I’m currently reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Henry Roedinger, and Mark McDaniel. Make It Stick is a survey of cognitive science research on how humans learn, including many counterintuitive results that suggest teachers and students know less about learning than we think.
One of the central themes of Make It Stick is that learners need to retrieve new information in order to retain it. This is often framed as testing, and the book offers a variety of research showing the positive effects of frequent testing.
In its most common form, testing is used to measure learning and assign grades in school, but we’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future.
To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort.
Seems pretty clear. But what exactly does that retrieval look like? Make It Stick provides plenty of examples of research on frequent quizzing, both in laboratory and classroom environments, but quizzes and tests aren’t the only way to practice retrieval. Another perspective, that we don’t often use in math class:
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.
What does reflection look like in math class? I think 3-act lessons and rich tasks do a great job of making these connections — I’m thinking of a lesson like this:
If we get kids who want to answer rich questions, kids who want to put in the mental effort to retrieve the estimation and volume and proportional reasoning strategies they need to figure out how much money that is, they are creating connections by retrieving information and knitting it together. Testing is great. More quizzes can lead to more learning. But I think there’s room for more impactful teaching, and I think this idea of reflecting on learning is a key.
The coda here is that Make It Stick is talking about retrieval, not generation. A great task to introduce and give context for a topic is great. But that’s not where great tasks end — they need to come at the beginning, to motivate and contextualize a topic, and at the end, to connect it to other mathematics, to push its boundaries, to explore examples and counterexamples, and to make it stick.