In his book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), Peter C. Brown uses cognitive psychology data to show that many of the basic things we assume about long-term memory encoding are wrong:
1. “I’d better review my notes before the test to make sure I remember everything.”
- Myth: We “master” material by reading and re-reading a passage (or our study notes) until we understand it.
- Truth: This type of “mastery” is an illusion. In reality, you are just becoming fluent, or familiar with the content. For true mastery, don’t focus on cramming information “in.” Instead, concrete learning is best encouraged when learners focus on drawing information “out” of their minds. This may feel uncomfortable, which is what Malcolm Gladwell calls desirable difficulty. Actively retrieve what you remember through self-testing and teaching others.
2. Drill & Kill = subject mastery.
- Myth: We learn “best” when we isolate a skill or knowledge, and drill it until we think we have it down.
- Truth: Short-term memory ≠ Long-term memory. Deep, lasting learning (e.g., exercise) requires effortful practice: “No pain, no gain,” as they say. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand—here today and gone tomorrow.
3. “I’m a visual learner.”
- Myth: Teachers should cater instruction to student “learning styles”! Catering learning experiences to students’ unique learning preferences (modes of instruction such as aural or visual) will help them learn best.
- Truth: “Learning Styles” are complete bunk! (See Paul A. Kirschner’s research.) People do have multiple forms of intelligence to bring to bear on learning, (which is what Howard Gardiner’s research was talking about in the 70s). However, it is true that people learn better when they “go wide,” drawing on multiple aptitudes and modalities, rather than limiting instruction to a single “preferred style.” (See: Dual coding.)
4. “I don’t remember things well. I’m a creative.”
- Myth: We are only so smart. Our IQ defines our capacity to learning and understand. Intelligence is static, which means we have relatively firm limits on how much information we can absorb.
- Truth: By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool!), we exercise and strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is
- Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills.
- Improves students’ organization of knowledge.
- Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts.