Make It Stick Monday

Dr. Henry Roediger on Memory and Learning

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Dr. Henry Roediger was on campus May 16th as the keynote speaker for TLTCon, speaking to us retrieval techniques as an aid to learning. He is an expert at in the area of “applying knowledge from cognitive psychology to the realm of education,” having authored over 175 articles. You may have seen his name in recent blog posts on the TLT website, where we have been promoting his book Make it Stick in preparation for TLTCon 2019.

You may have guessed that I would jump at the chance of podcasting a conversation about memory and learning. Initially, I thought a conversation about memory and learning would be especially important for foreign language instructors, and I was not disappointed. What I also found out was that Dr. Roediger and I have a shared admiration for Plato’s dialogue the Theaetetus. So, I will apologize for amount of time that you have to hear me prepping question 2. If, however, you have ever referred to a memory as an “impression” or “image,” or have described remembering and forgetfulness in terms of “recalling” or “misplacing” or “being clear” or “not clear,” you are participating in this conversation that Plato began two and a half millennia ago. I think it will be worth a listen. In the last third of this podcast, Dr. Roediger takes some time to discuss how his studies in memory have changed the way he teaches.

I hope you enjoy!

Make It Stick Monday

On Minds and Water Puddles

TLTCon is just over two weeks away, and I want to draw your attention to an important concept that Roediger highlights in the last chapter of Make It Stick called “generation.” I’ve referred to it in conversations as the “generating effect.” I most recently discussed it in a writing workshop for faculty on the Pomodoro Technique. One of the tricks I suggest for staying focused is creating a triangular card with “Generate,” “Outline,” and “Edit” written on the individual sides. As silly as it seems, seeing “Generate” written on the prompter keeps me focused on simply getting thoughts out.

Pomodoro Technique aside, I have noticed there is a residual effect of this practice. I will be busy doing something else hours after trying to work through a textual problem in Plato, Epictetus, or Galen, and a potential solution surfaces. Think of it like a dolphin’s dorsal fin that you might see while relaxing at Isle of Palms: you’re not expecting it, but it’s suddenly visible.

Make It Stick validates my experience. They cite John McPhee who describes generation in this manner:

In short, you may actually be writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

I remember the generating effect most clearly in February 2015. I had spent the hours of 4-6 am on my dissertation’s second chapter and struggled with reconciling Plato and Aristotle’s similar but unique descriptions of how our imagination works. I was befuddled. So, I headed out on a three-mile run that took me past Kinnick Stadium and the University of Iowa hospital to the Iowa River. Snow lay thick on the banks, and the temperature was below 0. Lights from the Iowa River Corridor glinted from a thousand icy boughs. It was chilly but mesmerizing. Somehow, between the onramp to the green bridge and the art building reading Vita brevis ars longa est, a solution emerged. Clearly. Quietly. Resolutely. Like a friend stepping out from a crowd.

It happens frequently enough for me to believe that the temperature and brilliance of that wintry morning were not the causes.

The writers of Make It Stick argue, however, that the generating effect also occurs with learning. The key, they insist, is that learning has to be understood as engagement (222). The process demands that we confront the issue head on, wrestling with the problem as an opponent, and then give the solution time to emerge. Here’s how they understand the generating effect:

Struggling with the puzzle stirs your creative juices, sets the mind to looking for parallels and metaphors from elsewhere in your experience, knowledge that can be transferred and applied here. It makes you hungry for the solution. And the solution, when you arrive at it, becomes more deeply embedded with your prior knowledge and abilities than anything pasted onto the surface of your brain by PowerPoint.

Thinking about learning in this manner makes me wonder if our minds aren’t more like water puddles. Figuring out problems means we step into the problem, stamp about in it, and stir up the bottom. The solution will come, but we may have to give the contents time to settle before we can see it clearly.

