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  • Tony

The Best Way to Revise for Exams- Make It Stick Summary and Review part 3

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

See parts 1 and 2 on active recall, spaced repetition, interleaving and how most people are revising incorrectly.

Learning Styles

You may be able to tell I'm not happy with what schools teach us on revising for exams. A strategy that schools really like to emphasise is that we should stick to our 'learning style'- this is basically the only thing I remember from lectures on revision. And I've always thought this was slightly dodgy but have never been able to explicitly say why. The authors come up with a very good way to articulate this.

Just in case you don't know, schools like to pedal the idea that individuals have distinct learning styles, whether this is visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Basically you learn best through either reading stuff, hearing stuff or feeling stuff. The claim is that we learn information better, when the mode of presentation of that information matches our particular style. I think the reason why I had qualms with this method of thinking is summarised well by the quote 'whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right'.

The idea that you learn best through a single style gives rise to a very fixed mindset. For example, one might say 'I am an auditory learner. Therefore, there is no point me reading a book'. Not only is this a rubbish way to learn, it also limits your potential in all areas of life. Your style of learning is only one aspect of learning more material and there is very little evidence to back this up. According to Fleming's VARK there are 18 different dimensions to learning. Very few studies are capable of testing the validity of the learning styles theory and apparently none are valid themselves and some even contradict it. What these studies found was that the mode of instruction should correspond to the subject being taught- for example, visual for geometry and geography while verbal for poetry. When this happens, all learners learn better regardless of learning style. Nevertheless the authors do acknowledge that the lack of evidence does not disprove the theory. However, this lack of evidence does not justify the huge investments of time and money to assess learning styles and I find this to be very true. Schools should place less emphasis on this and prioritise the strategies discussed in parts 1 and 2.

Elaboration, Generation, Calibration and Reflection

These techniques are rather more niche but are pretty effective- I do most of these myself. The book goes into lots of detail on why these are effective so I won't bother. Note I did find them effective.

Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material. For example, interlinking ideas together, understanding ideas through first principles etc.

Generation is when you attempt to solve a question before knowing how- I find this to be especially useful.

Reflection is a combination of retrieval and elaboration. Basically, you reflect upon what you have learnt- what went well, main takeaways etc.

Calibration is the act of aligning judgements of what you know and don't know with objective feedback. Eg avoiding illusions of knowing through testing. There's a lot of interesting ideas around illusions of knowing in the book.


Make It Stick is a really excellent book and I would recommend this to everyone who simply want effective ways to learn new things. I think it's especially relevant to students, especially since the school system does not teach us how to effectively revise for exams. I found the strategies in this book very useful, effective and more importantly, they are easily implemented, unlike strategies taught at school which usually require lots of effort to do so. The evidence and studies discussed by the book is somewhat repetitive and not useful if you are purely looking for implementable strategies, but are an interesting and convincing read. Lots of the book is somewhat repetitive (spaced repetition and interleaving!) but I recommend it nonetheless.

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