Make It Stick

by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 04, 2024
Make It Stick
Make It Stick

What are the big ideas? 1. The importance of regular, low-stakes testing for effective learning: This book emphasizes the benefits of frequent testing as a powerful

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The importance of regular, low-stakes testing for effective learning: This book emphasizes the benefits of frequent testing as a powerful tool for enhancing long-term retention and deepening understanding. Unlike traditional views that see testing as solely a measure of ability, this approach encourages retrieval practice and calibration of knowledge, leading to improved learning outcomes.
  2. The role of interleaving and variation in building broad schema: The book argues for the value of mixing up practice and adapting to new contexts as essential components of effective learning. This goes against the common assumption that focusing on one skill or topic at a time is the most efficient way to learn. Instead, the book suggests that interleaving and variation help build a robust mental framework and improve ability to adapt to new situations.
  3. The significance of self-quizzing for accurate self-assessment: Regular self-testing and quizzing are advocated as crucial strategies for calibrating one's understanding and preventing forgetting. This approach is distinct from relying on feelings of familiarity or ease in retrieval as indicators of learning, which can lead to overconfidence and inaccurate self-assessment.
  4. The importance of embracing difficulties for deeper learning: The book encourages learners to recognize that difficulties are a natural part of the learning process and can be overcome with greater cognitive effort. This perspective is unique as it challenges the common belief that learning should be easy and effortless, instead emphasizing the importance of pushing beyond current abilities to develop mastery.
  5. The role of mnemonic devices in supporting existing knowledge: While mnemonic devices can be helpful in organizing and retrieving information, this book suggests their greatest value comes after initial learning has taken place. This is a departure from the traditional view that mnemonics are essential for efficient memorization. Instead, the focus is on using active learning strategies like retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving to build a strong foundation of knowledge before relying on mnemonic devices as supporting tools.




  • People commonly use ineffective learning methods despite empirical research showing more effective strategies.
  • Effective learning strategies are counter-intuitive and require spaced repetition and interleaving of topics.
  • The responsibility for learning rests with individuals, but teachers and coaches can also benefit from these principles.
  • Principles and practical strategies for immediate use exist, although more research is needed on neural underpinnings.
  • Effective learning can be achieved at no cost through application of these strategies for students, teachers, trainers, lifelong learners, and professionals.


“two of the primary learning principles in the book: spaced repetition of key ideas, and the interleaving of different but related topics.”

1. Learning Is Misunderstood


  • The illusion of knowing is a common experience that can hinder learning and make students overconfident in their understanding, leading them to rely on ineffective study methods.
  • Knowledge is necessary for higher-level skills like analysis, synthesis, and creative problem solving, but it's not sufficient on its own. Mastery requires both knowledge and conceptual understanding.
  • Testing can be a valuable tool for learning when viewed as an opportunity to retrieve information from memory and strengthen connections to existing knowledge, rather than just as a measure of ability.
  • Regular self-quizzing is an effective strategy for calibrating your understanding of what you know and don't know, and for preventing forgetting.


“Third, learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.”

“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”

“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.”

“Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive.”

“Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. 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.”

“Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.”

“When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.”

“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.”

“In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness.”

“you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”

“Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning. For example, the more of the unfolding story of history you know, the more of it you can learn. And the more ways you give that story meaning, say by connecting it to your understanding of human ambition and the untidiness of fate, the better the story stays with you.”

“People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery. A mental model is a mental representation of some external reality.”

“Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.”

“Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer. It’s widely believed by teachers, trainers, and coaches that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give it dogged, single-minded focus, practicing over and over until you’ve got it down. Our faith in this runs deep, because most of us see fast gains during the learning phase of massed practice. What’s apparent from the research is that gains achieved during massed practice are transitory and melt away quickly.”

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery.”

“Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal.”

“Notwithstanding the pitfalls of standardized testing, what we really ought to ask is how to do better at building knowledge and creativity, for without knowledge you don’t have the foundation for the higher-level skills of analysis, synthesis, and creative problem solving. As the psychologist Robert Sternberg and two colleagues put it, “one cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.”12”

“Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment, and skill. These are the fruits of variety in the practice of new skills, and of striving, reflection, and mental rehearsal.”

“Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.”

“One of the most striking research findings is the power of active retrieval—testing—to strengthen memory, and that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit.”

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.”

“One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.”

“If you find yourself falling into single-minded, repetitive practice of a particular topic or skill, change it up: mix in the practice of other subjects, other skills, constantly challenging your ability to recognize the problem type and select the right solution.”

2. To Learn, Retrieve


  • Regular, low-stakes testing strengthens learning and retention of facts, concepts, problem-solving techniques, and motor skills.
  • Retrieval practice requires effortful engagement and is more effective for long-term learning than rereading or studying without retrieving the information.
  • Delayed retrieval practice after initial testing yields better long-term learning.
  • Repeated testing increases calibration of knowledge and understanding, and enables instructors to adapt instruction based on identified gaps.
  • Students who take frequent tests rate their classes more favorably and show increased attendance.
  • Testing can be initiated by students through self-testing, such as flashcards or practice quizzes.
  • Giving corrective feedback after tests prevents incorrect retention of misunderstood material.
  • Test anxiety is reduced with low-stakes testing and frequent opportunities for retrieval practice.


