Saturday, June 18, 2016

How Do We Help Learning "Stick"?

How I combine summer relaxation and professional reading...
In the education wars of whether kids need to memorize facts, procedures, and algorithms or practice thinking creatively and critically, the definition of learning at the beginning of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is helpful: “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (2). 

A week and a half ago, I’d only just started this book, but I was already using it with students, warning those who walked into my exam early for a little extra study time with a list of vocabulary words and definitions: “Just re-reading is not effective studying. At least fold under the part of the page with the word on it and try to remember it from reading the definition. Brain science shows that quizzing is much more effective—even if you get the answer wrong, but can get immediate feedback. The ‘testing effect’ makes learning more ‘durable,’ helping it move from short-term memory to long-term memory.”

Now I am a week into summer vacation, I’ve finished Make It Stick (along with 50 Things You Can Do with Google Classroom and Teaching in a Chromebook Classroom), started another (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle), and I’ve been through several scenarios in my head of what impact this book might have on my class next year—and the impact will be different for math, science, social studies, world language, Bible, music, art, technology, PE, or vocational arts, but still, there will be significant implications for anyone, even non-teachers, who might read it. 

I highly recommend Make It Stick to any student, teacher, or life-long learner. The authors include the scientific support, the principles, illustrative examples and stories, all in a framework where method embodies the content. Effective learning strategies employ… 
  • retrieval (quiz yourself, don't just review; fluency with the text is not mastery of the material) that is 
  • spaced (no cramming) and 
  • interleaved (mixed, not massed). 
Additional strategies are… 
  • elaboration (finding new layers of meaning), 
  • generation (attempt a solution before being shown how), 
  • reflection (combination of retrieval practice and elaboration), and 
  • calibration (objective feedback to avoid illusions of mastery). 
There, now you don't have to read the book. Except that you really should—in order to do spaced and interleaved retrieval practice with elaboration, generation, and reflection on the science of learning. 

My biggest initial take-away: I no longer feel bad about not being a consistent enough hitter to give my volleyball players massed practice on digs. I naturally give them interleaved practice! Next take-away: I'm going to be more intentional and transparent about structuring class and assignments to not only use these strategies, but so students know why they're doing what they're doing.  

Connections that have popped into my head since I started reading the book:
  1. Spaced and interleaved retrieval: First I thought, “Yeah! I’m going to make all my vocabulary tests cumulative!” And then (reading another book about writers’ workshop which I am still in the middle of, but where the author says she does not do specific vocabulary assessment because there isn’t enough time in the period to do everything one “should”) I re-thought that the point of my vocabulary program is not so much to memorize these 120 words in a year as to raise awareness of the coolness of words and pay attention to a few of them so that students will continue to learn as they come across those words—and other unknown, cool words—in the course of their reading. The interleaved practice is noticing other places they recur. (I’m feeling particularly smug about the words chosen by my AP English course as I’m coming across what feels like one per page as I read Alexander Hamilton.) Now I’m thinking I will use frequent quizzing for strategies and procedures—from ways to begin/end a piece of writing, to reading or discussion strategies, to grammar terms for syntax variety: low-stakes, frequent, class-beginning quizzes. 
  2. Elaboration: This is what reading strategies call “envisioning images” and “synthesizing and extending thinking.” I now have another word for it, and another way to connect what we do in English class to the brain science of learning, and to other subject areas. It’s also what we do on grammar and literary terms as we discover terms learned in one work occurring in another mentor text.
  3. Generation: Earlier this year a math teacher in a book discussion of Understanding by Design set a goal of starting a unit with students trying to solve an end-of-unit problem. She was really excited about the results—now I know the brain science explanation! What might this look like in English? Maybe students reading a book of their own choice this summer and posting a review on Then we can discuss in the fall how they tackled that task—what old learning they used, and what new learning might be helpful.
  4. Reflection: This is another big current trend, which I am more and more sold on the more I do—both for my students and for myself (after all, that’s what this blog is!). Now I know WHY it works: combination of retrieval and elaboration. Simple. 
  5. Calibration: Another hat I wear is School Improvement Coordinator (interpretation: the person who runs the accreditation stuff [groan from the audience] every so many years). Calibration is a necessary objective check on an internal assessment. Think: the airplane pilot who is sure his instruments are the problem, not his gut sense, and his voice on the recovered black box is the last we hear of him. That’s what accreditation is: calibration. To avoid the illusion of mastery. It’s also why students need to see what they read as mentor texts.
If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it for your summer reading. If you have already read it…you might want to read it again (I’m pretty sure I will at some point). And let me know how it was significant in your teaching or learning. 

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