Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Though there are a wide range of personalities that make up our student body, there is one thing that we all have in common—we have to study. While studying might not always be the most enjoyable task for students, it is not typically one we can avoid. Because of this, I have been looking for ways to implement the timeless piece of advice, “study smarter, not harder,” which is what this workshop, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, aimed to provide us with.

The workshop, which was hosted by Science Learning Center director Joe Salvatore, aimed to equip students with scientifically backed study methods that help us retain the material we learn in classes, based off of  Mark A. McDaniel’s and Peter C. Brown’s book of the same title, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. At the start of the talk, Joe quickly surveyed the most popular study habits that were used by the workshop attendees. I was not surprised to hear that a majority of attendees reread their notes one topic at a time while highlighting and underlining what they deem as the most important concepts. What I was surprised to hear was how ineffective these methods can actually be.

Though many students believe that highlighting or underlining important concepts helps commit them to memory, Joe revealed that there was no significant data to back that this information could be recalled any better than the words that were not highlighted or underlined on the page. Additionally, when it comes to rereading notes, especially one topic at a time, students have a tendency to fixate to the beginning of the notes. For instance, if an exam were to cover 4 chapters of a textbook and the student was studying them in order, it is likely that the student will become much more familiar with the first chapter than any of the other chapters. This is even more detrimental when only studying one topic at a time, as many of the exams we take tend to not go in the order that the topics are presented in during class. In order to review concepts in a way that most resembles a testing setting, students are better off studying multiple concepts at once. This increases familiarity with more than the beginning topic and can help quickly identify areas that need more review than others.

Joe then presented us with arguably the most effective study tactics to aid retention. While there were many presented methods, the two that I have found the most helpful after attending his talk are retrieval practice and elaboration. In short, retrieval practice envelopes study methods that require recalling information from memory, without the aid of any notes. One way to use this tactic is to quiz yourself on material soon after interacting with it. For instance, after attending a lecture, write down all of the key concepts that you can recall from the lecture. Though we may not be able to recall every concept during the first iteration, we improve with each successive attempt. In terms of retaining the information we learn, this is extremely helpful because it focuses on studying the concepts, rather than particular phrasing that a lecturer or textbook may use. These concepts can be further enforced with the use of elaboration, which consists of relating material to prior knowledge or real life events we have experienced. Concepts are much easier to recall when they are associated with events that our minds are already familiar with. Though these tactics may not be as easy to put into place as sitting down with your notes and highlighter, they go a much longer way in ensuring that the concepts we are taught can be committed to memory.

As I am quickly approaching the halfway mark of my college career, I have realized that there are always ways to be more efficient in everyday tasks. Though my study habits have become infinitely better than the first semester of my freshman year, Joe’s talk showed me that there are always ways to improve. While retrieval practice and elaboration may be harder to employ than rereading notes, the positive impact on learning trumps that difficulty.


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