Book notes: Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown

Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown book summary review and key ideas.

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Make It Stick: The Science of Succesful Learning by Peter C. Brown


“To most of us, learning something “the hard way” implies wasted time and effort. Good teaching, we believe, should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier.

Make It Stick turns fashionable ideas like these on their head. Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another. Speaking most urgently to students, teachers, trainers, and athletes, Make It Stick will appeal to all those interested in the challenge of lifelong learning and self-improvement.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I believe this was on sale in Audible and it sounded like an interesting topic to learn about. I’ve read a few other books about learning (linked below) so I’m intrigued by what other insights this book will bring to the table.

Key notes:

Chapter 1: Learning is Misunderstood

  • Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful
  • Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps you learn it
  • Learning is stronger when it matters
    • When the abstract becomes concrete and personal 
  • The idea that repetitive exposure builds durable memory and learning is a fallacy
    • Doing multiple readings in close succession is a time-consuming study strategy that yields negligible benefits at the expense of much more effective strategies that take less time
  • Mastering the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them
    • However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas
  • Testing can be used as a means of learning because it prompts retrieval 

Chapter 2: To Learn, Retrieve

  • Studies show that testing is a better learning tool than repetitive study
  • Studies show that giving feedback, particularly slightly delayed feedback, improves retention more than just testing alone

Chapter 3: Mix Up Your Practice

  • Practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out
  • It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later 
  • Sports adage: “if you practice like you play, you’ll play like you practice”
  • Daily reflection as a form of spaced retrieval practice it’s probably as critical in the real-world application of medicine as quizzing and testing are in building competencies in medical school
  • Sleep helps with memory consolidation so at least one days time between sessions is helpful
  • Beware of the familiarity trap where you think you know something and stop practicing it

Chapter 4: Embrace Difficulties 

  • It’s a paradox that some forgetting is often essential for new learning
    • It’s not that we forget things, it’s that we repurpose cues which makes recall easier for the newer information
  • The more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more practice of retrieval will entrench it
  • Reflection, such as writing to learn, is helpful after learning
  • Retrieval from short-term memory is an ineffective learning strategy
    • Errors are an integral part in striving to increase one’s mastery over new material
  • A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kind of experimentation and risk-taking that characterize striving
  • The qualities of persistence and resiliency where failures are seen as useful information underlie successful innovation in every sphere and are at the core of all successful learning
  • Difficulties are desirable because they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning comprehension and remembering

Chapter 5: Avoid Illusions of Knowing

  • Our understanding of the world is shaped by our hunger for narrative
    • It rises out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events
    • We gravitate toward the narratives that best explain our emotions
      • In this way, narrative and memory become one
  • Hypothetical events that are imagined vividly can see themselves in the mind as firmly as memories of actual events
    • Confidence in a memory is not a reliable indication of its accuracy
  • The better you know something, the more difficult it becomes to teach it
    • As you become more expert in complex areas, your models in those areas grow more complex

 Chapter 6: Get Beyond Learning Styles

  • Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason, see relationships, think abstractly, and hold information in mind while working on a problem
  • Crystallized intelligence is one’s accumulated knowledge of the world and the procedures or mental models one has developed from past learning or experiences
  • One hypothesis says that humans have as many as eight different types of intelligence
    1. Logical-mathematical intelligence – the ability to think critically or with numbers and abstractions and the like
    2. Spatial intelligence – three-dimensional judgment and the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye
    3. Linguistic intelligence – the ability to work with words and languages
    4. Kinesthetic intelligence – physical dexterity and control of one’s body
    5. Musical intelligence – sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music
    6. Interpersonal intelligence – ability to read other people and work with them effectively
    7. Intrapersonal intelligence – the ability to understand oneself and make accurate judgments of one’s knowledge, abilities, and effectiveness
    8. Naturalistic intelligence – the ability to discriminate and relate to one’s natural surroundings
  • Another model proposes three types of intelligence: analytical, creative, and practical
    • Analytical intelligence – our ability to complete problem-solving tasks such as those in tests
    • Creative intelligence – our ability to synthesize and apply existing knowledge and skills to deal with new and unusual situations
    • Practical intelligence – our ability to adapt to everyday life, to understand what needs to be done in a specific setting, and then do it; “street smarts” 
  • High-structure learners and rule-learners are more successful in transferring their learning to unfamiliar situations than unstructured learners and example learners
  • Knowledge is not know-how until you understand the underlying principles at work and can fit them together into a structure larger than the sum of its parts
    • Know-how is learning that enables you to go do
  • Take command of your resources and tap into all of your intelligences to master the knowledge or skill you want to possess
    • Describe what you want to know, do, or accomplish, then list the competencies required
    • What you need to learn and where you can find the knowledge or skill?
    • Then, go get it

Chapter 7: Increase Your Abilities

  • Three cognitive multipliers:
    1. Embracing a growth mindset
    2. Practicing like an expert
    3. Constructing memory cues
  • Learning goals trigger entirely different trains of thought and action from performance goals
  • Praising for someone’s effort is more beneficial than praising for results or natural intelligence
  • More than IQ, it’s discipline, grits, and a growth mindset that imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success
  • Deliberate practice usually isn’t enjoyable and for most learners it requires a coach or trainer to identify areas of performance to improve, help focus attention on specific actions, and provide feedback to keep perception and judgment accurate

Reader’s note: The author is talking about the memory palace technique which was discussed in the book Moonwalking with Einstein

Chapter 8: Make It Stick

  • Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise
  • Quizzing provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you haven’t yet mastered
    • Quizzing also arrests forgetting
  • The more you can elaborate on how new learning relates to what you already know, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you’ll create to remember it later
  • Learning, like writing, is an act of engagement
    • Struggling with the puzzle stirs your creative juices

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was a great book on the topic of learning, how to learn better, and what we can learn from the data and apply it in real life.

I will say that there were a lot of anecdotes and discussions about studies in this book that I felt like took a good chunk of the total text. I think they were great for illustrating a point, but I’m sure it could have been cut a bit short just to be more concise. Otherwise, I had no other major complaints about the book, and I actually learned a good amount from this book.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to optimize their learning strategies and learn more effectively. I think this book would be particularly useful to students who need to learn massive amounts of information for testing. But hopefully they get the takeaway that knowledge is not know-how until it’s tied to the greater underlying ideas and applied.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

One of the biggest takeaways for me would be one of the big ideas overarching the entire book:

  • Active striving makes learning more durable

This idea, combined with the fact that repetitive drilling and memorization of the text not equating to actual mastery of the subject is quite a counter-intuitive idea, at least compared to what conventional thoughts are on the topic of learning.

This reinforces the idea that learning that challenges us such as spaced testing with feedback and connecting to larger ideas are what make learning more lasting.

It also helps when what we’re learning actually matters, and there’s debate on how much of what we learn in school is actually important given that the current education system in America is more formed around profit for the schools than anything else. But that’s a discussion for another day.


The science of successful learning includes making learning difficult, spaced practice and testing, and interweaving with other topics and larger ideas.

Similar books:


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


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