in: How To, Podcast, Skills

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #385: Learning How to Learn

When you study for a test or you’re trying to learn a new skill, what’s your typical approach? If you’re like most people, you might repeat facts over and over again or do the same task over and over again until you can do it in your sleep. While these brute force tactics might make you feel like you’re encoding new information into your brain, my guest today argues that you’re just fooling yourself. His name is Peter Brown, and he’s the co-author of the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Today on the show Peter and I discuss why typical approaches to studying might make it feel like you’re learning, but don’t actually work. We then delve into research-backed advice on how to really learn something and really retain it. Some of these insights are going to seem pretty counterintuitive. If you’re a student, someone who’s looking to become proficient in a new skill, or just dedicated to the idea of lifelong learning, this episode is packed with actionable advice.

Show Highlights

  • What most people get wrong about learning
  • Why re-reading things over and over again makes you feel like you’re learning, but isn’t actually effective
  • Why we’re wired to forget things
  • Why when things feel easy, you’re not actually learning
  • Why some people think they’re smarter than they really are and why that prevents them from learning
  • What role IQ plays in your ability to learn
  • The role of mental models in learning
  • Are “learning styles” a real thing?
  • Why you should focus on getting stuff out of the brain and not into the brain if you really want to learn
  • How to mix things up so you learn better
  • How to know if you’re actually learning
  • What you should do after a class or reading something to help make it stick
  • How to incorporate mixed practice into your learning strategy
  • The power of low stakes quizzes
  • Why quizzing yourself before you learn something can help you learn better
  • Why you should prepare like a football team
  • The mindset you should have to learn
  • And much more!

Book cover of "Make it Stick" by Peter C. Brown, henry L. Roediger and Mark A. Mcdaniel.

If you’re a student, or just want to better retain the things you watch, listen to, and read, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Make it Stick

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you study for a test or you’re trying to learn a new skill, what’s your typical approach? If you’re like most people, you might repeat facts over and over again, or do the same task over and over and over again until you can do it in your sleep. All these brute force tactics might make you feel like you’re encoding new information into your brain. My guest today argues that you’re just fooling yourself. His name is Peter Brown, and he’s the co-author of the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Today on the show, Peter and I discuss why typical approaches to study might make it feel like you’re learning, but don’t actually work. We then delve into research-backed advice on how to really learn something and really retain it. Some of these insights are going seem pretty counterintuitive. If you’re a student, someone who’s looking to become more proficient in a new skill, or just dedicated to the idea of life-long learning, this episode is packed with actual advice, you don’t want to miss it. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/MakeItStick where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic. And Peter joins me now via Peter Brown, welcome to the show.

Peter Brown: Thank you, Brett. I’m a fan of The Art of Manliness. Delighted to be here.

Brett McKay: Well, you wrote a book, co-authored a book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It’s a book about how to learn, which is I mean, I thought everyone just sort of picked up how to learn just naturally. We learn how to walk without anyone telling us how to learn, we learn how to spell and write. So what do most people get wrong about learning that necessitated writing an entire book about how to do it right?

Peter Brown: Well, just let me start by saying that the book is a culmination of a decade of research by 11 cognitive psychologists at different universities across the country, funded by the Department of Education and a private foundation, trying to understand what leads to better retention of the new learning. And what the cognitive psychologists discovered, one of whom was my brother in law, which is how I got involved in writing this book, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a retired management consultant and a writer, but what they found was counterintuitive. We are drawn to, the kinds of strategies we’re drawn to are very low-yield strategies. They’re things like focusing on trying to get new learning into the brain by reading and re-reading, or standing in front of your golf ball, trying to master your 20 foot putt by doing over and over and over again in a mass fashion.

