Make it Stick

Ok here’s a question for you. 

There are two groups of children. The first group practices throwing a bean bag into a bucket 3 feet away. The second group practices throwing into buckets both 2 and 4 feet away, but never 3 feet. The next day, the groups are mixed and the children have a competition throwing bean bags into a bucket 3 feet away. Which children do better, the ones who practised throwing at a bucket 3 feet away, or the ones who had never done so?

Surprisingly it’s the second group, the ones who had never tried throwing from 3 feet, that did better. Considerably and consistently. 

This is because their practice was interleaved, and is one of the many fascinating and scientifically-verified ideas about learning the authors of Make It Stick elucidate and explain in their wonderful book. If you have any interest in learning, you should read this book. It’s hands-down fantastic.

The structure of Make it Stick is split between the earlier chapters, which focus on scientifically-backed study methods, and the final few chapters, which focus more on mindset and case studies of how students have actually used the methods explained in the first half of the book.

There is so much here and the insights from Make it Stick can help us to improve at so many things. For instance, to return to the idea of interleaving:

Just as with the children throwing the bean bags, the same happens in tests done on Major League baseball players who practice only hitting, in sequence, fast balls, then curve balls, then splitters, vs players who hit all kinds of balls mixed up. The players who don’t know what was coming next score better in games, even though they had done worse in the practice; train like you play!

This idea of interleaving doesn’t just apply to physical activities either. In another study described in Make it Stick, students were asked to learn the paintings of some lesser known artists. Some of them learnt all the paintings from one artist, and then moved onto the next one (“Massed Students”). Others learnt the artworks all jumbled together (“Interleaved Students”). 

Remarkably the Interleaved Students were:

i) better at discerning which painting was from which artist; it was the differences between the artists’ styles, and not the similarities, which allowed students better to distinguish between them. This has been replicated in studies about maths questions; students asked to do multiple kinds of question mixed up performed better in tests than those who had practised the same questions split by category.

ii) also better at distinguishing artistic styles from artworks they had never seen before; the Interleaved Students were able to transfer their knowledge from one domain to another, to generalise what they had learnt and so see patterns more easily than the Massed Students.

A slight tangent

You might be thinking “Surely something’s wrong here. Isn’t doing lots of something the way to improve and get really good? Don’t we need something like 10,000 hours of dedicated practice?”

The answer to that is that, yes, doing more of something will of course help you improve (you can’t expect to be a concert pianist without ever practising BUT the insights from Make it Stick show that we can improve (and so get to a level we are happy with, which is really the aim of all of this) without (blindly) dedicating our lives to one thing.

Many of us have several priorities, which we’re always balancing. Using the lessons from Make it Stick means that we can balance these competing priorities better. There are two parts to this:

  1. Either, we can spend less time doing the same thing; the same benefit accrues from using a more efficient method. This might, for example,  mean learning something sufficiently well for an upcoming, weekly test, and so freeing up time to spend on other things (work or play!)
  2. Or, if we really want to improve, we can do so by spending the same amount of time using more efficient methods. This might mean doing your absolute best in your final, end-of-year exams. 

Today there is a bit of an epidemic on having things externally verified, of making decisions backed by data, and there are a number of useful tools (such as the Anki flashcard app, as well as innumerable smart watches, etc) which support/pander to this desire. Even if we are not actually tracking ‘data’, it is, I suppose, satisfying to this ‘need’, to know that how we’re learning is the most effective method. 

Conclusion

Make it Stick is a thoroughly fascinating, continuously engaging and extremely accessible collection of insights into the benefits for learning (academic or otherwise), which we can derive from cognitive psychology. I highly recommend it to literally everyone.

PS As I’ve noted elsewhere before, there are tonnes of useful resources out there to help you improve your learning processes (if that’s what you want to do). The Learning Scientists blog is one of my favourite regular reads. See my page on Anki flashcards for more. 

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