I have just finished reading Make it Stick and am now even more obsessed with learning than ever!
10 Tips to Better Learning
1. Have a growth mindset and take charge of your own learning. Dedicate time to getting better at the things you care about. Scientific research has proven that our minds are ‘plastic’, ie we have the ability to form new connections and create new knowledge all the way through our lives. Skills and abilities can be gained through hard work and determination – effort, strategies and focus are key. Dedicate time to learning and practising new skills in areas of your life that you care about whether that’s work, parenting, a sport or other creative hobby.
2. Put new knowledge into your own words and relate it to existing knowledge. Write a few sentences about what you’ve learned or tell someone about it. New knowledge is more easily retained if you have existing knowledge to tie it to, which is what makes foundation learning so important.
3. Test Yourself frequently. It strengthens the connections to that knowledge and is one of the most effective ways to make it stick. Testing ourselves also helps us to accurately gauge how much we know (& don’t know). Embrace frequent low stakes testing – whether its testing yourself on index cards, working through practice questions or writing out key points and then seeing what you missed.
4. Space your revision of materials. It’s okay (it’s good!) to forget a bit in between. It’s better to do four half hour revision sessions than one two hour block of studying. Spacing learning makes it likely that we will forget some of what we previously learned – which is good – the increased effort needed to retrieve it strengthens knowledge.
5. Vary your practice. This can feel counter-intuitive as massed practice (ie studying just one thing at a time) feels productive and many people feel this leads to better learning. However, numerous scientific studies have shown that we learn and retain information much more effectively if we vary our practice. One fascinating study divided a group of students into two groups, one that practised only throwing a beanbag into a rubbish bin 3 feet away and a group that practised throwing a bean bag into bins 2 feet and 4 feet away (but never 3 feet away). The two groups were then both asked to throw a bean bag into a bin 3 feet away; the students who had practised only on the 2ft and 4ft bins performed significantly better.
6. Practice deliberately and at a level just above your current ability. Striving, failing, problem solving and renewed attempts are all important parts of deliberate practice. Having an experienced teacher or coach to help design your practice schedule can be invaluable. Also take time to reflect – what might you do differently next time? Reflection is a form of practice.
7. Remember it’s good if it feels hard. Effort-ful learning sticks with us longer. Learning anything new means going through an awkward phase and we’re often not very good judges of when we’re learning most effectively. Errors, provided we’re given corrective feedback, strengthen learning and are essential experiences on the path to mastery.
8. Build mental models. Distil the underlying principles and build a structure. What are the big ideas and what are the supporting elements that add nuance and meaning. Describe and give examples in your own words. It can also be helpful to learn some memory aids/tricks. For example anagrams (ROY G BIV) or memory palace (when you relate items, objects, ideas to a space you know well)
9. Look for objective ways to track your performance. Avoid illusions of knowing and distortions of memory. When we’re incompetent we tend to overestimate our competence. Our memories are also fallible. Familiarity creates a feeling of knowing which can be mistaken for truth and confidence in a memory is not a reliable indication of its accuracy.
10. Go wide and tap all your different intelligences. Don’t get too hung up on different learning styles. Scientific studies haven’t shown a proven link that learning is more effective when material is presented in your preferred style. Practice learning through all different styles and use methods that make most sense given the material. Our judgements of what learning strategies work for us are often mistaken.
Some of my other favourite learning resources
The Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck
How We learn by Benedict Carey
Ted Talk: ‘How to Get Better at things you care about’ Eduardo Briceno