“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”

“Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

“Those who were frequently tested reached the end of the semester on top of the material and did not need to cram for exams. How”

“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention.”

3. Mix Up Your Practice


  • Massed practice, or practicing a skill intensively but infrequently, can result in good short-term performance but weak long-term retention.
  • Spacing, or distributing practice over time, allows memories to consolidate and strengthens both learning and memory.
  • Interleaving, or mixing up the practice of different skills, helps build a broad schema, improve discrimination ability, and develop deeper learning.
  • Variation, or changing the context of practice, adds complexity and challenges learners to adapt, enhancing underlying habit strength.
  • Reflection, or thinking about what has been learned, is an essential component of effective learning that deepens understanding and reinforces neural connections.


“Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice.”

“It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later.”

“At a minimum, 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.”

“But scientists call this heightened performance during the acquisition phase of a skill “momentary strength” and distinguish it from “underlying habit strength.” The very techniques that build habit strength, like spacing, interleaving, and variation, slow visible acquisition and fail to deliver the improvement during practice that helps to motivate and reinforce our efforts.12”

4. Embrace Difficulties


  • Learning involves encoding information into short-term working memory and then consolidating it into long-term memory through retrieval practice.
  • Consolidation strengthens connections between new learning and existing knowledge, making it easier to recall and apply in the future.
  • Long-term memory capacity is virtually limitless, and the more knowledge you have, the more connections you can make to new information.
  • Effortful retrieval of learning strengthens neural pathways and updates memories with new information.
  • Repeated practice or retrieval helps integrate learning into mental models, which are adaptable and versatile.
  • Variation and interleaving during learning enhance the ability to discriminate and induce, expanding knowledge and increasing retrieval cues.
  • Generative learning, where learners try to solve problems without being shown the solution, leads to better long-term retention and deeper understanding.


“The process of learning something often starts out feeling disorganized and unwieldy; the most important aspects are not always salient. Consolidation helps organize and solidify learning”

“Durable, robust learning requires that we do two things. First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely. Second, we must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked. The task is more than committing knowledge to memory. Being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important.”

“Knowledge, skills, and experiences that are vivid and hold significance, and those that are periodically practiced, stay with us.”

“Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory.”

“Spaced and interleaved exposure characterizes most of humans’ normal experience.”

“It’s thought that this heightened sensitivity to similarities and differences during interleaved practice leads to the encoding of more complex and nuanced representations of the study material—a better understanding of how specimens or types of problems are distinctive and why they call for a different interpretation or solution.”

“In another surprise, when letters are omitted from words in a text, requiring the reader to supply them, reading is slowed, and retention improves.”

“In testing, being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still. Overcoming these mild difficulties is a form of active learning, where students engage in higher-order thinking tasks rather than passively receiving knowledge conferred by others.”

“It’s not the failure that’s desirable, it’s the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn’t that sometimes only failure can reveal.”

“When practice conditions are varied or retrieval is interleaved with the practice of other material, we increase our abilities of discrimination and induction and the versatility with which we can apply the learning in new settings at a later date. Interleaving and variation build new connections, expanding and more firmly entrenching knowledge in memory and increasing the number of cues for retrieval. Trying to come up with an answer rather than having it presented to you, or trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution, leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution, even when your attempted response is wrong, so long as corrective feedback is provided.”

5. Avoid Illusions of Knowing


  • Our intuitive judgments about what we know and don't know, our ease in retrieving information, and our feelings of familiarity can be misleading indicators of learning.
  • Regular testing and retrieval practice are essential for accurate self-assessment and mastery of material.
  • Peer instruction and feedback from others can provide valuable external gauges for assessing one's understanding.
  • Training simulations that mimic real-world conditions can help learners and trainers evaluate competency and focus on areas requiring improvement.
  • Mistakes made in the field, assuming survival, can serve as powerful learning experiences and opportunities for calibration.


“The truth is that we’re all hardwired to make errors in judgment. Good judgment is a skill one must acquire, becoming an astute observer of one’s own thinking and performance. We start at a disadvantage for several reasons. One is that when we’re incompetent, we tend to overestimate our competence and see little reason to change. Another is that, as humans, we are readily misled by illusions, cognitive biases, and the stories we construct to explain the world around us and our place within it. To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.”

“Two Systems of Knowing In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes our two analytic systems. What he calls System 1 (or the automatic system) is unconscious, intuitive, and immediate. It draws on our senses and memories to size up a situation in the blink of an eye. It’s the running back dodging tackles in his dash for the end zone. It’s the Minneapolis cop, walking up to a driver he’s pulled over on a chilly day, taking evasive action even before he’s fully aware that his eye has seen a bead of sweat run down the driver’s temple.”

