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Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.
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Learning is a lifelong process of building knowledge, experiences, and skills, and then storing them in your memory to apply to problems you encounter. But as natural as it may seem, you have to learn how to learn.

Most people hold false beliefs about learning that lead them to use ineffective study methods, such as rereading and drilling the same skill over and over. These ineffective strategies and learning myths are ingrained in our educational system and perpetuated by teachers, coaches, parents, and peers.

By contrast, the most effective learning strategies are often counterintuitive. That’s why this book teaches you how to learn and study based on data about how your brain comprehends and retains information.

The book’s principles and prescriptions draw from a vast number of research studies. Two of the authors, cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, collaborated with other researchers on a 10-year study about how to apply cognitive psychology to improve learning practices, and a number of their findings are included in the book.

If you want to improve your learning, you must first define your goals for learning and studying. This book doesn’t help you simply pass the midterm—it teaches you how to absorb and master new information.

The two main goals of learning a new skill or concept are:

  1. Comprehension: You want to gain a deep understanding of the underlying principle in order to understand how it applies to different situations.
  2. Retention: You need to remember the information when a problem or situation calls for it, and when you get a chance to build upon it with more advanced knowledge.

Improve Comprehension Through Structure Building

When you’re learning something new, instead of simply memorizing the information from your textbook or lecture notes, you’ll gain a more meaningful understanding if you identify the rules, which are the underlying principles that will guide you when you call on this knowledge to solve real-world problems. In order to extract the main principles, you need to be able to weed out extraneous information.

Strategies to identify rules include:

1) Examining multiple examples at once—instead of one at a time—in order to more clearly see the common thread and extract the underlying principles.

  • For instance, if you want to learn more about butterflies, instead of examing species one at a time, study a variety of butterfly species at once and note their similarities and differences.

2) Examining two different problems at once, in hopes of finding similarities or differences that illuminate the rules and help you reach each problem’s solution.

  • For instance, when solving two unrelated problems, such as 1) how to get a large group of firefighters across a river without breaking its fragile bridges and 2) how to treat a tumor without damaging the healthy tissue surrounding it, compare the problems. The similarities (a high volume of something needs to reach a target, but sending it all at once will cause damage) might lead to solutions (direct smaller forces at the target through different passages—multiple bridges or different angles of radiation—at the same time).

Once you recognize the rules, connect those principles with prior relevant knowledge. This process—called structure building—creates context, which deepens your understanding.

Structures help you create mental models, which bring together interrelated concepts or skills into one fluid skillset. For example, driving a car requires knowledge of traffic laws as well as motor skills to push the brake pedal and turn the wheel with the right amount of force. At first, it feels like you’re juggling several skills at once, but experience merges them all into a mental model that enables you to drive without consciously thinking about each individual action.

Mental models are essential for achieving mastery—such as the driver who appears to react instantaneously when another car abruptly cuts into her lane or suddenly brakes right in front of her. The more mental models you have, the better prepared you are to navigate any situation. Additionally, practicing your mental models in a variety of contexts improves your ability to apply them in different situations. For example, if you’re skilled at driving a car in various road, weather, and environmental conditions, you’ll be better able to apply those skills to driving a bus or an RV.

Improve Retention Through Retrieval Practice

Knowing a skill is one thing—but remembering it when a situation calls for it is what counts. And the better you remember something, the more reflexively you can recall that information when you need it.

Many people try to burn information into their memories by rereading, but this approach only commits the information to their short-term memories, making it a waste of time in the long run. Instead, the most effective way to improve retention of new information is through retrieval practice, which is any exercise that requires you to recall what you’ve learned. You can practice retrieval with classroom quizzes, flashcards, self-testing, and reflection, when you assess how you approached a particular problem and how you can improve next time.

Follow three principles to maximize the benefits of your retrieval practice:

1) More difficult retrieval leads to better retention. The harder your brain has to work to retrieve the information, the more firmly it cements it in your memory.

One way to create this “desirable difficulty” is by using generation, which requires you to generate the answer from memory (for example, using flashcards or short-answer questions instead of multiple-choice questions). Another way is to delay your retrieval practice long enough that your memory has gotten a little fuzzy and your brain has to work harder to retrieve the information.

2) **Frequent testing improves retention....

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide Introduction

Learning is a lifelong process of building knowledge, experiences, and skills, and then storing them in your memory to apply to problems you encounter. But as natural as it may seem, you have to learn how to learn.

Most people hold false beliefs about learning that lead students to study ineffectively and teachers to teach ineffectively. These methods include:

  • Rereading a text multiple times
  • Drilling the same skill over and over
  • Presenting information in an easily digestible way
  • Designing lessons that match students’ learning styles

The most effective strategies for deep comprehension and long-term retention are actually counterintuitive to the logic behind the most common methods....

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Shortform Exercise: How Do You Learn?

What are you doing right—and wrong—when you learn and study a new skill?