Image of a young person hidden behind a large stack of books with the heading What I Learned from Make it Stick. Practical applications from the science of learning.
Make It Stick Monday, Pedagogy, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

What I Learned from “Make it Stick”

Much of our understanding about how we learn is flawed.  The typical advice given to students is single-minded, focused repetition, reflecting the belief that if we expose ourselves to something enough, we can burn it into memory.  This is called “massed practice” by cognitive scientists and “cramming” by students. Given this advice, it should come as no surprise that one of college students’ most commonly reported study habits is to re-read their textbook or their notes.  Unfortunately, this and other forms of massed practice are some of the least-effective methods of learning!  As Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel write in their book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

“The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject” (p. 16).

However, despite the research demonstrating that simple repetition does not lead to long-term retention, we rely on massed practice because it can produce quick results. But it’s an illusion of mastery — the retention of information is short-lived and does not encourage the application of knowledge to novel situations.  Most students don’t know this, and many aren’t bothered by it as long as they can pass the exam. So it’s our responsibility to help students see the benefits of using the following research-supported techniques to improve their learning.

Spaced Practice

When faced with an exam, many students engage in cramming or pull “all-nighters.” While this practice may help some students pass, the information is quickly forgotten. In contrast, spaced practice divides studying into installments, allowing time to elapse in between.  One of the best ways for students to employ this technique is to study their notes and quiz themselves each week (not after every class or waiting until midterm time).  Why does this work? Embedding new information into long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, during which neural connections are progressively strengthened and new information is linked to prior knowledge.  Research indicates that allowing yourself a little time time “forget” is a good thing because it then requires extra effort to retrieve the piece of information from memory. And the more often you retrieve that information, the stronger those neural connections become.

Interleaved Practice

The typical way we teach is to cover one concept until most of the students have learned it, then move on to the next concept.  Consider the typical textbook — it is organized around massed practice, with each self-contained chapter dedicated to one concept.  But interleaved practice means you shift back and forth between different concepts or skills. For example, one week you learn how to find the volume of a spheroid; then the next week, you learn how to find the volume of a cone.  The week after that, you move onto another concept, eventually coming back to the spheroid.

Students may become frustrated by this alternation because they leave a concept before they’ve fully mastered it, only to return to it later.  Yes, it can feel messy; but the rewards are substantial. For example, one study found that while massed practice resulted in students scoring higher on tests taken immediately after learning a concept, interleaved practice resulted in significantly better performance weeks later, indicating long-term retention.

Varied Practice

Varied practice means employing multiple methods or approaches. For example, a baseball player uses varied practice to hone their batting skills by asking for random pitches, thus improving their ability to identify and respond to each pitch.  This is opposed to asking for 15 fastballs, then 15 curveballs, then 15 change-ups, which would be a form of massed practice. Neuroimaging studies suggest that different types of practice engage different parts of the brain and this encourages greater consolidation.  By using a variety of techniques, you are broadening your understanding of the concepts and the relationships between them.  For example, rather than self-quizzing yourself with flashcards that are always in the same order, shuffle them each time and then ask a friend to quiz you.

Although the research strongly supports spaced, interleaved, and varied practice, it’s important to recognize that they require significantly more effort and feel slower.  This can be frustrating to students and they may be tempted to go back to their “old ways” of massed practice. For example, research has demonstrated that even when participants have performed superiorly using spaced, interleaved, and varied methods, they still believe they learn better using massed practice!

So it’s important for teachers, coaches, and parents to share the research with students and spend time explaining the benefits of these approaches.  In Making it Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel suggest emphasizing the following fundamentals when talking with students about learning:

  • Some struggle is okay.  When learning requires effort, you’re actually learning more.
  • In contrast, when learning seems easy, it’s often superficial and soon forgotten.
  • Our intellectual abilities are not solely dependent on our genes.  When learning is effortful, it actually changes the brain, making new neural connections and increasing intellectual ability.
  • You learn better when you struggle a bit with a new problem, trying to solve it on your own before being shown the answer.
  • Failures are an essential part of learning.  It is through our mistakes and setbacks that we discover essential information about the concepts and ourselves, which help us to master the material.

Instructors can stress these fundamentals in their classes by incorporating “desirable difficulties.”  When learning is easy, students don’t retain information and are less able to apply that information to novel situations.  But designing your classes to be “trial by fire” swings too far in the other direction. Making a few small changes to your teaching can help you find that desirable midpoint, where greater effort leads to greater learning.  Give these strategies a try:

Incorporate frequent quizzing.  This requires students to continuously practice memory retrieval, which encourages greater consolidation, known as the “testing effect.”  But before you start quizzing your students, there are a few important stipulations.  First, make the quizzes count towards the course grade. While we would love our students to complete quizzes simply for the joy of learning, most require extra incentive.  That being said, the quizzes should be relatively low-stakes.  The purpose of these quizzes is to practice retrieval, not to have an anxiety attack each week.  Keep in mind that one need not use quizzes to achieve these goals.  Writing exercises, problem sets, and other forms of assessment can also be used.

Second, avoid the pop quiz.  Pop quizzes are only effective at intimidating students into coming to class.  For most students, they do not encourage actual learning. But quizzes that students know about in advance do.  Rest assured, these assessments do not need to be lengthy or require labor-intensive grading (there are countless instructional technologies that can help facilitate this process, including OAKS).  

Third, design quizzes to be at least partially cumulative.  This requires students to reach back to concepts covered earlier in the term, developing deeper understanding and more complex mental models.  Remember: greater retrieval efforts equal greater learning.

Finally, occasionally assign quizzes that students complete before they learn new material.  This may seem strange, but a pre-quiz encourages students to consult their previous knowledge to help them grapple with new ideas.

Encourage memory retrieval during class.  You don’t need to use daily or weekly quizzes to encourage memory retrieval and consolidation.  During lecture, every few minutes, ask students a question that requires them to connect the dots between a new concept and a previously learned one.  Their first instinct will be to consult their notes or flip through their textbook, but tell them to resist this urge and take a moment to think. It’s important that you actually give your students enough time to think and also ask them to write down their thoughts.  Does this mean you won’t cover the same amount of material in a single class period? Most likely. Does this mean you’ll have to prepare thoughtful, purposeful questions in advance? Yes. But you’ll be encouraging your students to actually learn, rather than sit passively like zombies. I think that’s a worthwhile exchange.

Another, more active, strategy is to ask a question you know students struggle with and often come up with competing answers.  Ask volunteers to write those answers on the board (maybe narrow them down to three options). Next, ask students to vote on the answer they think is correct by holding up that number of fingers.  Students then find someone who is holding up a different number of fingers and share how each arrived at their answers.  During that discussion, the students are encouraged to come to a consensus and be able to articulate why they think their answer is correct. This exercise encourages students to retrieve information learned from previous classes, practice metacognition, and engage in peer teaching.

Incorporate more metacognition activities.  Thinking about how we think is an essential component of learning.  Such reflection requires us to retrieve previous experiences and knowledge, connect them to new experiences, formulate alternative perspectives, and visualize outcomes.  All of these cognitive activities lead to stronger learning.  One simple way to incorporate metacognition into your classes is to ask students, after completing a major assignment, to write a paragraph about how they prepared and what they would do differently next time.  This process involves retrieval (What did I do? How did it work?) as well as generation (How could I do it better or differently next time?) and elaboration (How can I explain my thinking to another person?).

Provide practice tests.  Students can (and should) practice memory retrieval outside of class as well.  Self-testing is often disliked by students because it requires more effort than simply rereading the textbook or copying their notes over and over.  But the greater the effort, the deeper the learning. Encourage students to use the Leitner flashcard system, participate in a study group (that actually studies), and provide students with practice tests.  If you provide corrective feedback on these practice tests, even better. This allows students to identify gaps in their learning and prevents them from retaining incorrect information.  Practice tests are also a useful teaching tool because the results enable you to identify areas of struggle or misunderstanding.

I hope this post has illuminated the research on how we learn best and has provided at least one strategy that you can incorporate into your classes to achieve that “desirable difficulty” and improve student learning.  You don’t need to completely restructure your entire course to incorporate this information. As James Lang argues in his book Small Teaching, fundamental pedagogical improvement is possible through incremental change.


Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing. Memory & Cognition, 36, 604-616.

Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34, 40-41.

Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: Free Press.

Goode, M. K., Geraci, L., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Superiority of variable to repeated practice in transfer on anagram solution. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 662-666.

Leeming, F. C. (2002). The exam-a-day procedure improves performance in psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 210-212.

Lyle, K. B., & Crawford, N. A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38, 94-97.

McCabe, J. (2010).  Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462-476.

Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15, 243-257.

Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382-395.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007).  The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.


Make It Stick Monday

A Question for Roediger

Okay. So, we’re about three months away from the day that Henry Roediger will descend onto the College of Charleston campus and deliver an inspiring speech on helping students learn. I can’t wait. I’m also anticipating his response to some questions his book has created for me.

The most impactful idea for me is the role that forgetting plays in the learning process. Let me retrieve that one for you. According to Roediger and friends, learning information requires a healthy amount of forgetting the information: we learn, we forget, we re-learn. Relearning moves information from short-term to long-term memory. He recommends that we allow enough time to pass after teaching a lesson for the students to forget most of it, so that they are forced to relearn the information. Relearning is where more permanent learning occurs. But what’s a healthy amount of forgetting?

Consider summer school work for K12 students. Each year, teachers assign seemingly more summer work for students to prevent forgetting their lessons. In some cases, summer work is so much they may as well not have had a summer break at all, and whether teachers actually do something with the work in the fall—well, that’s another issue. The trend, nevertheless, seems relatively new. I realize that I turned 40 last September and education has changed substantially since the 1990s. But summer work happened on a construction site for me, not in a textbook or work packet. If my kids don’t work weekly, they’re up that creek without a paddle come August. It’s a lose-lose: I feel like a bad parent unless I stay on them and like a bad parent for staying on them.

Is it possible that Make It Stick is suggesting summer break may be a healthy time to forget some things stored in short-term memory so that relearning portions in the Fall can have its intended, healthy effect? In other words, Dr. Roediger, should we encourage students to enjoy their summer with less structured academic work, encourage them to read what they want, let them forget some algebra skills (they’re not all dust in the wind), so that they can relearn certain concepts and actually move that learning from short-term to long-term?

To be clear, I’m not trying to get on the better side of my 13-year-old son. He’s diligent and kind but not one who’s going to prefer graphing linear equations to making stop-motion videos in July. No, my question is more sincere than that. I’m currently learning Algebra I for the second time in my life, and I’m pretty damn good at it this time around if I do say so myself. Granted, my reasons for learning it a second time differ from the ones that guided me then. In middle and high school, I learned because I wanted to earn the A, and now I want to help Asher when necessary.

But I digress. My point is that after 27 years of letting myself forget, it’s sticking. A lot better. Thoughts, Dr. Roediger?

Make It Stick Monday, TLT

Making It Stick – Increase Your Abilities

Chapter 7 of Make It Stick is called “Increase Your Abilities.”  The chapter is a conglomeration of related topics devoted to showing people can increase their learning abilities.  There is a section on “neuroplasticity,” a term neuroscientists are using to describe the ability of the brain to change physiologically based on the formation of synapses.  Another section answer the question “Is IQ Mutable?” with a resounding “Yes!” arguing that certain factors influence IQ levels such as economics and family dynamics and demonstrating that average IQ is up 18 points since a hundred years ago thanks to public education.  Carol Dweck’s research in “Growth Mindset” gets some space, too, which amounts by-and-large to the idea that “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”  The chapter ends with two sections on “Deliberate Practice” and “Memory Cues,” both of which fall within the context at the intersection of the book’s pressing theme—memory—and the chapter’s—the learner’s perspective.  For those of us who are turned on by personal development, it’s a dizzying array of evidence akin to looking out the top floor of the Empire State Building.  Well, almost.

The question I kept asking myself, however, while reading was, “This is great information for the learner, but I’m an instructor.  To what extent am I responsible to show students how to learn?  Is it not enough that I can show them to recognize and read an ablative absolute?”  I’m not sure if it’s an “age old” question for educators, but it strikes at the crossing of teaching vs. training.  The dichotomy may be false.  If, however, we look at teaching mores so as content-focused and training form-focused, much of what we do as teachers is communicate content.  How much of teaching learning’s form is the teacher’s responsibility?

