Book Review: Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
‘All the right content, but not necessarily in the right order’
This book conveys a few basic principles which promise to enhance your students’ performance. The authors assume that we as teachers know our stuff, in terms of content – they are suggesting practical ways to deliver that content better. Most of the principles involve doing more or less the same things as we do now, but in a slightly different order: for example, instead of a mid-term test, split things out into a series of mini-tests; instead of only testing on the most recent material, mix up the questions so you test again the things you did a few weeks ago, as well. The authors quote a US lecturer (p38-39): “I now recognize that as good a teacher as I might think I am, my teaching is only a component of their learning, and how I structure it has a lot to do with it, maybe even more.”
Why make time in your busy life to read (some of) this book?
- The content is practical. You can read one chapter and apply the principles in it to your own teaching right away. It will offer solutions to problems you have in your teaching.
- The principles are based on research evidence, including classroom intervention studies, not just lab experiments. There is a very good chance they will work, and students will do better.
- The ideas here are counter-intuitive – you might arrive at them by yourself, but you probably won’t. The ideas are rather refreshing, as a result.
- It is a quick and easy read. My first instinct was ‘why read a whole book on this rather than the review article they already published’ (Roediger, Putnam, & Smith, 2011)? In fact the many examples clarify how the principles work, in different contexts, and I found myself instinctively applying them in my head to the modules I will be teaching this term.
- You don’t need to read the whole book – you can dip in. I found chapters 2-4 most relevant. Chapter 1 is an overall position statement, so you could start straight in with chapter 2. The last chapter is a ‘how to’ manual, so just read the ‘tips for teachers’ (p225-239)?
- The principles in this book underpin the new York Pedagogy. If you have wondered what the new Learning and Teaching Strategy means when it talks about “carefully-designed student work”, then this book will give you practical principles of ‘careful design’ to follow.
- In most of the studies reported in the book, student evaluations of courses which adopted these principles improved significantly.
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating of course. I am about to re-structure a first year core module in line with the principles here, so let’s see. If you do the same, I’d love to hear about it.
Roediger III, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. In J.P.Mestre & B. H. Ross (Eds.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Cognition in Education (pp. 1-36). San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.
Sam Hellmuth teaches phonetics and phonology as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Language and Linguistic Science, and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She was Chair of the Learning and Teaching Forum (2012-2015) but is now looking forward to working as a tutor on the new York Professional and Academic Development scheme.
Making it stick in Biology
I already give one lecture where I try to explain how to make it stick. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows in the tops of trees. The question is how does mistletoe end up in this preferred location and what makes them stick? The answer is that the seed-containing fruits of mistletoe often pass rapidly through the birds that consume them, and the sticky remnants of the fruit fix the seeds to the tree prompting germination. This is a successful strategy that has co-evolved to the benefit of both mistletoe and birds. A series of experiments proves this point, and I expect students to understand and recall them. When reflecting on the success of my teaching through examination scores and student evaluations, it appears I am much less successful than the mistletoe at making it stick.
In reading Make it Stick, I have learnt that the best ways to teach are known and understood, but have been underused and undervalued in my approach. There are many convincing examples demonstrating that the best teaching is embedded in the principles of testing, practice and mastery. The examples from a sporting context are familiar to me. I know where and when I am most likely to drop the ball I am attempting to catch, but the hours spent rectifying this problem have had little impact on my overall catching ability and have even had a negative effect on my confidence. Through experience I know my catching improves when the practice is varied and often, but not prolonged, and that this can be a long term gain. This is all common sense to me, so why is my approach to teaching so different? It is likely that I misunderstand teaching and this is probably a result of the way I was taught.
Seeds turn up in many of my first year lectures in three different modules. Students find out how Mendel laid out the principles of genetics using mutant pea seeds. They also hear how Darwin struggled with his abominable mystery of plant evolution that has much to do with the striking success of seeds. I also explain how our future depends upon developing better varieties of seed crops. For some students these are difficult topics, and it is often hard for students to grasp them all sufficiently well. But all biology students need a foundation in genetics and evolution, and I would argue they need to know about plants too, and in particular why seeds are important. In biology we typically deliver practical labs, workshops and tutorials as well as lectures. This is an opportunity for different interactions with students and a variety of ways for students to work and practice at what they need to learn. Problem solving, experimental design and testing hypotheses should help make them better biologists, but I realise I haven’t yet designed this work around the different interactions we offer sufficiently well to embed the key principles I discuss in my lectures. I think Make it Stick offers me good advice on how to do this effectively without increasing my workload. My challenge is to find variety in the practice that will help students to better engage in their learning. If I can do this, examination and evaluation scores should both rise, although I may never reach the heights the mistletoe achieves.