Pinning Learning

The ancient philosopher Demetrius taught that overcoming obstacles is a lot like wrestling: you need know only a couple of moves really well to be successful.[1] I’m wondering if teaching students how learning works might be similar: provide them with a couple of solid options for increasing intellectual strength and aptitude so that they can learn to use them well.

Make It Stick provides one such list that a student named Timothy Fellows used in subjects that were outside of his major but made his success stand out in a very difficult psychology course. If you’ve read even snippets of Make It Stick or previous posts of mine on the text you’ll recognize a number of strategies. Here they are from pages 216-17:

  1. Always does the reading prior to a lecture
  2. Anticipates test questions and their answers as he reads
  3. Answers rhetorical questions in his head during lectures to test his retention of the reading
  4. Reviews study guides, finds terms he can’t recall or doesn’t know, and relearns those terms
  5. Copies bolded terms and their definitions into a reading notebook, making sure that he understands them
  6. Takes the practice test that is provided online by his professor; from this he discovers which concepts he doesn’t know and makes a point to learn them
  7. Reorganizes the course information into a study guide of his design
  8. Writes out concepts that are detailed or important, posts them above his bed, and tests himself on them from time to time
  9. Spaces out his review and practice over the duration of the course.

Granted, some of these strategies we can reinforce: don’t assign readings you’re not going to provide accountability for by way of a graded reading quiz or reading reflection. If you take notes, show them how to distinguish between essential and non-essential information. And it’s not enough for you simply to post this list on the syllabus and wash your hands of the matter. You’re going to have to walk the students through the list and explain how to use the strategies well. Make It Stick makes much ado about “relearning” information. It’s work. So, where #4 says that Timothy “reviews,” “finds,” and “relearns,” you’ll need to explain that these verbs don’t mean “re-reads.” That’s the most widely used, most ineffective method students use. Here would be a great place to show them what testing themselves looks like and doesn’t look like.

Consider also #7. Reorganizing course information into a study guide of the student’s design allows you to emphasize one of the mantras of Make It Stick that’s clipped on page 222: “Learning, like writing, is an act of engagement” (222). Say it again: re-reading is NOT engagement. Engagement agonizes in a back-and-forth struggle over the content whereby the student generates responses to questions, debates similarities and differences, imagines explaining the concepts to a friend who’s not in the class, connects new ideas to concepts learned earlier in or outside the course, et cetera. There are practically no limits to learning when we see learning synonymous with meaningful engagement. I bet students will get very creative once they’ve learned this one concept. They need only a couple of key moves.

[1] Seneca, De Beneficiis 7.1.4.

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