#0039 - Make it stick

I went through this entire Crash Course on Philosophy in 2018 when I was interested in the subject, but I barely remember key events, people or terms from the course. I’d spent a significant amount of time & energy towards the same, and am now wondering if it even mattered.

I’m sure many of us might feel similarly about our effort towards Calculus, Civics, or even English grammar. Why don’t these remain at our disposal forever?

Personally, I’ve forgotten several things I’d learnt in the past, including C++ & Physics, that were of supreme interest to me when I started them in school. This isn’t restricted to just subjects either. I’ve forgotten a majority of DotA, a game I probably spent 25% of my college time on, and almost all the plot lines of several TV shows from earlier.

I was trying to figure this for quite a while, and thanks to friend’s recommendation, one book that demystified this for me was Make it stick.

It is a phenomenal book where the authors debunk common learning myths and education/training strategies which are built on theories and intuition rather than real empirical evidence.

The 3 part learning process

To set the ground, authors define the 3 step process necessary for learning:

  1. Encoding - New information is received by our brain in the form of chemical and electrical charges. These are encoded into memory traces (or mental representations of the patterns we’ve observed), which are held in our short-term working memory. Most of these memory traces are forgotten.

  2. Consolidation - Material is placed in our long-term memory. Our memory traces are reorganized and connected to past experiences and knowledge in our long-term memory to give them meaning. This process strengthens and stabilizes the mental traces.

  3. Retrieval - We fetch material from your long-term memory. This concurrently strengthens the memory traces and reconsolidates them by connecting them to the new learning.

The book goes on to explain these 3 in detail with a lot of examples, and also analyses the effectiveness of learning techniques / strategies.

How do we learn better?

The 6 effective strategies of learning seem to be:

  • Retrieval Practice. Retrieval practice is about recalling concepts, facts or events from memory. It’s different from “massed practice” which is about repeating something rapidly and single-mindedly to try to commit it to memory.  This is also known as the “testing effect” or the retrieval-practice effect. Generally, taking a quiz is much more effective in reinforcing your learning than re-reading materials.

  • Spacing, Interleaving, Variation. 3 related ingredients that can make your retrieval practice more effortful and effective. The key is to mix things up and vary them, so you break mindless repetition, and simulate retrieval in a way that’s similar to the random and varied nature of real-life challenges.

  • Effortful learning. It’s a myth that great learning should be fast and easy. Learning is actually deeper and longer-lasting when it’s more difficult and effortful, as it helps to reconsolidate memory, create mental models and increase brain neural connections.

  • Learning Structures, not Learning Styles. Rather than focus on your preferred learning styles (e.g. visual vs auditory learning), it’s more effective to focus on building learning structures or mental models of how you learn.

  • Avoid Illusions of Knowing. We are generally poor judges of what we know and don’t know. It is important to differentiate real & conceptual knowledge.

  • You can also use other proven strategies like generation, reflection and mnemonic devices to enhance and deepen your learning.

Is this true?

I’m definitely able to understand why none of my earlier interests stuck around. I never retrieved & applied them continuously post their period of academic interest & payoff, and obviously they did not remain a part of me.

That being said, Make It Stick has provided me a bedrock to start & learn new subjects like Artificial Intelligence & Cognitive Neuroscience that I’m currently intrigued by. Of course, I will keep you posted on the results.