaciers, Civil War and geography) and spaced practice cements learning
·         retrieval practice that asks you to incorporate past and present learnings
·         solving problems related to the topic, even before you have learned it, helps prime the mind for learning
·         all new learnings require a foundation of prior learning- Ground new information in known information
·         Elaboration- expressing new learnings in your own words
·         Learners need to extract key information and create mental models
·         Mnemonics are effective at creating long term memories and enabling retrieving them
·         Learning changes the brain- correcting mistakes leads to advanced learning
·         If it is easy to learn, it is less likely to stick with you
·         We overestimate our learning
·         Rereading does not work for learning
·         Massed practice is less effective (a lot of practice on the same thing in a short period of time)
·         Cramming does not lead to learning
·         Highlighting is generally ineffective at enhancing learning

One thing that really struck me was the idea that effortful learning is more durable. As someone who did not try to bring home the good grades that I received, I had difficulty learning how to study. The idea that learning is hard work is foreign to many students. To struggling learners, they get that it is hard, but fail to see the pay off- they often use ineffective strategies, fail and give up.

Long have I spoken to kids about active versus passive learning, studying and reading. My more successful ones get it, are willing to put in the time and energy and find that even though they have learning disabilities, they can be successful. Students who try to short cut the process, ignore the process, or hope that somehow I or their other teachers can pry open their skulls and put information in there over the course of a class, do not do so well.

Repeatedly the authors highlighted the role of self-quizzing in learning and studying. Not only does this allow for accurate assessment of knowledge, it provides practice with the information and identifies where further attention needs to be focused. In a class this could be seen in a closure activity such as:
Today we learned how to factor equations. Spend the next ten minutes writing an explanation of how to do this and provide an example.
In studying it could be seen in creating flashcards, using a program like Quia or Quizlet to practice facts, solving problems at the end of a chapter of a math text, or tracking down old test questions to work through. Alternatively, it could be making and practicing mnemonic devices to assist recall. In reading, we suggest making predictions or using a reading comprehension strategy such as using a graphic organizer or SQ3R for kids reading at the level of text) or RAP.

Most current math texts get the idea of interleaved practice. Each lesson includes a couple of review problems. The problem is that we often do not assign these problems. I am working with a student in math. Everyday her homework includes several problems of the sort introduced that day, some from previous lessons within the unit and then some from past activities that she struggled with. If I fail to use this approach, she is unable to preform on tests. Social studies and ELA teachers interleave information when they ask their students to write an essay comparing something from the current unit with something from a past unit. For example,
Compare the technological innovations of the Revolutionary and Civil War. How did they determine the outcome of the war?
Martin Luther King Jr. and  Frederick Douglass both worked for civil rights. Compare their approaches and the effectiveness of them.

Authors use repetition to express theme. Looking at 1984 and The Giver, show how the authors used repetition in their novels to share the theme they explored.
Explain how Sarah from Sarah Plain and Tall is similar to Max from Where the Wild Things Are. 

Science examples might be:
Compare how you created the hypothesis for this experiment with the last one.

Compare photosynthesis with baking cookies.

Explain how photosynthesis and respiration are reverse reactions.

Even better crossing curriculums might be:
Discuss how To Kill a Mockingbird might have influenced the Civil Rights movement.
How did climate of the great plains impact western expansion?

Questions like these ask students to elaborate and create mental models. They will be perceived as more difficult because they are. To repeat myself, however, learning is hard work.

This is a wonderful text about taking ownership of learning. I am definitely thinking about assigning parts of it to my high school students to help them understand what they need to do in order to become effective learners. They are not pitchers to be filled, but rather integral parts of a complex machine. If they want to learn, they need to acquire the skill set to do so and put in the work required.

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