Imagine you’re in class and the teacher assigns a chapter of reading. How do you approach that text to maximize your learning? (For instance, do you read the text multiple times? Attempt to memorize key facts?)

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 1: What Happens In Your Brain When You Learn

Before we dig into the strategies for maximizing your learning, let’s explore what happens in your brain when you learn.

1) Encoding: When you learn something new, your brain encodes it by creating memory traces, which are mental representations of the information. The memory traces are stored in the short-term memory, as if your brain were taking notes in a notebook.

2) Consolidation: The memory traces in your short-term memory are still somewhat pliable, so the consolidation process strengthens the knowledge and transfers it to your long-term memory. Scientists believe that during consolidation, your brain rehashes the lesson, fleshes out gaps in the memory traces, and connects the new information to your prior knowledge and experiences. This process requires hours or days, and experts believe sleep aids in consolidation. (Shortform note: Read more about how sleep improves learning in our summary of Why We Sleep.)

Compare consolidation to revising an essay: Your first draft is rough but gets the general ideas down, like the encoding process. Then, as you edit the paper, you fill in the gaps and it becomes...

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 2: Improve Comprehension: Identify Underlying Principles

Now let’s explore how to put this information to use with strategies to help you learn and study more effectively.

The two main goals of learning a new skill or concept are:

  1. Comprehension: You want to gain a deep understanding of the underlying principle in order to understand how it applies to different situations.
  2. Retention: You need to remember the information when a problem or situation calls for it, and when you get a chance to build upon it with more advanced knowledge

In this section, we’ll tackle how to improve your comprehension.

Step 1: Rule Learning

When you’re learning something new, simply memorizing the information from your textbook or lecture notes leads to a shallow comprehension of the topic. Instead, you’ll gain a more meaningful understanding if you first identify the underlying principles—the rules. The rules are the common denominators among different examples and contexts, and they’ll guide you when you call on this knowledge to solve real-world problems.

People who are naturally adept at recognizing the key concepts in lessons and situations are rule learners. Rule learners know how to weed out irrelevant information to...

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Shortform Exercise: Improve Your Comprehension

Use this exercise to practice identifying rules and build structures.


What was the last article or nonfiction book (or summary) you read?

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 3: Improve Retention: Retrieval Practice

You’ve extracted the key concepts from a lesson and used them to build a mental model. Now you need to remember the information.

The most effective way to improve retention of new information is through retrieval practice. Retrieval is any exercise that requires you to recall the information or skill you’ve learned. Retrieval practice can take the form of:

  • A classroom quiz
  • Self-testing with flashcards
  • Making up your own questions about key concepts to test yourself later

Think of learning like stringing beads for a necklace: Every new fact, concept, and skill is a bead, and your memory is the string. The beads will simply slide off the other end of the string if you don’t tie a knot to keep them in place. Retrieval is the knot at the end of the string that prevents you from forgetting what you learn. When you repeatedly practice retrieval, you’re double- and triple-knotting the string to make sure the beads don’t slip off.

The better you remember something, the more reflexively you can recall that information when you need it, which is a key aspect of mastery. For example, a quarterback practices movements and scenarios until they become second...

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 4: Spaced Practice: Benefits and Methods

Now that we know that spacing out your retrieval practice improves retention, we’ll discuss why it works and offer some methods for spacing your practice.

Why Does Spaced Practice Work?

As we talked about, when you learn something new, your brain undergoes a process of consolidation, which can take hours or days. Spaced practice gives your brain the time it needs to strengthen the new knowledge and store it in your long-term memory through consolidation.

Additionally, the effort of retrieving the knowledge from your last practice session triggers reconsolidation, further embedding the information.

Spaced practice develops your “underlying habit strength,” which prepares you to use that knowledge when you need it. Spaced practice feels less productive than massed practice initially because you’ve forgotten some of the material and it feels like you don’t have a grasp of it—but that extra effort is precisely what makes the method effective.

Many people resist spaced practice because it doesn’t give them the immediate gratification of seeing improvements as they practice that comes with massed practice, which scientists call “momentary strength.”

However, that...

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 5: Desirable Difficulties Enhance Learning

The learning strategies we’ve discussed improve comprehension and retention because the more your brain has to work, the deeper it embeds the information. In contrast to the belief that when learning is effective when it’s easy and enjoyable, these kinds of challenges—called “desirable difficulties”—improve long-term learning.

To be clear, there are also undesirable difficulties that don’t benefit your learning. A difficulty is undesirable if:

  1. You don’t have the prior knowledge to overcome and learn from the difficulty
  2. The difficulty doesn’t target skills you need

Fear of Failure Inhibits Learning

If you push yourself, take risks, and engage in learning that...

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Shortform Exercise: Embrace Failure

Failure is a valuable aspect of the learning process. Rework your feelings about failure.


Describe a recent situation in which you made a major mistake or outright failed.

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 6: Illusions and Myths that Impede Your Learning

The strategies we’ve discussed give you the tools for effective learning, but the tools alone aren’t enough—you must clear away the illusions and myths that impede your drive to learn.

