© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber. 

  • Emily Rose Seeber

Book Review: Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel


This book is the third in a trilogy of books I have been reading on the cognitive science behind successful learning. The first two were Oakley's book on learning maths and science, A Mind for Numbers, and Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School?. All three books purport to give teachers and learners access to the essential cognitive science they need in order to raise attainment.

Make It Stick offers many of the same messages to teachers and learners as Oakley promotes in A Mind for Numbers and Willingham articulates in Why Don't Students Like School? but it does have different strengths and weaknesses overall. I look at the way the book is structured first, and then I comment on the differences in content.

Firstly, Make It Stick is written with the educated reader in mind. It goes into the cognitive science and does not shy away from technical terminology, although it does clearly define all the terms used. The notes are extensive and the reader is able to challenge the evidence effectively by identifying the sources. In that sense it is a more academic book than either of the other two. Like Why Don't Students Like School, this book has a suggested reading list for the keen student: this is at the end of the book, rather than organised by chapter in the way that Willingham does. Personally, I prefer the suggested reading to be broken up; it means that if I have been struggling with a class on a particular issue and the content in the chapter helps me to envisage some possible approaches, I am immediately guided to further resources to extend my learning and guide further reflection. As a busy teacher, I may never get to a suggested reading list at the back of a book.

Make It Stick is entirely text. Not a diagram in sight. This really surprised me having read Oakley and Willingham's diagram-heavy books in recent weeks. There were a number of occasions throughout where I felt that if I had not read other material prior to this book, I would have found it difficult to understand the concepts being discussed, such as working memory, or reconsolidation. I enjoyed the depth in which these concepts were discussed and the enthusiasm with which the authors launch into the technical aspects, but I did feel that some well-chosen diagrams could have really enriched the experience without detracting from the more academic feel.

There are eight chapters:

  1. Learning Is Misunderstood

  2. To Learn, Retrieve

  3. Mix Up Your Practice

  4. Embrace Difficulties

  5. Avoid Illusions of Knowing

  6. Get Beyond Learning Styles

  7. Increase Your Abilities

  8. Make It Stick

Each chapter is loosely focused around an aspect of learning. For example, the second chapter is predominantly about the cognitive science of forgetting and ways of interrupting the forgetting progress. Chapter 3 is about the cognitive science behind the success of interleaving, and chapter 4 focuses on why learning should be hard and how to ensure that there are sufficient desirable difficulties in the learning to ensure long-term retention. When I say loosely, it is because this structure is very loose. Lots of the areas overlap with each other and there is quite a lot of repetition of the same content with different examples. This is in stark contrast to Willingham's structure in which each chapter is focused around a question which a teacher could ask a cognitive scientist which would help them with their classroom practice. For example:

  • Is drilling worth it?

  • Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?

This changes the focus of the chapter significantly. When I was reading Why Don't Students Like School, ideas about how to put what I was learning into practice came to me as I was reading. This was because Willingham uses examples from a classroom setting to justify his recommendations, alongside 'real life' situations. Brown, Roediger and McDaniel use a wide range of examples from sports, business, the military, etc. - literally something for everybody - rather than examples from education. When reading each chapter I had to force myself to apply what I was learning to a classroom setting. In some sense this is not a bad thing; by forcing me to think about how the science applied to students I had to process the information fully and synthesise it myself, which is recommended for long-term learning. But, in terms of instantly being able to make changes to my teaching, Make It Stick loses out to the more directed competition.

In terms of content, there are many similarities between the three books. for science and maths teachers, A Mind for Numbers, is particularly useful as the content is all subject specific and the examples are all easily transferred into our own classrooms. Oakley does not discuss the cognitive science behind writing better essays, because that is not relevant to her audience. The other two books are not subject specific, and, as a result, have wide-ranging focus. Many of the examples I have read in Brown, Reodiger and McDaniel's book, were in Willingham's too. It is worth noting at this point that Make It Stick was written in 2014, five years after Willingham's. Both books focus on similar aspects of cognitive science, as these are the parts which are relevant for teaching and learning.

One area which Brown, Roediger and McDaniel discuss in depth which is not mentioned by Willingham is the science behind forgetting. This was a very welcome addition as there is much here of relevance to teachers. The authors discuss a study carried out on students in which regular testing is used to break the cycle of forgetting be forcing them to retrieve the information on a regular basis (just as it becomes effortful to remember is most effective). This was really useful information which emphasised the need for students to actively do this recollection themselves rather than just revising the content as a class. This means that although 'testing' is often seen as a dirty word in education circles, cognitive science has shown it to be an essential aspect of long-term learning.

Another area which Make It Stick discusses which the other books in this 'trilogy' skate over, it 'desirable difficulty'. This is when a task is made more difficult to increase the level of focus that the student has to put into the task. This makes the learning pliable again so that students can make new connections, or corrections to their original learning. I tried this on my Lower Sixth class this morning. I wanted them to work on their definitions in physical chemistry so gave them the list of key words with an empty box for the definition beside each word. The twist? I had left out most of the letters in each key term so the students had to work out the identity of the key word first. This significantly slowed down their thinking and made a dull recall of definitions task sufficiently cognitively challenging to engage even the brightest students.

However, despite these redeeming qualities, Make It Stick has one flaw which it cannot be saved from. Throughout the entire book, practice is spelt with a 'c', even when it is used as a verb! This was extremely distracting for a grammar nazi such as myself and I found it difficult to take the authors seriously. Especially as one of them, Brown, is a professional writer who had teamed up with a pair of cognitive scientists, Roediger and McDaniel, to make their research more accessible to teachers! This is a real shame as it takes away from an interesting book on cognitive science which could be very useful to teachers with the time to process the ideas the authors are offering.

Overall, this is a useful book, which, very welcomely, treats teachers as academics, as experts in students' learning. Although there is significant overlap with A Mind for Numbers and Why Don't Students Like School?, for example the extended discussion of the benefits of interleaving students' practice, the additional discussion of the science of forgetting and desirable difficulty is valuable.

It does, unfortunately have a few flaws, however:

  • It does not use diagrams to help readers visualise some of the more abstract scientific content.

  • The chapters meander too much which makes it difficult to pin down the 'take home' message from each section.

  • There are no examples of how a teacher could apply the concepts covered in a classroom setting.

  • To practise, not to practice!!!

Readability: 3/5

Interest: 4/5

Usefulness for classroom practice: 3/5

#bookreview #cognitivescience #pedagogy

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