Two dozen members of the Assumption College faculty met on October 6, 2016 to discuss how they can use teaching methods that will make knowledge stick in the minds of their students. Our conversation was inspired by the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. The book has shot to the top of many reading lists for educators, as it represents a concise and readable account of what we know about human learning from two of the most prominent researchers in the learning sciences, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. These scientists wisely teamed up with a novelist, Peter Brown, to help them create a book of lively, anecdote-filled prose .
Our faculty learning community gathered together over dinner, grouped into tables of eight. After some opening socializing, each table was first given a handout that listed some key quotes from the book:
“Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive . . . Reading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.” (3)
“Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading . . . A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than re-reading the text or reviewing lecture notes.” (3)
“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (4)
“If you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.” (5)
“It’s true that we start life with the gift of our genes, but it’s also true that we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create. In other words, the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control.” (7)
The tables were then asked to spend thirty minutes discussing the following three questions:
- What research or theories from the book were most surprising or intriguing to you?
- Did any of the theories or arguments from the book strike you as implausible, especially difficult to translate into practical teaching strategies, or otherwise unconvincing?
- Have you made any concrete changes to your courses or your teaching as a result of reading this book, or do you have changes you would like to make in the future?
After the discussions at our tables, we convened as a group in order to see what concrete strategies we could take from the book and apply to our own courses. Faculty discussed strategies that they had experimented with in their own courses, those they had heard about or observed in the classes of colleagues, or ideas for new techniques that they could explore in the future. We listed those on a white board, and all took home plenty of great ideas to help our students make their knowledge and skills stick.
One important question that came up in the discussion, and that the authors address in Make It Stick, centered on the fact that students often prefer to use ineffective study strategies because they are easy and work in the short term. The authors cite one study in which students studied and were later tested on their ability to correctly identify the styles of famous painters with two different methods: either through massed study of these painters or through interleaving. In the massed study condition they focused on the work of one painter at a time; in the interleaving condition they studied them in mixed order. The interleaving group performed better on the subsequent exams, and yet–because interleaved study can feel frustrating for new learners–the students continued to express a preference for massed study: “Even after they took the test and could have realized from their own performance that interleaving was a betters strategy for learning,” the authors write, “they clung to the belief that the concentrated viewing of paintings by one artist was better.” (54)
This preference that students have for easy but ineffective learning strategies–such as reading and re-reading their notes, for example, instead of engaging in self-testing or retrieval practice–remains a significant challenge for faculty. Even when we know best how to help students learn, we don’t always find them willing partners. For this reason, we should consider how we can make our classrooms active laboratories of learning in which students get to practice learning strategies–through the kinds of techniques described in works like Make It Stick–rather than seeing them exclusively as content delivery sessions.
Thanks to the faculty who joined us for this event. In the spring we will focus our faculty learning community on Jay Howard’s book Discussion in the College Classroom, in preparation for his visit here in March. Check back on this site later in the semester for more information on our discussion and on Jay’s visit with us.