Misperceptions about your competence and myths about your ability to learn can both inhibit you from pursuing greater levels of knowledge.

Balancing Intuition With Reason

Continued learning requires you to consistently strengthen and build upon your skills and knowledge. In order to expand your learning, you need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you need to work on.

The problem is that most people are poor judges of their own competencies. Humans are naturally prone to illusions and cognitive biases that make us blind to our shortcomings.

Humans are wired with two complementary processing systems.

  1. The automatic, unconscious system that’s responsible for your intuitions and knee-jerk reactions. This system is critical for situations that require split-second decisions and reflexive action, whether you’re getting away from a dangerous situation or defending against another player on the basketball court.
  2. **The controlled, conscious system that’s...

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Shortform Exercise: Are Illusions Deceiving You?

Use this exercise to try to identify when illusions are making you misjudge your competency.


What’s a topic you feel very familiar with and/or what skill do you feel very confident performing?

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Shortform Exercise: Do You Play to Your Learning Style?

Use this exercise to reflect on if and how you play to your learning style, and what the results have been.


What’s your learning style—visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 7: How Do You Measure Intelligence?

If the purpose of learning is to move through life more effectively, the measure of your intelligence should be how well you navigate each day. But, for many reasons, people want a way to quantify cumulative intelligence.

Modern psychologists largely agree that there are at least two kinds of intelligence:

  1. Fluid intelligence is your capacity to think both logically and abstractly, understand how things relate, and keep relevant information front-of-mind while solving a problem.
  2. Crystallized intelligence is your library of knowledge about how the world works as well as the mental models you’ve created from your experiences.

Models of Intelligence

Historically, scientists have struggled to develop an objective measure of intelligence.

Various psychologists have theories that expand upon the different areas of intelligence. One example is Howard Gardner’s model that lists eight kinds of intelligence:

  1. Logical-mathematical: critical thinking, abstract thinking, and mathematical thinking
  2. Spatial: the ability to visualize things in your mind and to gauge three-dimensional spaces
  3. Linguistic: words and language
  4. Kinesthetic:...

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 8: Make the Most of Your Intelligence

Aside from raising your IQ score, there are strategies you can use to make the most of your intelligence with diligence, practice, and tools to help you remember information.

Strategy #1: Growth Mindset

Grit and perseverance are far more important ingredients for success than intelligence. People who have a “growth mindset” are empowered to take their success into their own hands because they understand that effort and discipline are critical to their learning potential. These people work harder, take more risks, and view failures as learning opportunities.

On the other hand, people who have a “fixed mindset” have no sense of control over their own destinies because they believe that intelligence is the bottom-line determiner of success: They were either born with it or they weren’t. These people become helpless when they encounter failure because they attribute it to their lack of intelligence and ability.

Psychologist Carol Dweck studied this phenomenon and found several other characteristics associated with growth and fixed mindsets.

People with growth mindsets:

  • Create learning goals, which focus on gaining information and skills. **They set...

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Shortform Exercise: Maximize Your Intelligence

What’s important isn’t just what you know—it’s how you use it.


Think of a challenge you faced recently, and how you navigated it. Did your actions exhibit a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

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Make It Stick Summary Make It Stick Guide 9: Put These Strategies Into Practice

Now that you understand the principles of effective learning, let’s look at how to apply them to your life.

Suggestions For Learners

Think of your intelligence as a work in progress and remember that you’re constantly learning.

Take an active approach to your learning. Reading this summary is a good first step. Follow up with these strategies:

  • Pause regularly to ask yourself questions about the material you’re learning. These questions may include:
    • What are the main concepts?
    • How would I explain these to someone else?
    • What concepts and information am I encountering for the first time?
    • What connections can I draw to my existing knowledge?
  • Think of a metaphor or image that demonstrates the principle you’re learning (for example, thinking of how the movement of a bowling ball illustrates a law of physics).
  • Engage with your reading by anticipating what the main concepts will be and trying to define them before you’ve found the definition in the text. As you read, see if you were right.
  • Similarly, try to solve math and science problems before you learn the formula. Once you learn the formula, go back and see how...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Exercise: How Do You Learn?
  • 1: What Happens In Your Brain When You Learn
  • 2: Improve Comprehension: Identify Underlying Principles
  • Exercise: Improve Your Comprehension
  • 3: Improve Retention: Retrieval Practice
  • 4: Spaced Practice: Benefits and Methods
  • 5: Desirable Difficulties Enhance Learning
  • Exercise: Embrace Failure
  • 6: Illusions and Myths that Impede Your Learning
  • Exercise: Are Illusions Deceiving You?
  • Exercise: Do You Play to Your Learning Style?
  • 7: How Do You Measure Intelligence?
  • 8: Make the Most of Your Intelligence
  • Exercise: Maximize Your Intelligence
  • 9: Put These Strategies Into Practice