Those kinds of strategies intuitively feel productive, because you become fluent in the text of something you’ve read many times, or you see actual gains in your 20 foot putt after 10 or 15 attempts. But what you don’t understand is that the fluency, A, the material won’t stick just by re-reading it. B, you can’t really describe the underlying concepts just by re-reading something. And in the case of motor skill, like your 20 foot putt, the improvements that you’ve seen in that kind of practice are leaning on short term memory, the stuff hasn’t gone into long term memory. And that’s a real problem that we’re not somehow wired to be aware of as learners.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean when I read that, and sort of the typical things we fall back to, I did that all through high school, all through college. You highlight things that you read, you take notes, and then you just kind of like repeat the notes to yourself over and over and over again before an exam, and that’s what I did.

Peter Brown: Right. And we find university students do that, they spend all nighters, and in fact, if you do that kind of cramming, and walk into an exam the next morning, you can do well on the exam, but in the studies, you look at that person being tested on the same material a week later, and more than half of it is already leaked away. It’s fallen off. We’re wired to forget. We’ve known that for many years. And the issue is how do you interrupt that forgetting? How do you lock that learning in? But the fact that you can cram and do well on an exam and get the grade creates this illusion that you’re on top of the material, and on you march through your courses. And it’s counterproductive. It’s productive in the sense of getting you a grade, but if you’re really intent on learning something and hanging onto it, and building mastery, it’s not productive.

Brett McKay: So, we’ll talk about some of these skills that we can do, or what the strategy we need to take in order to actually gain mastery. But this illusion of knowledge that happens when we cram, or what’s called mass studying, was one illusion that keeps us from learning, actually learning the material. But you also highlight other illusions of knowledge that prevent us from actually gaining knowledge. We fool ourselves in thinking that we know, but we really don’t. What are some of those other illusions of knowledge?

Peter Brown: Well, in an instructional setting, there’s this sort of temptation to try to make the material easy, make it as clear as you can, and as easy as you can for the learner. A learner then gets this instruction, a lecture, or a video, it’s so clear, you kind of have the sense, “Yeah, I think I already knew that.” And so you walk out feeling confident that you’re on top of that particular material. Well, what’s happened is the brain hasn’t wrestled with it at all. You have an illusion of knowing it, but it leaves quickly. You could have that experience in the morning reading the news blogs, reading an article that you want to mention to a friend over lunch, and thinking, “Boy, this is really compelling.” You get to lunch, you say, “Did you see that article?”

The guy said, “No, what did you like about it?” You can’t quite remember it. It’s kind of gone. You didn’t think it would be gone, but it is. So you have this illusion if it’s easy, if it looks easy, seems easy, feels easy, you think it’ll stick. It won’t. Another misconception is that if you are intentional, if you intend to remember something, you will. You say to yourself, “Boy, this is something I really want later. I’m locking it. I’m thinking about it. I’m going to have that later.” That intentionality also does not help make learning stick.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and one of the other illusions that I thought was funny, because it reminded me of Socrates. So there’s one of the dialogues where Socrates wants to prove that we know everything because we existed before we came to Earth, and we just have to retrieve this knowledge. It’s already there in our brain. And he shows this, or proves this, supposedly, by asking this slave child to do some sort of geometric proof. But like the way Socrates does it, he just ask him a series of leading questions that if you just answer the questions right, because you know what the answer is, because the questioner’s … Socrates is telling you what he wants, you’ll get it right. That was one of the other illusions, suggestion, the way teachers ask questions makes us think we actually know this stuff.

Peter Brown: Yes. Although on the other hand, that instructional strategy can be quite powerful because we know that all new learning has to connect to something we already know, or you can’t learn it. So if you start say in the Socratic process of asking a student or a learner a question, you start with what they know, and then you ask them another question that’s adjacent to that in terms of the level of knowledge, you can pull people through figuring out the material, wrestling with it, trying different things if they make a mistake, give them some corrective feedback. Becomes a very effective way to learn because you are deeply engaged in the puzzle, solving the puzzle if you will. Your brain is working on it, which is essential for making learning stick, for connecting it to the other things you know and having ways to retrieve it again later.

