At some point you’ve likely heard a student in your introductory science course complain, “I don’t understand what went wrong…I studied a lot for this test, knew all the material, and still got a poor grade on the exam.” While talking with the student, you learn that his studying consisted of hours of reading, rereading, and highlighting the text and class notes a few days before the exam. How do we mentor this student to develop study habits that promote deep, long-lasting conceptual learning rather than surface-level, short-term memorization?
In the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, cognitive scientists specializing in the study of learning and memory, together with novelist Peter Brown, tell engaging stories of how people learn in a way that allows them to successfully apply their knowledge and skills. At the same time, they aptly introduce the scientific evidence for highly-effective learning strategies.
Throughout the book, the authors describe how some commonly-used study strategies are unproductive in the long term and suggest alternative, research-based learning strategies. For example, the student described above used massed practice to cram for an exam by rereading the text soon after the first reading. This gives one the impression of mastery of a subject because the text becomes familiar. In contrast, research indicates that this study method involves short-term memory rather than deep learning. A more beneficial study strategy that is supported by research is retrieval practice, which involves recalling information from memory. To implement this strategy, while reading a text, a student should describe main ideas in his own words, frequently ask questions about what was just read, self-quiz, and attempt to connect new ideas with what was learned previously. Although this recommended approach seems unproductive to the student because it is slower and requires more effort, retrieval practice that is spaced and interleaved (mixed with other topics) involves some forgetting, and the increased cognitive effort required to re-learn leads to higher levels of conceptual learning and application. Teachers can promote retrieval practice by asking questions during class and by implementing frequent announced quizzes. Moreover, if the quizzes are cumulative and include corrective feedback, students will be motivated to continually retrieve previous course concepts, helping with memory.
In addition to intertwining personal stories with relevant research on memory and learning, the authors provide a brief “takeaway” section of key ideas at the conclusion of each chapter as well as notes about the empirical research and references for further reading at the end of the book. The final chapter includes descriptions of instructors who find improvements in student learning from implementing the evidence-based learning strategies in the book, as well as a useful summary of learning tips for students, life-long learners (all of us), teachers, and trainers. For example, the authors recommend that teachers explain to students how people learn, teach students how to study, use frequent announced low-stakes quizzes and practice exercises that include both new and previously covered concepts, and include opportunities for reflection. In addition to clear benefits to the students, these strategies benefit the teacher as students display improved attendance, better class preparation, and improved attention during class. Furthermore, frequent quizzes provide valuable feedback on student performance for the teacher to adjust instruction. Make it Stick is an excellent book on learning and memory, and I recommend it for both teachers and students who want to better understand how learning occurs and how to study effectively.
In many ways, our memories shape who we are. They make up our internal biographies—the stories we tell ourselves about what we've done with our lives. They tell us who we're connected to, who we've touched during our lives, and who has touched us. In short, our memories are crucial to the essence of who we are as human beings.
That means age-related memory loss can represent a loss of self. It also affects the practical side of life, like getting around the neighborhood or remembering how to contact a loved one. It's not surprising, then, that concerns about declining thinking and memory skills rank among the top fears people have as they age.
What causes some people to lose their memory while others stay sharp as a tack? Genes play a role, but so do choices. Proven ways to protect memory include following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar in check. Living a mentally active life is important, too. Just as muscles grow stronger with use, mental exercise helps keep mental skills and memory in tone.
Are certain kinds of "brain work" more effective than others? Any brain exercise is better than being a mental couch potato. But the activities with the most impact are those that require you to work beyond what is easy and comfortable. Playing endless rounds of solitaire and watching the latest documentary marathon on the History Channel may not be enough. Learning a new language, volunteering, and other activities that strain your brain are better bets.