Make it Stick – A Book Review

[by Scott Matthews]

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard, 2014), by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel

In recent years the importance of memory in learning seems to have been not merely neglected or forgotten(!) but in some places actively denigrated as somehow outmoded. As its title suggests, Make It Stick, eschews any such notion. As well as embracing the view that learning is essentially (though not exclusively) about memory, it challenges common assumptions (rarely shared by teachers) that learning should be easy, and locates challenge, its acceptance and the effortful struggle required to overcome it at the heart of the learning process.

make it stick image

Learners often assume that learning is best achieved by what the authors call ‘massed practice’: the ‘repeat, repeat, repeat’ formula, which feels easy (because it involves going back over familiar ground again and again), feels quick (because it seems to generate instant results) and feels successful (because it gives the subject a sense of mastery). For those reasons, the assumption that ‘massed practice’ is the way forward is a difficult one to dislodge. Yet most of the techniques that arise from ‘repeat, repeat, repeat’ – including re-reading, highlighting (ugh!), or copying – are almost, if not entirely, a complete waste of time because no act of retrieval is involved.  At best this kind of approach achieves little because retrieval is at the heart of learning, and at worst it can damage learning because it provides a sense of ‘familiarity’ that deceives the learner into believing that they know more than they do.

By contrast, the authors of Make It Stick identify at least five related principles of successful learning practice: ‘retrieval’, ‘spacing’, ‘interleaving’, ‘variation’ and ‘rehearsal’.


The research behind Make it Stick places low stakes testing (e.g. flashcards, quizzes etc.) at the heart of successful learning. This can begin even before the subject has been taught. The effort learners deploy in trying to score well in a test of knowledge that they haven’t yet been taught is ‘elaborative’ because it forces learners to make connections between their existing knowledge and the new topic, and it is ‘generative’ because it primes learners to receive the information when it is taught.  Being tested (by oneself or by another) is also learning – in that every act of retrieval is a re-encoding of retrieval pathways. ‘Low stakes’ testing takes the sting out of failure and gets learners to appreciate that it is about learning rather than performance.  Retrieval practice should involve quizzing (the more challenging the better) and can involve deploying information in graphical form (e.g. Mind mapping, flow diagrams and ordered lists) and the use of memory devices such as mnemonics (which by their very nature have a built-in feedback loop and frees up mental capacity in exam situations so that less time is spent on re-call and more time thinking about the question).


The time between retrieval practice sessions is as important as the time taken during sessions. This is partly because sleep is a vital part of the learning process and partly because retrieval paths can only be strengthened once forgetting has started. Acts of retrieval therefore should ideally take place when some forgetting has already occurred (so that it is not a case of mindless repetition) but before the learning is so subject to forgetting that it essentially becomes an act of new learning. The more effort required to ‘retrieve’ a memory, the more successful that act of retrieval will have been in establishing a retrieval pathway. Where the attempt at retrieval fails, the effort isn’t lost. It is almost as if the learner’s brain is ‘primed’ to receive that specific piece of information it had been attempting to recall, making its recall more likely in the future.


Under ‘massed practice’ approaches, students typically want to feel they have mastered one topic or skill before moving on to the next one. ‘Sticky learning’ involves interleaving or switching between topics/skills before mastery in one area has been achieved. This removes the sense of temporary mastery that massed practice provides and therefore tends to be resisted by learners, but in fact it is far more successful at creating learning that sticks in the long run because it involves elaborating more numerous and more complex retrieval networks. Interleaving tests of older material with new learning, for example, ensures that learning is cumulative and elaborative.


Imagine two baseball players. The first works systematically on different batting techniques with the help of a pitcher who throws one type of pitch at a time, so that each technique is mastered before moving on to the next. The second practices his batting technique against a pitcher who varies their pitches unpredictably. Eventually both players master all the techniques, but which is most likely to succeed in open play? The second baseball player has not only mastered the techniques (perhaps they have taken longer to do so) but in the process they have also acquired the ability to recognise different patterns of play for themselves and to make split second decisions accordingly. A by-product of their approach has been the development of underlying habits of split-second pattern recognition and discrimination as well as multiple retrieval networks.


This is about looking back and looking forward – reflection and visualization. It is the kind of practice that is well known to professionals in sport or in jobs that require physical skill, but it is also known as reviewing feedback and planning in more purely academic subjects.  Learners in sport visualize what they are about to do before they do it; a golf coach might take apart their client’s swing before putting it back together piece by piece (reflection). Fire-fighters will learn multiple routines for dealing with different scenarios; they not only have to learn to pick appropriate routines under pressure and in limited timeframes, they also must develop the ability to stop and re-think, perhaps mentally rehearsing a new approach quite literally in the heat of the moment. For many professionals (medicine, law enforcement, armed services, fire-fighting), the ability to stop, re-assess, re-visualize, mentally rehearse and re-apply can make the difference between life and death. The stakes are somewhat lower for examinees, but this kind of skill and flexibility under pressure is precisely what learners need.

The payoff

Perhaps the principles of effective learning are not news, but then Make it Stick is a synthesis of research. It causes me to tailor rather than radically change my practice. Its real usefulness lies partly in helping me prepare learners for learning. It helps me prepare learners who face real exams for the first time by directing them towards practices that work and avoiding time wasted on those that don’t. It helps me get them to focus on time quality rather than time quantity. Its usefulness also lies in helping me prepare learners and their guardians (especially those entering A level or Pre-U) for the difficulties of learning and why challenge is a good rather than a bad sign. In sum, it gives me a better idea of what learning activities in and out of school should be achieving, and by having a better understanding of the process of learning, I can hope to build activities that facilitate that process for my students.

For a mind map of some of Make it Stick’s key ideas, click here:  Make it Stick – Brown, Roediger and McDaniel

Make it Stick is available from Amazon.

Make It Stick



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