Brett McKay: Another thing that gets in our way, sort of we’re hardwired for this, is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What is that and how does that get in the way of our learning?

Peter Brown: Well, David Dunning and Justin Kruger are psychologists who I think the late 90s were at Cornell University, and they did a study. And they found that some people, low-performing people, will be given problems in a group where a group of people are solving the same problem, and the low-performers would do very poorly on it. The results come back, they can see their results, they can see the other people’s results. And they have an opinion that they did very well. They cannot see, it’s not apparent to them, that they did very poorly. So they don’t have any sense that they need to study more or change the way they go about the problem.

So Dunning-Kruger Effect basically is that some people seem to be immune to the normal signals the rest of us get from other people, or comparisons we do between ourselves and what other people are doing to get the signal that, “I should be doing better. I’m not very good at this. I have to try a different way.” At the same time, some people who are highly-competent at solving this problem and do it quickly have the illusion that other people will do it very quickly too. They don’t perceive that other people will be struggling more than they are. So it’s kind of an interesting effect, but the big idea for learning is not everybody has the ability, or naturally drawn to skills of seeing where they stack up in terms of whether they know something or not.

And this becomes a very important point for learning, which is if you engage in low-productive strategies like focusing on cramming and re-reading and mass practice, and you think you’re on top of it, you don’t have very good judgment of what you know and can do unless later you require yourself to do it again and see in fact, “Can I really do this?” And compare what you’re able to do later with what you thought you were on top of.

Brett McKay: Can the Dunning-Kruger Effect be overcome if you have that tendency? Or is it sort of the deck’s stacked against you?

Peter Brown: Yeah. I think there’s some evidence from this study that they did that there was a logic problem involved in this study. And that when the low-performers, some subset of the low-performers were taught how syllogisms work and how to evaluate a syllogism to see whether the conclusion holds up based on the argument, they actually improved in their subsequent attempts to take the test, which was logic test. Whereas others of their low-performing group were given some unrelated instruction, did not improve in subsequent ones. So some evidence that you can teach people how to be more effective in judging their performance and changing it.

Brett McKay: So another I mean I would call it an excuse that people give for not being a good learner is that they’ll just say, “Well, I’m just not smart. I don’t have a high IQ. Or I’m not a genius.” Does IQ limit how well someone can learn, or is learning a skill that anyone can develop and increase in?

Peter Brown: Yes, I think, to both questions. I think IQ does have some impact, on your potential, but everyone using effective strategies can substantially bring up their mental abilities. The more you know, the more you can learn, and if you get involved, if you think about let’s say a video game, which I’ve never played, but I have some rough idea that you get involved in a series of challenges that you have to go to different levels and you try different strategies, and then you fall back, and you try different, and you go forward. That notion of trial and error, and learning from trial and error, you begin to build a mental model of what the scheme is about and how it works.

And through that mental model, you’re able to anticipate certain pitfalls and progress in the game. So when you become an effective learner by using strategies that help you learn concepts as well as facts, and then build on them with subsequent learning, you begin to build mental models that increase your intellectual ability, regardless of your IQ. These strategies are effective.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Before we get to these specific strategies, one more myth that you guys talk about in the book is this idea of learning styles. I remember learning this in like middle school, and the social studies teacher, I remember there was a whole lesson on some people are auditory learners, some people are kinetic learners, some people are visual learners. I remember I took some sort of quiz and I found out that I was a visual learner. And then for a couple years was like, “Well, no don’t tell me this thing, I got to look at it. Because that’s what the …” Is there anything true about these different learning styles?

Peter Brown: Well, the short answer to that is there’s no evidence that supports that person’s learning preference actually leads to better learning. There’s been meta-study, that is a study of all of the studies into learning styles that have been done, and looking at the criteria for valid, scientific analysis, and none of the studies that purport to support this notion that auditory learners learn better when material’s presented in an auditory fashion than if it’s presented in a visual fashion. There’s no study out there that’s a valid scientific study that supports that case.