(Before I go on, I offer as a reminder that CofC does have a space devoted to teaching students how to “study smarter.”  It’s called the Center for Student Learning and provides workshops on time management, note taking, writing research papers, etc.  If you need to point students to this space and its helpful workshop calendar, you can click here.)

Chapter 7 should encourage us in several vital ways.  First of all, believing in your students’ ability to learn is vital to enjoying your time and communicating your love for what you teach with students in the classroom.  The evidence is overwhelming in showing that our evolution as a species has made us capable of adapting to many different challenges throughout our lifetimes.  Even the evidence that suggested IQ windows begin closing after the first few years of life is largely false, according to the writers (175).  The onus is on identifying carefully our students’ baseline in order to create rigorous learning experiences that challenge and inspire them.

Secondly, Chapter 7 shifts the focus from performance to growth.  We get students from all walks of life, from many different family backgrounds, and from all over the world.  Most have three-quarters of their lives left to live after college.  If learning truly is a life-long endeavor and we advocate this perspective openly and often to students, teaching them how to learn is the most important thing that we can offer.  Information changes; the conclusion from research we painstakingly communicate to them will likely change or our understanding of what the information means will change.  References to “recent studies” are time-sensitive.

Allow me to shift gears in order to consider my initial question differently.  Perhaps you and I share the childhood experience of hearing the story from Hebrew mythology of Cain the farmer and Abel the shepherd: Cain gets jealous of Abel’s ability to please God and kills him.  A story of sibling rivalry at its most vicious.  The most haunting part for me has been the question God asks Cain: “Cain, where is your brother Abel?”  I call the question “haunting” in two respects.  The first is simply that this question haunts Cain and prompts him to reply with the infamous “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  In a second sense, however, the question is haunting because the answer is “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.”  As a story from mythology, it prompts us to consider the human situation: what responsibility does one human have toward another?  What responsibility do I have toward those I encounter?

If this story applies at all to teaching, then my responsibility as a teacher is so much more than simply delivering content.  I personally feel called to helping students see the power of their ideas and abilities. In this sense, I can be my brother’s keeper.  It is appropriate, since today is devoted to remembering the work and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., to consider some of King’s words on this theme.  He consistently refers to the responsibility one person has to another.  In some of his final words to us from the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King insists:

Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

Let’s bring this back around to teaching. Ancient Greece had a proverb “Nothing in excess” that I believe applies to this teaching predicament. On the one hand, there is content that we have to communicate, analyze, and assess. But there is also the process of learning that needs to be taught. At times, this process feels rudimentary. How many times do we need to teach proper research methods, assess writing mechanics, etc.? In these moments when we feel the frustration of teaching students the process of learning, which is often less fun than the content that we find so fascinating, remember that someone took the time teach us so that we get to enjoy the vocation of working in higher education.

“Dangerous unselfishness”—what a powerful, transformative gaze to cast toward education.

Assessment, Make It Stick Monday, Pedagogy, TLTCon

Killing our Darlings

The following is the third post on the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Henry L. Roediger, III will be the keynote speaker at this year’s TLTCon, May 16-17, 2019, on the campus of the College of Charleston.  Attendees will receive a free copy of Make It Stick at a registration event on March 14, 2019 to promote Roediger’s visit and the learning experience. Click the hyperlinks to read blog posts on “effortful retrieval” and “varied practice” as learning strategies.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  That’s advice from William Faulkner where he is encouraging writers not to shy from deleting favorite but useless passages from manuscripts.  It may be helpful advice for teachers, too.   Few theories are as dear as learning styles theory (LST), which urges teachers to use a variety of presentation methods to meet preferred modes of learning.  If you believe the grammar of chapter six’s title “Get beyond Learning Styles” expresses the writers’ true feelings about LST, you’re correct.  Move past it.  Get over it.  Research suggests the theory is overrated at best and dispiriting at worst.

