I appreciate anecdotes, but I’ve been passionate for a long time about finding out what science says about how people learn in general, and how people learn language, and why people choose to learn anything. It’s what makes Brain Rules and Drive my top two books from the last decade to recommend to any teacher.
So this year, I was especially pleased that the book chosen by our #langchat community as the #langbook read over summer break was Make It Stick (Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel).
First, my major caveat: this is not a book about language learning, and I feel like the subtitle “The Science of Successful Learning” is even a bit misleading and perhaps would be better rendered “The Science of Successful Remembering.” The book is really about lower-level thinking skills, I think, primarily knowledge and its application. (But as this blogger says in his thoughtful review, “knowledge is as important as imagination because knowledge is what allows us to imagine.”) For our classes, particularly vocabulary falls heavily in that realm, and so I recommend you read this book and this blog post with this essential question in mind:
How can scientific research help students better learn vocabulary for long-term retrieval?
Now, let me go through some suggestions Brown et. al give us for how to make it stick, with my favorite quotes.
To Learn, Retrieve
In order to put information in long-term memory, learners need to practice retrieving these memories. Retrieval practice cements learning, and,
the kind of retrieval practice that proves most effective is one that reflects what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later.
But don’t just retrieve. In retrieving, learners need to connect new information with old (we’ve known this for a while; turns out it’s brain fact).
Knowledge is more durable if… you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory.
What does this mean for language learning? It means practices in which we continually ask students to retrieve language in a way that connects to something meaningful – project/problem-based learning, life skill activities, application to what students want to do with their lives – is going to make it stick for them.
Mix up your practice
Learners don’t just need to retrieve the memories; they need to retrieve them in different ways.
Interleaving and variation mix up the contexts of practice and the other skills and knowledge with models more versatile, enabling us to apply our learning to a broader range of situations.
“It’s hard!” students often whine. (And so do we, eh?) What we really ought to be doing is saying, “Yes! It’s hard! How can I make it harder!” This one challenged me: as it turns out, easy is not preferable. I’m still ruminating on this one.
Two familiar lessons… some difficulties that require more effort and slow down apparent gains–like spacing, interleaving, and mixing up practice–will feel less productive at the time but will more than compensate for that by making the learning stronger, precise, and enduring. Second, that our judgments of what learning strategies work best for us are often mistaken, colored by illusions of mastery.
Added effort increases comprehension and learning. (Of course, learning will not improve if the difficulty completely obscures the meaning or cannot be overcome.
The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation…. Being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still.
Even strategies that are highly likely to result in errors, like asking someone to try to solve a problem before being shown how to do it, produce stronger learning and retention of the correct information than more passive learning strategies, provided there is corrective feedback. Moreover, people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery.” Failure is “an essential experience on the path to mastery.
This doesn’t just mean we should make it hard and leave it there. We need to make it achievable. It’s true there are desirable difficulties;
if, however, the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.
Avoid illusions of knowing
Another key to making it stick is to realize what you don’t know, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you know it when you don’t.
To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.
The authors discuss a model involving two systems of knowing. System 1 is what they call the acquisition, the “automatic system,” the one that is “unconscious, intuitive, immediate.” System 2, on the other hand, is the “controlled system,” the monitor, the one that “considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control.” I’m considering what it might mean to think it’s okay to encourage and access this System 2 in language learning; I know that I monitor my language production continually. I monitor more than I don’t, and you know, it works for communication. I may not be quite as fast as if my past perfect subjunctive ending were intuitive, but it works for me.
A problem is, according to the authors, that System 1 can be fooled, can give us illusions. Our “training and professionalism can be hijacked by System 1 illusion.” I don’t know what this means in world language learning, or if it can be considered to work here, but I’m thinking about it.
When we are supporting an illusion of knowing (I have been guilty of this and the field is fraught with it!),
Personal narrative is invoked to explain emotions… It is nearly impossible to avoid basing one’s judgments on subjective experience.
Another pit we often fall into is wondering why our students aren’t picking this up as quickly as we think they should, or as quickly as we think we remember we did:
What psychologists call the curse of knowledge is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task that we have already mastered.
Another part that gave me (good) pause and food for thought, being a teacher on a journey trying to move from a teacher-directed training to a student-centered practice:
When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled. Our susceptibility to illusion and misjudgment should give us all pause, and especially so to the advocates of ‘student-directed learning’…we know that students need to take control of their own learning by employing strategies like those we have discussed… but few students practice these strategies, and those who do will need more than encouragement if they are to practice them effectively.
Get beyond learning styles
I had long heard conflicting information about learning styles; I enjoyed reading some actual fact about what the research was saying. A team of researchers was commissioned in 2008 to find out whether learning style claims were supported by scientific evidence, and to summarize with a quote from this review:
There is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learner’s preferred style of learning.
Yes, learning style research is almost all invalid with shoddy evidence, BUT:
When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.
According to Sternberg, perhaps a better way to look at the issue is to consider analytical, creative, and practical intelligence instead, and take a multi-directional approach to learning (spoiler, the multiple choice test isn’t it):
different cultures and learning situations draw on these intelligences differently, and much of what’s required to succeed in a particular situation is not measured by standard IQ or aptitude tests, which can miss critical competencies.
What does this look like in practicality? In language learning? To start, let’s use more images:
Humans remember pictures more easily than words. (For example, the image of an elephant is easier to recall than the word “elephant.”) So it stands to reason that associating vivid mental images with verbal or abstract material makes that material easier to retrieve from memory.
For more, check the summary on the book’s website here.
Increase your abilities
Great news: “I can’t” isn’t permanent! You actually can increase your ability. To summarize from this blogger’s review:
Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
And this is why Growth Mindset is on my list of must-reads for 2016. (#LangBook?) Why make the effort?
Effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability…. The nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities.
- Explain to students how learning works.
- Teach students how to study: retrieve often, retrieve in different ways.
- Create desirable difficulties in the classroom.
- Be transparent. (Watch more of the Black Box and you can be more transparent about what’s possible in language class learning!)
Best takeaway and challenge for 2016:
Get started without knowing what you’re getting into
In their chapter on desirable difficulties, the authors introduce us to Bonnie, the “blundering gardener,” who more or less stumbled into being an expert in the field of gardening. I love, love, love what she says about “blundering;” it so resonated with me and is a key difference for me between sitting and wishing I were doing something and actually starting to do it:
Blundering means that you get going on your project before you have figured out how to do it in the proper way, before you know what you’re getting into. For me, the risk of knowing what you’re getting into is that it becomes an overwhelming obstacle to getting started.
What is it you want to start with your students that you’re not starting because you want to know what you’re getting into? Give up some control and get rid of that overwhelming obstacle: Let’s do something great (together?) in 2016 without knowing what we’re getting into. Maybe it won’t work out. But the effort may just “extend the boundaries of our abilities.”