However, it’s conceivable that … I don’t think this has been tested, but I think we have to say, if someone prefers to learn in a certain way, and the material’s presented in that way, they might stick with it longer if you take my meaning and learn more. So that’s … I have to give that bit of a hedge. But in fact, all learners learn best when the material is presented in the form that fits the material best. So solid geometry needs to be visual, language needs to be a combination of visual and oral.

Brett McKay: And like if doing the 20 foot putt, that needs to be kinetic obviously? You need to move around.

Peter Brown: Yeah. Right.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s get into what the research actually says about the best way to learn. So so far, it’s not cramming, it’s not repeating things over and over again. It’s not reading your notes over and over again. It’s not practicing that putt from the same spot over and over again. Listening, it might help you stick with it longer, but won’t help you necessarily learn things better. So what does the research say on the most effective strategies for long term mastery of a subject or a concept?

Peter Brown: Well, the fundamental idea is that if you want to make learning stick, and you want to build on it, you have to practice getting out of the brain, not getting into the brain. So all these things you think about in terms of review and that kind of thing, after you’ve read it once or twice, what really will help you is putting it aside and asking yourself, “What are the main ideas of this? How do they relate to what I already know? How would I put it in my own words explaining it to somebody else?” This effort to pull it out of the brain.

Really, you become a coach to your brain to make it stick. So that’s one idea. And I want to talk a little bit more about that in a minute. But the second big idea is there’s certain kinds of difficulties that cognitive psychologists at UCLA, Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork, have termed desirable difficulties. And they’re desirable because they require you to wrestle with the material in ways that reflect how you’re going to need to call it up again later and apply it. So practice at recalling the knowledge later, spaced out, when it’s harder to recall, strengthens both the connection of that material in your brain and your ability to recall it again subsequently. So spacing out your practice instead of doing it over, and over, and over again in rapid succession, putting some time between it so it’s a little difficult, you’re a little rusty at it, and then recalling it.

Another strategy that’s very effective is to interweave or mix the practice of recalling different types of problems or questions that are somewhat related. If you’re studying, for example, solid geometry, instead of practicing five examples of finding the volume of a spheroid, and then five examples of the volume of a wedge and so forth, mix up the examples. Or if you’re hitting your golf ball, mix it up. Because each time then you come back to the 20 foot putt, after having done some others, you have to reload, if you will, from your memory what’s required to succeed at the 20 foot putt.

And that act of reloading that from your memory strengthens the learning, even though you don’t do as well, it doesn’t feel like you’re learning as well, it’s a much more potent way of embedding the skills for your 20 foot putt and being able to recall them again later. So retrieval that is spaced out and that is mixed up are very potent strategies for making learning stick and creating the nuanced understanding that you’re going to need later to properly identify what kind of a problem you’re looking at and picking the right solution.

Brett McKay: All right, so there’s a lot to unpack there. I think another factor, one of the big points I got from the book, you know you’re doing it right, you know you’re doing these things with retrieval, spaced out and inter-levied, if it feels hard. Right? It feels like you’re not … It feels like you’re actually not making any progress, that’s actually when you are probably making progress.

Peter Brown: Yeah. That’s really … That’s unfortunate. We tend to think, “If it feels hard, I’m not getting it.” Or, “If it feels hard, maybe I’m not smart enough for this.” And the fact is what you’re doing when you’re really learning is you’re moving material from short term memory to long term memory, which happens over hours. Sleep helps. It’s the brain rehearses this knowledge, it tries to isolate the most important pieces, find the connection, and so forth. And the effort, actually in long term memory, you’re actually physically making new connections between neurons in your brain. Short term memory is just electrical and chemical traces.

