Helping Students Make it Stick

Article by Peter C. Brown, Author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning from UND newsletter On Teaching, Fall 2015, Vol. 25 (3)

The most effective strategies for making learning stick are far from what most of us do as professors and students. Professors commonly focus on lecturing and explaining. Students lean on underlining, highlighting and rereading notes and texts (the preferred study strategies of more than 80% of college students). In other words, intuition tells us to try to drive new learning into the brain, but a large body of empirical evidence shows that trying to get new learning out of the brain is what builds the robust neural pathways that make the learning stick. Mental effort builds mental ability.

Cognitive psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork at UCLA have coined the phrase “desirable difficulties” to characterize strategies that require the kinds of active mental engagement that make learning deeper and more durable. Among these are retrieving learning from memory; spacing and mixing practice sessions when studying (mixing up topics rather than cramming); testing oneself to practice retrieving information; trying to generate the answer to an unfamiliar problem before being taught the solution, followed by corrective feedback and instruction; and elaborating on new material to give it meaning by putting it in one’s own words, connecting it to what one already knows, and perhaps constructing mental cues to help recall the knowledge later.

How can such strategies be brought into the classroom without creating untenable demands on professors? Henry Roediger at Washington University at St. Louis, whose research helps to inform the new science of learning, says that for starters professors can trade off some of their lecture time to engage students in grappling with class material. Below are short recaps of how three professors have made room for desirable difficulties in their classrooms.

Mary Pat Wenderoth, biology, University of Washington, Seattle

In a Biology 220 course, Wenderoth and a colleague switched from what she calls a “low-structure” format (midterms and a final) to a “high-structure” format, with daily reading quizzes and weekly practice exams.

Wenderoth says this change was most challenging in the first year because of the extra time to write the practice exams. The best source was old exam questions. Wenderoth asks students to grade their own answers (to increase metacognition) and then either the instructor, lab coordinator or lead TA checks the answers. This approach gives the instructor insight into how students are thinking about topics and gives students practice in writing out answers.

Wenderoth says that her biggest change to class structure has been to prioritize the information. She cites Grant Wiggins’ and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. “They talk about 3 levels of information: enduring understanding, important to know and do, worth being familiar with.” To make time in her classes for students to actually work with and solve problems, Wenderoth has moved the information “worth being familiar with” either to the reading quiz or greatly minimized it in class. “Isolated pieces of information that fit into this latter category are seldom retained, and Google is a ready source.”

Wenderoth says, “The biggest change to my teaching is that I approach each class with the mantra ‘Ask. Don’t tell.’ I basically use the same class notes/outlines and just use them in a different way. I figure out how to ask students questions to guide them into constructing their own understanding of the topic.

“So time-wise, creating reading quizzes takes time the first time through, weekly practice exams are just old exam questions. Reviewing student answers can take time if the instructor does it rather than the lead TA. Prep for class just means I have to think about what students struggle with and how to ask the right questions to guide their understanding. This last one takes time to get good at, but with practice even the instructor gets better and teaching becomes much more fun.”

Andrew Sobel, political economics, Washington University at St. Louis

Sobel teaches a big lecture course in international political economics to freshmen and sophomores. The class meets 26 times over 13 weeks. When he learned about the benefits of retrieval practice as a learning strategy, Sobel instituted 9 quizzes spaced across the semester. He tells the students which days the quizzes will be given, so there are no surprises.

(Sobel had tried a regime of pop quizzes some years earlier, thinking it might create an incentive for better attendance, but had to abandon them. When students did poorly in a quiz they dropped the course rather than risk a bad grade, and class reviews and enrollment plummeted.)

To accommodate the quizzes without sacrificing more lecture time than he was willing to give up, Sobel dropped the midterm and final exams. Every quiz covers recent material and also reaches back to help lock-in material from earlier in the semester and connect it to subsequent learning. The quizzes count for 90% of a student’s grade, and the last 10% is at Sobel’s discretion.

Five years into this new format he said, “The quality of discussions in class has gone way up. I see that big a difference in their written work, just by going from three exams to nine quizzes.” By the end of the semester student mastery is comparable to what he’s seeing in his upper division classes. Meanwhile, the predictable quizzing schedule has been accepted and even embraced by students -- class enrollment has grown from 165 to 185 and counting.

“The interesting thing about adopting this strategy is I now recognize that as good a teacher as I might think I am, my teaching is only a component of their learning, and how I structure it has a lot to do with it, maybe even more.”

Kathleen McDermott, psychology, Washington University at St. Louis

McDermott administers daily low-stakes quizzes in a university class on human learning and memory. It’s a class of 25 students that meets twice a week for 14 weeks, minus midterms and a final exam.

McDermott gives a 4-item quiz in the last 3-5 minutes of every class. The questions hit the high points of the lecture and/or the readings. If students have understood the material, they will get all 4 answers right, but they’ll have to think in order to do it. Anything covered in the course to-date is fair game for a quiz, and she will sometimes draw from past material that she feels the students haven’t fully grasped and need to review.

To accommodate unexpected absences and keep demands on McDermott’s time manageable, students are allowed to drop four quizzes across the semester. In exchange, absences need not be justified, and no missed quizzes will be made up.

By the end of the semester, her students say that the quizzes have helped them keep up with the course and discover when they are getting off track and need to bone up. “The key with quizzes is to establish very clear ground rules for the student, and make them manageable for the professor,” McDermott says. “As a student, you’re either there and you take it, or you’re not. For the professor, no hassling over makeup tests.”

The quizzes in totality count for 20% of a student’s grade in the course. In addition, she gives two midterm exams and a final. The last two exams are cumulative, reinforcing learning by requiring students to engage in spaced review.

[Adapted from Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Harvard University Press.]