Make It Stick!

by William Guth and Jeanne Kerl

How do you know that what you’re teaching is truly sticking with students? Do their test scores reveal it? Or does that only show that they remembered and recalled it for the exam? Do students leave you confident that they can apply skills and knowledge when they’ll really need it?

One man with the answer to that question is Mark McDaniel, psychologist, researcher, professor, and co-author of the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.  

An expert in human learning and memory, McDaniel recently delivered his “Toolkit for Teachers to Improve Student Learning and Retention” at Northwestern’s popular speaker series TEACHxperts. The toolkit consists of four tangible techniques that teachers can apply in their courses to improve student learning.

  1. Generate Understanding,
  2. Space study and instruction over time
  3. Mix – Don’t Block, and
  4. Practice Getting Out vs.Getting It In

One of the techniques that stuck with me most from this presentation was “Mix – Don’t Block.”

Courses are often taught in blocks, or as a sequential list of topics. For example, one week we will cover  A, next week B, and the next week C. For the most part, we seek to construct learning so that B depends on A, and C depends on B. But, even when that is the case it, we may end up asking students for simple, rote memorization that undermines a student’s ability to solve more ambiguous, real world problems.

McDaniel used the example of Geometry students studying the volume of three dimensional shapes. Students were broken up into two groups and both groups were required to solve 30 volume problems: 10 cube, 10 cylinder and 10 cone. The equation for each item was unique. Group 1 was asked to solve all thirty problems in blocks of ten, 10 cube problems at a time, then cylinder, then cone. Group 2 was given problems in mixed or random order.

In an immediate test (or quizzing), the block group students performed slightly higher than students in the mixed group, although students in both groups scored well. In the same test a month later, students in the mixed group scored the same or better, while students in the block group scored far below their previous test scores.

Technically speaking, both groups practiced the equations repetitively. The mixed group, however, had to determine the problem and identify the solution, rather than knowing the solution in advance of the problem.

The “Mix – Don’t Block” technique not only serves to break up the monotony and intermixes the practice of related constructs, but also replicates what happens in most real life problem solving situations.

All of the strategies that McDaniel recommends to instructors involve students generating knowledge instead of simply, passively accepting knowledge. In the Geometry example, mixing forced students to figure out which equation was appropriate to use, not just apply an equation that they’d memorized. Here are the other strategies recommended by McDaniel:

  1. “Generating understanding” involved immediately having students actively use newly acquired knowledge. So, students might be asked to turn to a classmate and explain a concept that they’d just read about. Immediately having to explain the concept forces students to make immediate connections to what they already know.
  2. Spacing study over time means that instructors very consciously make their assessments more cumulative in nature. Revisit concepts from the beginning of the class again in later weeks. Put quiz questions from week 1 on the test again in week 6. Tell students that you’ll be doing this and why you’ll be doing this–that it will enhance their learning and influence their study habits.
  3. Practice “Getting It Out vs. Getting It In” means asking students to produce or generate knowledge as often as possible. Simply reading notes right before an exam is not an effective way to learn. Instead, ask students to explain concepts often. Have them do quick writing exercises where they have to teach you a concept. Try peer teaching or clicker polling. Incorporate frequent, low-stakes quizzes in which students have to retrieve information from the course.

All of these methods involve students actively working with concepts from your course more often, and returning to concepts over longer periods of time. These strategies have been proved to make learning stick. Being transparent with students about why you are using these methods is also an important part of McDaniel’s approach.