But long term memory is a physical change to the brain, and that’s why it takes time. And the kind of effort of mental engagement that makes you think, “Maybe I’m not getting it because it feels hard,” is part of the process of making those connections between the correct neurons and building that into a long term memory.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that little bit, that’s been great for my son, because when he was learning to tie his shoes, we’re in the middle of that, and he’s like, “Oh, Dad, this is so hard.” And he’s just like, “Just do it for me.” I just tell him, “Hey, Gus, because it’s hard, it means you’re actually learning how to do this, so just keep at it.” And he’s like, “Okay, Dad.” And so that’s been an effective little meta-cognition thing I’ve used on him. If it’s hard, it means you’re learning it.

Peter Brown: I have the same situation. If I go to the Genius Bar or something with a problem with my iPad, and then the expert there, the genius will say, “Here, it goes like this,” and he’ll click through a bunch of things. “Oh, okay, fine.” Well, should have me do it because when I do it and it’s hard, I’m more likely to remember it again later than if I just see someone do it and it looks easy. So same with tying his shoes. You have to struggle with it.

Brett McKay: Right. So let’s go back to some specific tactics on how we can do some of this retrieval, spacing out, and mixing it up. So retrieval. So you mentioned a few things you can do. If you’re reading material, you close the book and you ask yourself some questions. What’s the main topic? I mean, what are some other things you can do besides that to integrate that retrieval process into your learning method?

Peter Brown: Well, of course it depends on the subject. If it’s semantic learning, if it’s mathematics or history, something like that, you want to elaborate on it when you learn it. You want to pause and ask yourself, “How does this relate to what I already know? Is there any way to visualize this?” Because memory requires not only having it wired in your brain, but it requires cues, pathways, to call it up when you need it. And so part of improving or making it stick when you read, or hear a lecture, or are exposed to something abstract, is to try to make it less abstract by thinking through how it connects to what you already know, or thinking of some kind of visual example.

In the book, I was thinking about different ways of heat transfer and how you illustrate that. And you know that conductive, if you’re holding a cup of warm coffee, you can feel that heat conducting through. And radiant, you can feel the warmth of the sun coming through the windows in the den on a winter day. And convective, you can feel that cold blast of air from your uncle’s air conditioner in the car when you’re going through the steamy streets of Atlanta. So you need to A, have ways of stopping, and not just trying to memorize radiant, conductive, and convective heat transfer, but imagine it and explain it and relate it to your life.

Another thing, you can make flash card. Flash cards are very potent. And there are now many websites where you can download an app and you can either find flashcards already constructed, or you can make your own flashcards, and program the app so that periodically, it gives you a little quiz, and then you can space out how often you’re asked certain kinds of questions so that they come less and less often. As long as you can still recall them, you want to space it further out so it continues to be a little bit difficult. In the case of golf or basketball, I was talking to a friend of mine who coaches basketball, and I was talking about mixed practice. And he said, “Oh, we do that. We have the players run a circuit on the court, and at each different station, they make a different move.”

Well, that isn’t exactly mixed practice, because if you’re always doing a free throw from a certain spot, it’s like the old LPs we used to have where you always knew what was coming up next when you heard this song. You need to vary it. You need to scramble it. You need to go random. So if you’re trying to improve your basketball game or your golf game or your BMX bike stunts, you need to mix it up. Those are some quick things. Low stakes quizzing, and if you’re an instructor, you’re working with your kids or you’re working with students, low stakes, that is low anxiety quizzing, is a very powerful way to help learners lock in something and carry it forward over time, and when you have a quiz three weeks from now, it should not just be about recent stuff, it should have a few questions from earlier so that gets carried forward and updated with the new material.

Brett McKay: When I was in … I went to law school, and by the time I got to law school, I kind of sort of figuring things out intuitively on how to study better, and I actually started doing some of this stuff just intuitively. Like for the retrieval, one of my routine was I’d have class, I’d take notes, and after class I would take 20 minutes to sort of put my notes into an outline, then I would close everything up and I would answer these hypothetical questions based on the material that we learned.