We shouldn’t be surprised at their argument, however, given LST’s “perverse effect” (148) of subordinating hard work to style preference.  Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel have made it abundantly clear that effort is key to learning.  That’s the one note they’ve been blowing all along. The sooner we jettison “easy learning is the best learning” the better.

That said, we should consider whether a chapter debunking learning style theory is nothing short of a “Get out of jail free” card for us instructors—i.e., we don’t have to worry about how we teach since learning is really up to the learner.  Such is not the case.  In a previous blog on “effortful retrieval” (ET) I highlighted the limitations of “dipstick testing”—i.e., testing that measures a student’s short-term memory.  These tests can also be called “static testing” because they measure a student’s learning at a specific time in the same way that a dipstick tells us where the oil level is while we’re at the BP on Highway 17 at 3:15 pm on Monday, November 26, 2018.  The information is helpful for the moment but could quickly become irrelevant if an engine valve is going out or the oil plug is faulty.  In short, there are more precise measurements to take if we really want to know how the Honda Accord is running.  Enter dynamic testing, a term we could have predicted.  Dynamic testing aims at

determining the state of one’s expertise; refocusing learning on areas of low performance; follow-up testing to measure the improvement and to refocus learning so as to keep raising expertise.  Thus, a test may assess a weakness, but rather than assuming that the weakness indicates a fixed inability, you interpret it as a lack of skill or knowledge than can be remedied (151).

If this description rings with Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset, you’re right, and there are at least two important takeaways for instructors.  The first is represented directly from the above excerpt: offer testing regularly for students to assess their weaknesses.  They can redouble efforts to improve weak areas and check for improvement with subsequent testing.  Certain course formats are more suited for this type of testing and follow-up testing, gaming being perhaps the best.

The second takeaway is more applicable to a wider variety of course designs: clearly identify what skill(s) we are testing.  As teachers, we can too easily be guilty of giving tests that simply cover content areas.  Ill-defined testing yields useless information.  Call it non-information or—better yet—Statistically Hopeless Ill-defined Testing.  Would any one of us be satisfied by going to the doctor and having to sit through a barrage of tests only to be told we’re “sick” at the end of the appointment?  “Sick with what?” we demand.  That diagnosis isn’t good enough for you or the doctor, and more testing will ensue.  The same holds true in cases where Professor Z announces, “There will be a quiz on chapter 10, pages 253-75.”  What’s being measured?  Students who earn a D on a quiz so poorly defined only know that they are below average in chapter 10, pages 253-75.  That’s not helpful, and it’s not education.

Providing our students with clearly articulated objectives prior to testing is essential to dynamic testing.  The clarity lets the students know exactly what skill they are being tested on.  As instructors, we should be able to finish this statement for every graded assignment: “This [test, quiz, writing assignment, etc.] measures the student’s ability to . . .”  (Nota bene: I recommend Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy Action Verbs to formulate and scale objectives.) The student should be able to verbalize the objective(s) in return.  If we can’t say precisely what we are testing, let’s save ourselves the irritation when grading and students the bewilderment of blindly reading over information in hopes of reaching unforeseen goals.  That’s a darling everyone can do without.

Make It Stick Monday, TLT, TLTCon

Cross-training and Learning

Nota bene: The following post considers “Mix Up Your Practice,” the third chapter of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Dr. Roediger will be the keynote speaker at the College of Charleston during TLTCon, which will be held May 16-17, 2019.

“Students just didn’t perform as well as I thought.” “I’ve spent my afternoon grading a lousy round of quizzes.” “I didn’t think my expectations were too high, but these tests proved they were.” Ever say one of these? Numerous times in my thirteen years of teaching I’ve felt the exasperation of wondering how my painstaking trek through lessons, skills, and concepts has left me with the same expression Stephen Colbert wore on the eve of November 8, 2016: “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show anymore.”

For our “Make It Stick Monday” blogpost, we are highlighting some surprising findings regarding skill mastery: “Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility” (47).  Sounds messy, right?  Perhaps even chaotic, but Roediger and company offer some helpful insights.  Here’s a sample of their evidence:

A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class.  Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away.  The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away.  After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket.  The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two-and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets (46).