“System 2 (the controlled system) is our slower process of conscious analysis and reasoning. It’s the part of thinking that considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control. We also use it to train System 1 to recognize and respond to particular situations that demand reflexive action. The running back is using System 2 when he walks through the moves in his playbook. The cop is using it when he practices taking a gun from a shooter. The neurosurgeon is using it when he rehearses his repair of the torn sinus.”

“We gravitate to the narratives that best explain our emotions. In this way, narrative and memory become one. The memories we organize meaningfully become those that are better remembered. Narrative provides not only meaning but also a mental framework for imbuing future experiences and information with meaning, in effect shaping new memories to fit our established constructs of the world and ourselves.”

“This presumption by the professor that her students will readily follow something complex that appears fundamental in her own mind is a metacognitive error, a misjudgment of the matchup between what she knows and what her students know.”

“For success everything must go right, but by contrast, failure can be attributed to any number of external causes”

“Pay attention to the cues you’re using to judge what you have learned. Whether something feels familiar or fluent is not always a reliable indicator of learning. Neither is your level of ease in retrieving a fact or a phrase on a quiz shortly after encountering it in a lecture or text. (Ease of retrieval after a delay, however, is a good indicator of learning.) Far better is to create a mental model of the material that integrates the various ideas across a text, connects them to what you already know, and enables you to draw inferences.”

“How ably you can explain a text is an excellent cue for judging comprehension, because you must recall the salient points from memory, put them into your own words, and explain why they are significant—how they relate to the larger subject.”

6. Get Beyond Learning Styles


  • Take charge of your learning by setting clear goals, seeking out new experiences, and adopting active learning strategies like retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving.
  • Embrace the notion of successful intelligence and be open to developing competencies in areas where you may not have a natural aptitude.
  • Dynamic testing involves regularly assessing your knowledge or skills, identifying weaknesses, and focusing on improving in those areas.
  • Structure building is the process of extracting salient ideas and constructing coherent mental frameworks to facilitate learning and problem-solving.
  • High structure-builders and rule learners are more successful at transferring their learning to unfamiliar situations than low structure-builders and example learners.
  • Adopt active learning strategies like retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving to enhance your mastery of complex ideas, skills, and processes.
  • Embrace the notion that difficulties you can overcome with greater cognitive effort will more than repay you in the depth and durability of your learning.
  • Distill underlying principles and build structures to better understand complex concepts.
  • Practice dynamic testing as a learning strategy to discover weaknesses, focusing on improving those areas.
  • Don't assume that something feels wrong if learning feels hard; instead, recognize that difficulties you can overcome with greater cognitive effort will more than repay you in the depth and durability of your learning.


“As he throws himself into one scheme after another, he draws lessons that improve his focus and judgment. He knits what he learns into mental models of investing, which he then uses to size up more complex opportunities and find his way through the weeds, plucking the telling details from masses of irrelevant information to reach the payoff at the end. These behaviors are what psychologists call “rule learning” and “structure building.” People who as a matter of habit extract underlying principles or rules from new experiences are more successful learners than those who take their experiences at face value, failing to infer lessons that can be applied later in similar situations. Likewise, people who single out salient concepts from the less important information they encounter in new material and who link these key ideas into a mental structure are more successful learners than those who cannot separate wheat from chaff and understand how the wheat is made into flour.”

“The stories we create to understand ourselves become the narratives of our lives, explaining the accidents and choices that have brought us where we are: what I'm good at, what I care about most, and where I'm headed.”

“Each of us has a large basket of resources in the form of aptitudes, prior knowledge, intelligence, interests, and sense of personal empowerment that shape how we learn and how we overcome our shortcomings. Some of these differences matter a lot—for example, our ability to abstract underlying principles from new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures. Other differences we may think count for a lot, for example having a verbal or visual learning style, actually don’t.”

“In the school of life experience, setbacks show us where we need to do better. We can steer clear of similar challenges in the future, or we can redouble our efforts to master them, broadening our capacities and expertise.”

“Dynamic testing has three steps. Step 1: a test of some kind—perhaps an experience or a paper exam—shows me where I come up short in knowledge or a skill. Step 2: I dedicate myself to becoming more competent, using reflection, practice, spacing, and the other techniques of effective learning. Step 3: I test myself again, paying attention to what works better now but also, and especially, to where I still need more work.”

7. Increase Your Abilities


  • The brain is plastic and capable of changing throughout life through experience and learning
  • Deliberate practice, which involves focused attention and effort beyond one's current abilities, leads to mastery and expertise
  • Mnemonic devices can be used to organize and retrieve information, but their greatest value comes after initial learning has taken place
  • Effortful learning changes the brain by building new connections and capabilities
  • Self-discipline, grit, and persistence are crucial qualities for achieving expert performance.


“Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient,” Dweck says. The active ingredient is the simple but nonetheless profound realization that the power to increase your abilities lies largely within your own control.”

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”

“We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities.”


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