Peter Brown: Boy, that’s great. How did you come to that? Because that’s really an excellent way to do it.

Brett McKay: I don’t know. I just decided that was what I needed to do. Because what it was was I knew … I learned from the beginning that your final grade was determined by these essays, these three hour essays you write. We had to unpack all these legal issues an analyze them and come out with a solution. So I just started doing these little practice ones for just the little discrete topics within law. So if it was like tort law, we learned about battery. I would learn about battery, do my notes, shut everything down, then answer this like three or four hypotheticals about battery and analyzing that.

And what was interesting, and this was kind of an interesting point too, sometimes the hypotheticals had issues that I had no idea about, but I still tried to answer it, and that’s one of the … I was really surprised to see that one of the suggestions was for retrieval is you actually want … It’s a good way to … An effective way to teach people things is quiz them before they actually learn the material, because then it causes them to pay attention more when they actually hear the material so they can learn it.

Peter Brown: Yeah, it has a potentiating effect in the mind. So A, yes it causes them to pay attention, but someone asks you to name the capital of Montana, and you search your mind for the different cities of Montana. Even if you get it wrong, when you’re told the capital is Helena, “Ah, you’re right. Oh, Helena, yes.” You will remember that better because you have wrestled with that question. And when the answer comes, it fits in there. The mind is ready for it. So the scientists call this generation. You’re trying to generate an answer, and there is where there had been fear in education for years, and if we let students make mistakes, they’ll learn the errors.

Well, this has been researched quite thoroughly, and it’s not the case. If you let students make mistakes on their way forward, and they get corrective feedback, it’s a very effective way of learning, and you don’t remember the error. So the old fashioned trial and error turns out to be very effective, but we don’t like to get things wrong, so we don’t like making mistakes. We want to know what this is about, and not be embarrassed, as we think mistakes are an indictment of our abilities.

Brett McKay: So for retrieval, sort of some quick segues, if you’re a college student, I guess after your lecture, find ways to get that information out of your brain, either writing a summary from your brain, don’t looking at your notes, of what you learned in class that day. Could be just a paragraph, just spend 10 minutes. Or it just could be quizzing yourself really quickly. That’s some really easy things that college students can start doing today.

Peter Brown: Right. And then look back after you’ve made your list or your paragraph or your statement and check, “What did I miss?” And put that in. Or, “Did I get this a little bit wrong?” You could even go to the questions at the back of the book, if there’s chapter questions, and try answering those at the end of reading your chapter.

Brett McKay: So going at that other tactic of spacing things out, so typically with cramming, you’re waiting till the last few days before the exam, and then you’re just like putting all that information in your brain so you can dump it out onto your exam.

Peter Brown: Yeah, binge and purge.

Brett McKay: Binge and purge, that’s a great way to describe it. With spacing things out, say you one week you learn this one topic, and you review that stuff and you do sort of the retrieval things there immediately after. You’d want to wait another week and see if you can retrieve that stuff from memory again, correct?

Peter Brown: Yeah. One of the questions we get is, “How far should I space this stuff out?” And it depends on what it is. If you go to a party and you learn someone’s name, you’d repeat it in your head very quickly thereafter, then use it a couple more times, maybe associate it with an image. So when to retrieve, when to practice retrieving, spaced retrieval, really depends on how hard it’s going to be for you to get it. You don’t want to have to relearn it. So some stuff you might recall the next day, some stuff you might want to wait for a week. And the easier it is to recall, the longer you should wait to try recalling it, because we haven’t really talked about consolidation of learning in long term memory.

But it’s very essential to this whole discussion that when the brain has to work to reconsolidate something that you’ve learned that you’re trying again that’s hard again, it does an even better job of knowing what are the key ideas and what they connect to that you already know, and getting rid of the stuff that you don’t need to remember. So that’s why spacing out retrieval practice helps you lock it in, embed it, and have the cues you need to recall it again later.

