Book Review : Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

I’ve always considered humans to be natural learners. After all, we’re primed to do it from the day that we’re born. So when I received a copy of Make it Stick I did a bit of a double-take. Was it really necessary to have an entire book on the science of successful learning? No wrangling with the controversies of curriculum content, no international comparisons of pedagogy, just a straightforward guide to the most effective techniques that we can use to learn. It took one chapter before I was convinced my preconceptions were wrong.

Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel are cognitive psychologists who have spent their careers studying how people learn, effectively or otherwise. In recent years, they have focused on translating these findings to education. With the help of storyteller Peter Brown, they have distilled their work into an informative and entertaining book in which they explain their evidence for effective learning techniques and the practical ways that we can apply it.

My favourite aspect of Make it Stick is how cleverly it’s structured. The authors start with a set of claims. For example: learning is effortful; immediate repetition and re-reading are not the best ways to retain information; spacing out practice and elaborating on concepts are far more effective.

Then, over the next seven chapters, they put these principles into practice. They repeat and elaborate on their statements, helping the reader to understand and remember the key messages of the book. Take chapter 3, in which they explain how it is more effective to learn something, move on to another concept and then return, retrieve and build on the original learning, than it is to focus on mastering one concept at a time. In exactly the same way, the authors repeat and expand on their key claims across each chapter.

Thanks to Peter Brown’s engaging style, Make it Stick is an easy read. The chapters are filled with anecdotes that hold your attention regardless of the underlying principles they illustrate. Woven between these stories are explanations of empirical studies, providing evidence to back up claims. For academic readers, there
are useful pointers towards additional details and references in the back of the book.

At times, I found myself so absorbed in the various accounts of sporting success and airline disasters that I risked missing the underlying point of these tales. Overall, though, the balance between evidence and anecdote makes this book apt as stimulating fodder for a morning commute or as an introductory academic text.

As well as explaining the science of learning, Make it Stick includes practical recommendations for teachers, trainers and learners. Some of the techniques promoted, such as frequent testing, may trigger a negative response from readers who associate them with an old-school approach. Reading the book in full, though, it is clear this is not what the authors are aiming for. They are not just providing a list of techniques for effective memorisation: this book is about effective learning and the techniques they recommend can be used to enhance understanding too.

I have three tests for a good book: was it easy to read, would I read it again and would I lend it to someone else? The balance between engaging content and practical, applicable recommendations means that Make it Stick was effortless to read. At times, I did feel myself pressing for the authors to get to the point, but I was entertained along the way.

As someone who delivers professional training programmes and lectures at university, I plan to return to some sections. I am eager, for instance, to start testing some of the techniques in chapter 8. Most notably though, and the slight hitch in this plan, is that I am equally keen to lend the book to a friend who just started a PGCE, another who is a tutor and my co-trainers at work. It may be some time before I have it to hand again.