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The Best To Revise For Exams - Make It Stick review and summary part 1

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Learning is a very intuitive thing that we do throughout your lives. From learning to speak to learning to drive a car, we are constantly putting information into our brain- to learn is human nature. However, many of us are trying to learn new things the wrong way. Gone are the days of your 2 year old brain which can pick up a completely new language, having only lived for a fraction of your life. Our brain doesn't simply soak up information like a sponge anymore and we haven't really been taught an effective way to assimilate new concepts since.

I've been at school for more less my entire life and have never been taught an effective way to study. My school has provided talks and lectures from pretty reputable companies about effective strategies but I can 't say that I've used much of what they told me. I think what would have been really useful is to learn the principles behind the strategies- why they're useful rather than that they are. I was given 'effective' but pretty niche strategies that I did not implement them purely because I was not told how effective they were (even now I don't use them).

Make It Stick discusses evidence-based strategies and effective mindsets but also the reasoning behind them to go about learning new things. The ideas in this book are especially relevant for students or anyone who will sit exams but should also useful for everyone. Everyone, in every stage of life, is learning and therefore should benefit from this book. Through luck and trial and error, it turned out the strategies I was using for exams were actually backed by science and discussed in the book. However, after reading this book, I have polished up my strategies and also acquired some new ones.

You're Doing It Wrong

A big theme in this book is the idea that many of us rely on ineffective strategies for learning new ideas. We are poor judges of when we are learning well and may feel that we are learning well when in fact we are not. People rely on strategies that make them feel good, such as rereading text and writing notes.

Many of us adopt a 'practice, practice, practice' mindset and I certainly did in my early school years. Many of my friends adopted this approach too- I recall one friend who spent hours and hours rewriting notes. However, this form of practice- massed and repetitive practice- is very much ineffective. You cannot simply burn something into your memory through single minded, rapid fire repetition. Sure it feels good when you have pages and pages of notes to show for your study sessions and when you are completely fluent in your notes. However, this is the key problem. Fluency gives mistaken signs of mastery. Yes, these strategies feel effective and more rewarding but these gains are only temporary- we a deceiving ourselves with time consuming strategies that do not help us learn.

I find it very surprising to hear about my classmates' study routine- just how many hours they're doing. I really do believe using the techniques laid out by the book would greatly reduce the amount of time you need to study. Because of these techniques, I find that I achieve similar grades despite studying significantly less than my classmates.

If you're interested, Make It Stick has a couple of examples and studies on how massed practice is inferior. Actually, for every claim the book makes there is an example; so if you're interested you should get the book. I am instead going to discuss the main themes of the book, backing up claims with examples sparingly.

The Difficulty with Difficulty

The essence of effective study strategy is the idea that learning must be difficult (effortful is perhaps a better word) for us to actually learn. A really good quote from the book reiterates this: 'learning is deeper and more durable when it's effortful. Learning that's easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.' This is why massed practice is ineffective and why strategies discussed later aren't. Why is this slightly counter-intuitive? or is it intuitive? When learning is difficult, it feels less productive. When the going gets tough and slower, we feel bad. When we make mistakes we have a sense of failure. This is why many students gravitate towards massed practice- it feels both easier and more productive. However, there is much empirical data that shows effortful learning is the key to retaining information (discussed in the book) and every study strategy described in the book capitalises on this idea.

The key mindset shift is to ignore the feeling of being unproductive, the feeling of failure and to embrace difficulties. This is hard. In society, achievement is seen to correlate with ability while lack of achievement is seen as failure. Nevertheless, research has been done that showed that people who made more mistakes ended up learning new material better. This is vitally important. Yes, it may be tough, it may feel slow, it may feel unproductive but when learning is effortful, it is more effective.

However, it is important to note that not all difficulties are good. This is what the book calls 'undesirable difficulties'. An example of an 'undesirable difficulty' would be reading your textbook but written in Welsh. Now unless you speak Welsh, this difficulty isn't exactly going to help you (unless you're learning Welsh). 'Undesirable difficulties' are defined to be situations when the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully and also situations that do not strengthen the skills you will need or kinds of challenges you will encounter. For example, a football player may learn ballet for balance but they probably won't learn the techniques for an efficient golf drive.

All the following strategies are based upon making learning effortful. To reiterate, effortful learning leads to mastery and massed repetition leads to fluency which should not be confused with mastery or long term retention.

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