Brett McKay: And there’s actually flashcard systems that do this like algorithmically, right? I think I’ve used them before online where you create your flashcards, and it’ll show you the ones that you have the most difficulty with, like more frequently, and the ones you don’t have any problem, they won’t show them to you. But then, as you progress and you add to the flashcards, you’re going to see flashcards you studied three weeks ago, come back again every now and then. I remember when that happened and be like, “Oh, I don’t really know this stuff and I have to work to remember it.”

Peter Brown: Right. That’s exactly right. And you want to make sure the flashcard come randomly, not in a set pattern.

Brett McKay: Yeah, well that goes back to mixing things up, which is an important thing. And you made this interesting point. They way, typically, we teach things here in America, is like if you’re in math, you’re going to do … If you’re in Algebra, you’re going to do certain things for like a chapter, and that’s all you do. That’s the only things you see. But then when you get to the test, you see multiple chapters, all mixed together, and it really throws … I mean, it threw me off. I didn’t do very well in math, and I think a lot of it had to do with because I was suddenly put into this position where I had to recall information in a mixed up manner that I hadn’t seen before.

Peter Brown: It’s true that traditional ways that we’ve taught various topics is by blocking them by units. A unit on this, it might be solid geometry, it might be whatever, different units, and you march forward through that. But then you get to the end, and you’re quizzed or tested on stuff from way back earlier, and that’s not a good way to teach. We need to find a way to intermingle these topics, get a little bit on one, then go on to another, and bring the earlier one forward, and get on to another one, and bring them forward through low stakes quizzing and other forms of active engagement in the classroom so that you don’t leave it behind and go on.

If you think about football players preparing for Saturday night’s game, in that week of practice, they’re not only practicing plays for this particular opposition, they’re also periodically refreshing their core moves that they have that are important as a team, and this is what we need to do in the classroom is practice like we want to play at the end term when we have the exam, which is retrieving those ideas and concepts, and demonstrating that we’re on top of them as we go along.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the football example brought back a lot of memories. I played football in high school. And the schedule that you showed, I think it was the University of Georgia that kind of came up with this.

Peter Brown: Yeah. Vince Dooley was the coach.

Brett McKay: Right. Like, we follow that, so you start off practice, your individual positions, and you’d practice basic movements. I was a lineman, so we practiced blocking. And then we would get together with the lineman and maybe the running backs, and practice running plays that we would use in the play. And then, by the end of the practice, the whole team was together, and we were running full plays, full speed, with the team in mind we were playing that Saturday.

Peter Brown: Yeah, so if you take that metaphor and apply it to classroom learning and think of yourself as the team, you’re the whole team, that means to want to take the different parts of the material you’re learning and continue to engage them in the learning and the testing going forward. One thing we haven’t mentioned, you had asked about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and people who are not aware of their low performance, and therefore don’t work to bring it up. A really valuable part of spaced retrieval or low stakes quizzing, which is basically the same thing, is we’re often poor judges of what we know and can do.

And quizzing or flashcards, the spaced practice where you actually, you don’t just look at the question and say, “Yeah, I know it.” You actually answer it. You actually do the play on the field. You actually hit the 20 foot putt or whatever it is. That is really important because we’re always … You need to recalibrate our judgment of what we know and can do and where we discover it’s difficult for us and we’re not quite getting it. Then we know, “That’s something I need to practice more often to bring up to snuff.”

Brett McKay: All right, so this is really important. Yeah, if you feel like you’re an expert, like you’ve been doing something for years, to occasionally go back to the basics, because you might discover no, you’ve actually had some skill degradation, can improve on that one little aspect. And you see some of the most high performing athletes do this. That’s why they have coaches to help them spot those little things that they might not see.

