A few weeks ago, when I reviewed What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Psychology, David Fortin tweeted me to say that the aforementioned book was best read alongside Make it Stick by Peter Brown. I am glad that I followed up on David’s recommendation because I really, really enjoyed Make it Stick. I read it during the Christmas holidays and although I learned a lot and it made me re-evaluate some of what I do in the classroom, reading it never felt like work.
As its title would suggest, the book explains what the research tells us about how we should be learning if we want information to stick in our brains. It is enlivened by stories of students, teachers and professionals who have modelled good practice and improved their outcomes as a result. It covers a lot of familiar ground, including the benefits of spaced practice, low stakes tests, elaboration and desirable difficulties but adds specifics and details which are very useful to the classroom teacher. For example, Brown quotes a research project undertaken at a school in Columbia, Illinois, which compared the benefits of low stakes testing with that of simply revisiting material. The children who were quizzed on the material three times during the semester achieved on average an A- in the end of topic test sat a month later. The children who had simply revisited the material, albeit the same three times, achieved on average a C+. That small example made the power of being asked to recall information very vivid. It’s a slightly different situation, but it made me think that when I do question and answer sessions on previously learnt material, I should emphasise thinking time more and be slower to let my classes look up material that they can’t at once recall. Surely every little instance of having to think, rather than just checking and repeating, should help?
More specifically on the subject of low stakes testing, I have often wondered exactly how testing the questions need to be. Are, for example, short answer tests significantly more beneficial than simple multiple choice ones? The research on this doesn’t seem to be clear cut but Brown says that ‘tests that require the learner to supply the answer[s] … appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false’. He goes on to point out, though, that ‘even multiple choice tests can yield strong benefits’. Whatever kind of test you are doing, it is worth delaying the feedback on the answers. Normally, when I do a low stakes test with a class, it is at the beginning of the lesson, and we mark it straight afterwards, but this book made me think we should wait until closer to the end of the lesson to do the marking because by delaying feedback I would be giving my students two opportunities to revisit the material, rather than just one.
Tests are not the only aspect of learning on which this book has useful and specific advice. It contains two tips on the use of flashcards that I found particularly helpful. The first of these is simply that you should remind students to shuffle their flashcards every now and then because you will learn better if you don’t always encounter material in the same order. The second is never to think of something as permanently learned – there might be some flashcards that you need to revisit less frequently but you should never put them completely aside.
This book also contains a key warning for all teachers that knowing something very well is no guarantee that you will teach it very well. In fact, it might just mean that you add complexity to your explanation that isn’t necessary or helpful to a novice. It might mean that your explanation is based on some unhelpful assumptions. Obviously, this means we need to think through our explanations carefully, but if even our carefully crafted explanations are leaving students puzzled, we should make use of the explanation skills of the class in front of us. Sometimes, as Brown points out, the best person to explain something to a student who is struggling will be one of their classmates. Since getting students to articulate their thinking is already a good idea – it shows what they have understood – that it might have the added benefit of helping someone left befuddled by the teacher’s explanation can only be positive.
One final thing in this book that gave me pause for thought was its musings on the Dunning-Kruger effect. (The tendency of the incompetent to overestimate their own abilities and thus to underestimate the work they need to do in order to improve.) Dunning and Kruger argue that two of the reasons for this phenomenon are (1) a reluctance on the part of teachers and trainers to give negative feedback and (2) an inability on the part of those who are struggling to recognise the mismatch in quality between what they have produced and the work of their most competent peers. The logical response to this would seem to be (1) not to hedge negative feedback with positive comments that might give false reassurance and (2) when working with students who are struggling, make clear and specific comparisons between their work and work of the highest quality. In both of these, though, it will be necessary to proceed with caution, in order not to leave the student feeling completely broken. This is one where balancing pastoral and academic needs will almost certainly mean that one solution does not fit all.