Learning and Making it Stick

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I’ve been reading Make it Stick during the past few weeks.  It’s been a great summer read and it helps that a few people from the #ICTMChat crew has been reading as well.  Reading as a group adds an accountability piece that I think is needed – especially over the summer.

So far I’ve read the first couple chapters.  I’m finding a few gems and ideas that are great to reflect on before school starts back up in August.  I think the first chapter comes out swinging.  It hooked me from the start. I’m also hoping that writing about these first few chapters will help me remember them by the time school starts back up.  The authors suggest that the ways that people traditionally study aren’t the best methods.  What we’re told about learning is misunderstood. Multiple research studies to show that cramming or re-reading text multiples times is often a prescribed method to study.  It may work well short-term, but not long-term.  We now know that reading content repeatedly in a short amount of time isn’t effective.

Chapter two discussed retrieval practices.  One example that I thought was interesting involved using testing as a tool for learning.  I was brought up in an education system where a test signified the end – the end to a unit or end to a bunch of concepts that were studied together.  A grade was plopped on the top of the test and that was that. Once the test was given it was up-and-onward to the next unit.  Researchers found that giving multiple tests (low-risk) with a high cognitive demand helped students perform better on a final exam.  I put the emphasis on low-risk and high cognitive demand.  If the assessments have consequences attached than students might not be as willing to perform.  If tests are too easy or hard, then students might not take the tasks as serious. I see this as a balance.  The words formative assessments come to mind when thinking about low-risk tests with high cognitive demand. Most educators give these types of assessments throughout their courses.  This isn’t new and is often brought up during during teacher evaluation process. Repeated retrieval through the use of these formative assessments or self-quizzing techniques can produce better outcomes.  I see this repeated retrieval taking the form of study guides, formative assessments, exit cards, and even group tasks. While planning out the new school year, I’m thinking of being more intentional in picking spots within a unit to insert self-quizzing and formative assessment opportunities.

The third chapter brought some head-nodding.  Variety is the spice of life – or so they say.  It seems it’s the same in the classroom.  Massed practice of repeating or re-reading the same thing over and over again produces results that don’t last.  Cramming is often the go-to before a big test.  I’ve used it before and I’m assuming you have as well. You might retain something, but it’s generally gone before too long.  I’m into the learning that lasts.  I want what’s being introduced in September to still be swirling in students’ heads in March.  One of the practices that the author highlights revolves around the notion of spaced and interleaved practice.  Spacing out practice sessions gives students time to process new learning while making connections. Interleaved practice is similar to spiraling assignments where students need to recall different processes and find (often informally) the relevancy in how they’re connected.  Varied practice is something I find often at the elementary level. Concepts are introduced and practiced, but not necessarily mastered before moving on to the next sequence. The example of Coach Dooley and his practice regiment was interesting.  Coaches often have their players working on a variety of skills throughout the week. They need to review playbooks, look at tape, work on fundamentals, practice individual skills and practice team skills. Having a schedule in place to address all of these is helpful and the improvements are often slow and steady. According to the research, this type of learning is better for long-term acquisition.  The same can be applied to the education world.

Practice and repetition is an important part of the learning process.  I think this book has me thinking more critically about why practice is emphasized so much.  The research involved makes compelling points.  Students should be given time to practice and process their math experiences. Teachers want students to move beyond memorization and have them apply their learning in different contexts.  Students need to discriminate what the problem is asking and delve into their toolbox to pick the right way to approach the task. Being more aware of interleaving, spacing, and variability practices can help teachers be more intentional in how students practice skills.  Adding a student reflection component to a practice session also helps bridge connections.

I’m actually enjoying the approach of taking my time and reading this over the summer. This post was designed to as a medium to reflect on what I’ve been reading.  I’m looking forward to checking out chapter four over the next week or so.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

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