Peter Brown: Yeah. I had a political economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis who had heard about this research, and he threw out his midterms and his final exams, and told his students, this is a survey course of about 175 students, “There’s going to be nine quizzes. Each quiz is going to be worth 10% of your grade. And these are the dates that there’s going to be a quiz, and at the end, no final, but I’ll have the last 10% discretion in terms of your grade.”

And he said that the students by mid term … His quizzes, by the way, reached back. So in the third or fourth week, there’s a quiz about what happened last week, but also a couple of questions from earlier in the semester. By the middle of the semester, they’re doing end of semester work. By the end of the semester, they’re doing upper division work. He says as good as a lecturer I might be, I think how much opportunity I’ve lost to bring students along because I didn’t realize the importance of their constructing their own understanding of the material through this kind of retrieval practice.

Brett McKay: So besides these specific tactics of retrieving, spacing things out, and mixing things in, there’s also sort of this higher level thinking we need to do, or meta-cognition, which is just our mindset about learning and the approach we take, because that can effect whether we learn or not. So what role does mindset have in our ability to learn.

Peter Brown: We’re still figuring that out, but I think that Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University has pioneered some research into what she calls a growth mindset as compared to a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is one where you say, “This feels hard, I don’t think it’s probably right for me. I’m not really a math person. If this is hard for me, I’ll stay away from math.” A growth mindset is one that says, “This is hard for me, I’m not getting it yet. But I understand that mistakes are information, and I’m going to try a little harder, try a little different strategy.” And that when, in her tests, her research studies, when students understand they’re actually trying to build new connections in the brain and that over time, that those connections will increase their mental abilities, those students tend to pick tougher challenges and persist longer at them.

So I think is really important for people to interpret is how you interpret difficulty and setbacks, the difficulty isn’t the problem, it’s how you interpret that’s the problem. The difficulty is information. But if you interpret it as personal failure, or a lack of aptitude, you don’t have the chops really for this field, you’re not going to do very well at it. So mindset’s very important, and there’s more research ongoing about what kinds of interventions with students can help them embrace this kind of a mindset that will cause them to be more comfortable with difficulty and persist.

Brett McKay: Yeah, also you need be on the look out for in your own kids or yourself. It’s like, “Well, this is easy, I’m really smart. I really know this stuff.” Because that can actually prevent you from going on to learning more than you do right now.

Peter Brown: Oh, right. So I think we all love a challenge. We like puzzles, we like the video games, we like various kinds of challenges so that we can see … We get kind of hooked on that, “Can I do this? How’s it work? What’s another way to do it and get it done?” But when we’re set in a position of having to learn something in particular, we don’t like that. We want to hear what it is and we want to be able to do it, and if we’re having trouble with it, it feels icky. And one of the issues that Dweck talks about is praising young people for effort, not for achievement.

If you continue to praise people for achievement, in time they ring the bell, they’re going to pick problems they know they can achieve and ring the bell. If you praise them for effort and for thinking through setbacks for the information, that helps them understand what’s important for learning. It isn’t so much whether you get it in the end as it is that you are pursuing it, and you are trying different strategies and trying a little harder toward your goal. In most cases you’ll be able to achieve your goal. So how we praise and how we talk about difficulty has a lot of influence on how students feel about themselves when they go into a learning situation.

I would just like to say, I was very struck at when Leonard Cohen the musician died recently, and I was re-listening to a lot of his music. He has this great stanza in one of his songs. He says, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So when we’re out trying to find our way, and we stumble, instead of feeling like we’re losers, we got to say, “Ah, there’s some information I can use. There’s light there. There’s information, I’m going to use that.” And give ourselves a break and press on.

Brett McKay: That’s a fantastic way to end. Peter, where can people go to learn more about your work in the book?

Peter Brown: Well, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, it’s of course on Amazon.

Brett McKay: Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure. My guest today was Peter Brown, he’s the author of the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can also check out his website at where you can find more information. And also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/MakeItStick where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of THe Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy the podcast and got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, helps out a lot. And if you’ve already done that, thank you. Please share the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

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