Book Notes: Make It Stick


  • Use spaced repetition
  • Test yourself frequently
  • Don’t mass practice
  • Seek out objective proof that you’ve learned something

This book talks about learning in general but talks most about, and is best at explaining, memory.

Somehow, this book doesn’t mention Anki or SuperMemo.

Use Anki.

This book is worth reading if you haven’t heard of spaced repetition. For anyone else, it’s a good reminder.

Read this first.


Most books deal with topics serially—they cover one topic, move on to the next, and so on. We follow this strategy in the sense that each chapter addresses new topics, but we also apply two of the primary learning principles in the book: spaced repetition of key ideas, and the interleaving of different but related topics.

Patrick Winston covered this in the context of lectures.

Chapter 1: Learning Is Misunderstood

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.

A big theme is how to develop lasting knowledge. Hence the title, Make it Stick.

Lasting knowledge takes time to develop. I know this viscerally, but somehow manage to forget it every few months.

Rereading Is Mostly A Waste Of Time

Rereading as a method of review is weak. As a method of learning something in the first place, it’s pretty good.

A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.

The main lesson is to seek objective evidence that you’ve learned the material.

Chapter 2: Retrieval

Knowing Anki exists makes this you feel smug reading this chapter. Don’t fall into that sense of security. Quiz yourself whenever you learn something new, and not just with flashcards.

We’re all susceptible to illusions that can hijack our judgment of what we know and can do. Testing helps calibrate our judgments of what we’ve learned.

Testing is to bullshit what audits are to taxes.

The authors make a point about clear lectures that I’ve felt before.

When they hear a lecture or read a text that is a paragon of clarity, the ease with which they follow the argument gives them the feeling that they already know it and don’t need to study it.

This describes some of my lecturers.

My best teacher explained 80% and made you do the last bit of deduction yourself.

Maybe you were traumatized by testing as a kid. I was.

But if we stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning—if we think of it as practicing retrieval of learning from memory rather than “testing,” we open ourselves to another possibility: the use of testing as a tool for learning.

Dragging something out of your memory.

When you retrieve, you have a chance to reconnect that piece of information to new things. That’s one reason reflection can be powerful: you can connect old knowledge to new and improved understanding.


Cram just before a high-value task. It’ll boost short-term performance but won’t last. On the other hand, neither will that job interview.

Chapter 3: Mix Up Your Practice

There’s a bunch of transfer learning analogies here. Which I won’t make.

Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.

Varied practice sucks, but you’ll learn more even if you doubt it.

The basic idea is that varied practice—like tossing your beanbags into baskets at mixed distances—improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another. You develop a broader understanding of the relationships between different conditions and the movements required to succeed in them; you discern context better and develop a more flexible “movement vocabulary”—different movements for different situations

Whether the scope of variable training (e.g., the two- and four-foot tosses) must encompass the particular task (the three-foot toss) is subject for further study.

This is a caveat I’ll have to follow up on.

Larsen would like to see something done to interrupt the forgetting: give a quiz at the end of a conference and follow it with spaced retrieval practice. “Make quizzing a standard part of the culture and the curriculum. You just know every week you’re going to get in your email your ten questions that you need to work through.”

One day. If only to see their faces.

Chapter 4: Embrace Difficulties (Or, How Memory Works)

Knowledge that is well entrenched, like real fluency in French or years of experience driving on the right side of the road, is easily relearned later, after a period of disuse or after being interrupted by competition for retrieval cues. It’s not the knowledge itself that has been forgotten, but the cues that enable you to find and retrieve it. The cues for the new learning, driving on the left, displace those for the old, driving on the right.

As you learn new things, you don’t lose from long-term memory most of what you have learned well in life; rather, through disuse or the reassignment of cues, you forget it in the sense that you’re unable to call it up easily.

Deeply-entrenched knowledge and habits are hard to tell apart. They both have triggers.

When learners commit errors and are given corrective feedback, the errors are not learned.

I wonder how much this holds.

Trial and error with delayed feedback is a more awkward but effective way of acquiring a skill than trial and correction through immediate feedback; immediate feedback is like the training wheels on a bicycle: the learner quickly comes to depend on the continued presence of the correction.

This is from chapter 2, but fits better with the rest of chapter 4.

Spaced and interleaved exposure characterizes most of humans’ normal experience. It’s a good way to learn, because this type of exposure strengthens the skills of discrimination—the process of noticing particulars (a turtle comes up for air but a fish doesn’t)—and of induction: surmising the general rule (fish can breathe in water).

students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety. Why? It seems that a significant portion of their working memory capacity is expended to monitor their performance (How am I doing? Am I making mistakes?), leaving less working memory capacity available to solve the problems posed by the test.

I get this all the time, and now I have an Anki flashcard to ward against it.

Chapter 5: Avoid Illusions Of Knowing

As Dunning put it, the “sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones.”

The British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once said of a political opponent that his conscience was not his guide but his accomplice.

I laughed for a full minute in front of rush-hour BART traffic reading that.

Why Your Undergrads Are So Dumb

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. Teachers often suffer this illusion—the calculus instructor who finds calculus so easy that she can no longer place herself in the shoes of the student who is just starting out and struggling with the subject.

Mazur says that the person who knows best what a student is struggling with in assimilating new concepts is not the professor, it’s another student.

Been there, suffered that. Shoutouts to Ed Scerbo and George Melvin for helping me when the professor couldn’t.

In some domains, the revelation of one’s incompetence can be brutally frank. The authors can all remember from their childhoods when a teacher would appoint two boys to pick other kids for softball teams. The good players are picked first, the worst last. You learn your peers’ judgments of your softball abilities in a very public manner, so it would be hard for the last-picked player to think “I must be really good at softball.” However, most realms of life do not render such stark judgments of ability.

I’m sorry I laughed.

Seek Objective Feedback

the path to self-insight leads through other people. “So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting. Is the world telling you good things? Is the world rewarding you in a way that you would expect a competent person to be rewarded? If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things. ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I have something to work on.’

Hard to argue with actual success.

Chapter 6: Learning Styles Don’t Matter That Much

It is more important that the mode of instruction match the nature of the subject being taught: visual instruction for geometry and geography, verbal instruction for poetry, and so on. When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.

Chapter 7: Increase Your Abilities

Mnemonic devices are sometimes discounted as tricks of memory, not tools that fundamentally add to learning, and in a sense this is correct. The value of mnemonics to raise intellectual abilities comes after mastery of new material.

Rules 1 and 2 of the 20 linked at the top.

Why bother?

We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities. What we do shapes who we become and what we’re capable of doing. The more we do, the more we can do.

I like that.

Chapter 8: Make It Stick

Random bits of practical advice in this chapter.

Always do the reading prior to a lecture.

I should’ve done this.

Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of ways to improve it. In short, you may actually be writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

Very good writing advice that should be used for more than writing.

Shoot an azimuth.

This is a tagline for looking towards the horizon of your abilities, sighting a landmark (picking a goal barely beyond your abilities), and aiming for that.

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