Making it stick – Victoria Littler

In summary:

The book posits that there are no easy routes or short-cuts to transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Such transfer is, however, essential in order to advance in the school environment and beyond; the book offers the following insights, all of which are based on empirical evidence:

  • Learning is deeper and more permanent when it is effortful or challenging
  • There is evidence that intelligence is not fixed: the more you learn, the more neural paths and links in the brain are forged. This process of learning and repeated retrieval strengthens memory and makes it easier to retrieve information in the future
  • We are poor judges of our own learning and, sometimes, of the learning of our pupils; it is essential to practice what they know (or think they do!)
  • Re-reading and massed practice (cramming) is wasteful; gains made will only be temporary and the information learnt will not be transferred to long-term memory.

The book offers some useful tips about how, as well as ensuring that our teaching challenges pupils and that the language we use encourages a growth mindset, we can make students better judges of what they know and become better at retaining knowledge. Moreover, it provides some useful alternatives to students’ often preferred learning methods of massed practice and re-reading.

Practical tips:

  • Using simple quizzing in various forms (multiple choice, Plickers, Kahoot). You could also try: pre-testing to make students more aware of gaps in their knowledge before a topic; using the following questioning technique to get students to think carefully about what they have retained:

Self test 1

Students would then be quizzed on the questions and required to feedback a plus or minus figure depending on whether they underestimated or overestimated their abilities. You should also return to quizzes done earlier in the year. ‘Spacing’ (letting time pass – a minimum of a day) is a useful learning tool because trying to recall what you previously mastered is effortful and therefore more likely to be remembered long-term.

  • Trying to solve a problem before giving students an answer (again, more effortful)
  • Putting material in an illogical sequence; students must then engage with the material and seek to make sense of it themselves
  • Putting reading material out of focus so that students must use prior knowledge to decode information, rather than just re-reading it
  • Leaving gaps in previously taught definitions or blanking out portions of the knowledge organisers to make students really think about how well they know terms and concepts
  • Using delayed feedback; this acts as a form of ‘spacing’ which requires more effort to think about (in terms of remembering what the assessor was looking for and why that was and is important)
  • Interleaving: a practice adopted in English which means that more than one topic or skill set is used in conjunction with another. This makes learning slower and more arduous, making it stick!
  • Using flashcards. Have students copy out key terms on flashcards. In pairs they can test one another and could have three piles: ‘know well’, ‘know’ and ‘need to learn’. These cards should be returned to with varying frequency. The ‘need to learn’ are the obvious priority, however, ‘know well’ and ‘know’ should be interleaved with this revision to ensure commitment to long-term memory.


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