I’ll pass over the fact that kids tossed beanbags into buckets for twelve weeks and consider a study that looks a little more relevant to us at College of Charleston.  After being shown how to find the volumes of four geometric solids, one group of college students practiced solving problems grouped by type while another group practiced solving them with a mixed (i.e., interleaved) sequence.  Just to be clear, the first group had four problems on the wedge, four on the spheroid, four on the spherical cone, and four on the half-cone; the second did the same problems but in random order. Initially, group one outperformed group two, averaging 89% of the problems correct to group two’s 60%.  A week later, nevertheless, group one was out-performed by group two, averaging 20% correct to group two’s 63%.  The authors conclude that “The mixing of problem types, which boosted final test performance by a remarkable 215 percent, actually impeded performance during initial learning” (50).  Do they have our attention now?

Let’s assume for the time being that the findings are correct.  What do these studies advocate?  The initial takeaway is the focus on long-term results instead of short-term gains.  There are pros and cons to this perspective for both students and teachers.  Students are not going to feel the satisfaction of a mastering step 1 before moving on to step 2 and so on.  Keep in mind, however, that mastery is not a short-term issue.  To master something is to demonstrate it in the final analysis, and spaced out, interleaved, and varied practicing is going to feel a lot more like real work—an ethic completely compatible with critical thinking.  When is the last time you’ve had a student tell you, “I love hard work”?  Don’t hold your breath waiting for that response.

The other takeaway, though, may compel us to give the “mix it up” concept a chance.  These studies insist that we must be able to articulate very clearly what we are guiding the students toward in terms of functionality.  What are students ultimately being trained to do?  What are the “movements” they must be capable of performing successfully?  Most of my teaching has been in ancient languages, which means that I ultimately want students to read in the original language Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Pericles’ funeral oration for the Athenian dead, Cicero’s orations, or Horace’s satires.  Their ability to move about in text thick with Genitive and Accusative absolutes, mixed conditional statements, subjunctive and optative moods, etc. hinges upon their ability to pull all of their knowledge together, not just parse φαντασία or mensa in isolation.  “I read Greek and Latin because I love grammar” is not something I’ve ever said or heard from a colleague.  Yet, that’s the impression our textbooks often give.

In thinking about this concept of spaced out, interleaved, and varied practice, I wondered if there are parallels in physical exercise that suggest something similar to this type of learning exercise.  Something about Make It Stick smacked of cross-training and—lo and behold—some thoughts on the popular CrossFit website caught my attention:

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.  All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movement, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.  These are the core movements of life.

That last statement gets me: “these are the core movements of life.”  Functionality in the physical sense means that I need to be able to walk, lift, bend, sit, stand, run, twist, turn, pull, etc. and do them in unlimited combinations.  An inability in any one of these movements leaves me struggling to get into my car for the ride to work.  Or think of functionality in terms of competitive sport.  How many times did my basketball coach have us stop running drills so that we could simply scrimmage?  Why? Because ultimately, he wanted us to be a great basketball team.  Who cares if we were able to run a 1-3-1 trap defense in practice on the right side of the court when an opposing guard during a scrimmage saw we were unable to cope or when he brought the ball on the left side or down the middle?  Scrimmaging made us functional as a team because it forced us to connect our various movements.

The importance Make It Stick places on spaced out, interleaved, and varied practice reinforces a certain skepticism I’ve long harbored toward venting sessions, where instructors place all of the blame on the shoulders of seemingly incapable or “lazy” students.  Granted, I’m still waiting on a student to tell me he loves figuring out Thucydides’ use of the Dative case, but then again I never confessed to loving Callimachus’ poetry during Professor Depew’s “Hellenistic Greek Poetry” class.  (Take my word for it: that stuff is hard, and we should all just leave it to Aaron Palmore over in Randolph Hall to have his fun.)  It stands to reason, though, that if a high percentage of the students can’t seem to “get it”—whatever that may mean in the various contexts of our courses—we may need to “mix up [our] practice.”  It can’t hurt to try.