Make It Stick

by Peter C. Brown, et al.

Cover image

Author: Peter C. Brown
Author: Henry L. Roediger III
Author: Mark A. McDaniel
Publisher: Belknap Press
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-674-72901-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 255

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Another read for the work book club.

"People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways." This is the first sentence of the preface of this book by two scientists (Roediger and McDaniel are both psychology researchers specializing in memory) and a novelist and former management consultant (Brown). The goal of Make It Stick is to apply empirical scientific research to the problem of learning, specifically retention of information for long-term use. The authors aim to convince the reader that subjective impressions of the effectiveness of study habits are highly deceptive, and that scientific evidence points strongly towards mildly counter-intuitive learning methods that don't feel like they're producing as good of results.

I have such profound mixed feelings about this book.

Let's start with the good. Make It Stick is a book containing actual science. The authors quote the studies, results, and scientific argument at length. There are copious footnotes and an index, as well as recommended reading. And the science is concrete and believable, as is the overlaid interpretation based on cognitive and memory research.

The book's primary argument is that short-term and long-term memory are very different things, that what we're trying to achieve when we say "learning" is based heavily on long-term memory and recall of facts for an extended time after study, and that building this type of recall requires not letting our short-term memory do all the work. We tend towards study patterns that show obvious short-term improvement and that produce an increased feeling of effortless recall of the material, but those study patterns are training short-term memory and mean the knowledge slips away quickly. Choosing learning methods that instead make us struggle a little with what we're learning are significantly better. It's that struggle that leads to committing the material to long-term memory and building good recall pathways for it.

On top of this convincingly-presented foundation, the authors walk through learning methods that feel worse in the moment but have better long-term effects: mixing practice of different related things (different types of solids when doing geometry problems, different pitches in batting practice) and switching types before you've mastered the one you're working on, forcing yourself to interpret and analyze material (such as writing a few paragraphs of summary in your own words) instead of re-reading it, and practicing material at spaced intervals far enough apart that you've forgotten some of the material and have to struggle to recall it. Possibly the most useful insight here (at least for me) was the role of testing in learning, not as just a way of measuring progress, but as a learning tool. Frequent, spaced, cumulative testing forces exactly the type of recall that builds long-term memory. The tests themselves help improve our retention of what we're learning. It's bad news for people like me who were delighted to leave school and not have to take a test again, but viewing tests as a more effective learning tool than re-reading and review (which they are) does cast them in a far more positive light.

This is all solid stuff, and I'm very glad the research underlying this book exists and that I now know about it. But there are some significant problems with its presentation.

The first is that there just isn't much here. The two long paragraphs above summarize nearly all of the useful content of this book. The authors certainly provide more elaboration, and I haven't talked about all of the study methods they mention or some of the useful examples of their application. But 80% of it is there, and the book is intentionally repetitive (because it tries to follow the authors' advice on learning theory). Make It Stick therefore becomes tedious and boring, particularly in the first four chapters. I was saying a lot of "yes, yes, you said that already" and falling asleep while trying to read it. The summaries at the end of the book are a bit better, but you will probably not need most of this book to get the core ideas.

And then there's chapter five, which ends in a train wreck.

Chapter five is on cognitive biases, and I see why the authors wanted to include it. The Dunning-Kruger effect is directly relevant to their topic. It undermines our ability to learn, and is yet another thing that testing helps avoid. Their discussion of Daniel Kahneman's two system theory (your fast, automatic, subconscious reactions and your slow, thoughtful, conscious processing) is somewhat less directly relevant, but it's interesting stuff, and it's at least somewhat related to the short-term and long-term memory dichotomy. But some of the stories they choose to use to illustrate this are... deeply unfortunate. Specifically, the authors decided to use US police work in multiple places as their example of choice for two-system thinking, and treat it completely uncritically.

Some of you are probably already wincing because you can see where this is going.

They interview a cop who, during scenario training for traffic stops, was surprised by the car trunk popping open and a man armed with a shotgun popping out of it. To this day, he still presses down on the trunk of the car as he walks up; it's become part of his checklist for every traffic stop. This would be a good example if the authors realized how badly his training has failed and deconstructed it, but they're apparently oblivious. I wanted to reach into the book and shake them. People have a limited number of things they can track and follow as part of a procedure, and some bad trainer has completely wasted part of this cop's attention in every traffic stop and thereby made him less safe! Just calculate the chances that someone would be curled up in an unlocked trunk with a shotgun and a cop would just happen to stop that car for some random reason, compared to any other threat the cop could use that same attention to watch for. This is exactly the type of scenario that's highly memorable but extremely improbable and therefore badly breaks human risk analysis. It's what Bruce Schneier calls a movie plot threat. The correct reaction to movie plot threats is to ignore them; wasting effort on mitigating them means not having that effort to spend on mitigating some other less memorable but more likely threat.

This isn't the worst, though. The worst is the very next paragraph, also from police training, of showing up at a domestic call, seeing an armed person on the porch who stands up and walks away when ordered to drop their weapon, and not being sure how to react, resulting in that person (in the simulated exercise) killing the cop before they did anything. The authors actually use this as an example of how the cop was using system two and needed to train to use system one in that situation to react faster, and that this is part of the point of the training.

Those of us who have been paying attention to the real world know what using system one here means: the person on the porch gets shot if they're black and doesn't get shot if they're white. The authors studiously refuse to even hint at this problem.

I would have been perfectly happy if this book avoided the unconscious bias aspect of system one thinking. It's a bit far afield of the point of the book, and the authors are doubtless trying to stay apolitical. But that's why you pick some other example. You cannot just drop this kind of thing on the page and then refuse to even comment on it! It's like writing a chapter about the effect of mass transit on economic development, choosing Atlanta as one of your case studies, and then never mentioning race.

Also, some editor seriously should have taken an ax to the sentence where the authors (for no justified reason) elaborate a story to describe a cop maiming a person, solely to make a cliched joke about how masculinity is defined by testicles and how people who lose body parts are less human. Thanks, book.

This was bad enough that it dominated my memory of this chapter, but, reviewing the book for this review, I see it was just a few badly chosen examples at the end of the chapter and one pointless story at the start. The rest of the chapter is okay, although it largely summarizes things covered better in other books. The most useful part that's relevant to the topic of the book is probably the discussion of peer instruction. Just skip over all the police bits; you won't be missing anything.

Thankfully, the rest of the book mostly avoids failing quite this hard. Chapter six does open with the authors obliviously falling for a string of textbook examples of survivorship bias (immediately after the chapter on cognitive biases!), but they shortly thereafter settle down to the accurate and satisfying work of critiquing theories of learning methods and types of intelligence. And by critiquing, I mean pointing out that they're mostly unscientific bullshit, which is fighting the good fight as far as I'm concerned.

So, mixed feelings. The science seems solid, and is practical and directly applicable to my life. Make It Stick does an okay job at presenting it, but gets tedious and boring in places, particularly near the beginning. And there are a few train-wreck examples that had me yelling at the book and scribbling notes, which wasn't really the cure for boredom I was looking for. I recommend being aware of this research, and I'm glad the authors wrote this book, but I can't really recommend the book itself as a reading experience.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-06-30

Last modified and spun 2017-07-01