In his book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), Peter C. Brown uses cognitive psychology data to identify 8 concrete learning techniques proven to enable learners to encode, store, and retrieve long-term memories.
Brown’s 8 Techniques from Make It Stick
1. Generation — This is the process of attempting to solve a problem before being taught the concepts or method (i.e., trial and error; experiential learning). Generation “leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” While critics of generative learning often believe direct instruction is more a effective method of instruction, the reality is that while students may seem to pick up concepts faster using direct instruction, information is less engrained, and thus more-quickly forgotten. E.g., Math teachers in Ontario, Canada loved using generative learning by presenting problems at the start of class, and letting the students try to figure them out. “Hopefully the students will struggle. That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later.”
2. Interleaving — A method of introducing a new idea or concept, then layering in an additional concept (or concepts) over time. Mixing up practice of similar types of problems has two benefits. 1) It requires the learner to identify the type of strategy to use in addition to simply solving the problem. 2) It helps learners’ brains differentiate between differences in the types of problems. E.g., The author, Peter C. Brown, shares the example of two groups of baseball batters. One practiced the same pitch in blocks. The other group was thrown consecutive different types of pitches. The later group performed better.
3. Spacing & Forgetting — Space out your study. The idea is to provide time for your mind to forget what’s in your short-term memory and then re-encode the material. “Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice.” Retrieval practice is especially effective after a lesson is complete, perhaps even a few days or weeks later. You’ll know it’s time to go back to interleaved material when it is on the fringe of your memory.
4. Elaboration — Explain the new material in your own words. If you are able to do this, it is a good indicator of concrete understanding of the material (E.g., Reddit’s subreddit, Explain it like I’m 5.) Elaboration is especially effective when material is taught to someone else, which adds social motivation and feedback components. The book says, “elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
5. Retrieving — “Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by re-reading. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than re-reading the text or reviewing lecture notes.” Re-reading has three strikes against it: 1) It is time consuming. 2) It doesn’t result in durable memory. 3) And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. Using flashcards is an excellent and simple example of practicing retrieval. “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits: 1) It tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. 2) Recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.” Practice guide: http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/RetrievalPracticeGuide.pdf
6. Reflection — The combination of retrieval practice and elaboration, which strengthens and adds deeper meaning to new material. “Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory [e.g., ‘What did she say again?’], connecting these to new experiences [e.g., ‘How does this new information fit into my existing mental model of the universe?’], and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time. [e.g., ‘How can this new information change things?’]” Basically, analyze and apply the new material by asking yourself questions.
7. Calibration — To avoid various cognitive illusions, use an objective instrument (e.g., quiz or test) to adjust your sense of what you know and don’t know. “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.” “The paradox is that those students who employ the least effective study strategies [reviewing notes] overestimate their learning the most and, as a consequence of their misplaced confidence, they are not inclined to change their habits.”
8. Mnemonic Devices — Until a learner develops a deep understanding of a subject, he/she can resort to memory cues, such as mnemonic devices (e.g., memory palaces, mind/cognitive map, etc.) to improve long-term memory. Conscious mnemonic devices can help to organize and cue the learning for ready retrieval until sustained.