Book Recommendation: Make it Stick

I read Make it Stick last year, and it’s the book that made the biggest impact on me in 2022. It’s about the “science of successful learning”, and is co-written by researchers in the field who based it on their work studying how we learn.

The core idea is that you must use “retrieval” in various forms to learn a subject. This means that you practice remembering and applying the material instead of re-reading it. Some of the suggestions are:

  1. Practice remembering with flash cards that are spaced, interleaved, and varied
  2. Generate your own answers to problems before learning the technique
  3. Elaborate on material by writing original text that draws from the material
  4. Reflect on your learning sessions by writing a meta description of the material and your relationship to it (e.g. where you struggle, how it’s going)
  5. Calibrate your knowledge with objective third-party sources

I had been primed to accept its suggestions because I was introduced to some of them already. I discovered the book in a video YouTube recommended to me because I watch videos about these topics often.

I learned about Spaced Repetition (using flash cards) a few years ago and have been using it nearly daily since then. I spoke about it at length in Episode 14 of my podcast. While reading this book, I created cards in my Anki deck to help me remember its core ideas. When those cards come up, they test my memory, but also remind me to use the practices.

The “Elaboration” suggestion is very much like Smart Notes, which I learned from How to take Smart Notes. I am writing this review to use “Elaboration” to help me remember its lessons.

And I’m a big believer in Calibration, so I wrote problem sets for beginning programmers trying to learn Swift.

But even with that background, I enjoyed the more expert coverage of the topics with more details on why these techniques work. Since I have been doing many of them for years, I was able to come to it with less skepticism.

An interesting side-note is that they use the techniques they suggest in the structure of the book, but they are limited by what you can do in a static text. If you are interested in this idea taken to a logical extreme, I would recommend reading Quantum Country, which embeds interactive flash cards in the text.

If you struggle in retaining material or need to learn a complex subject, I would certainly give this book a read and try to incorporate its suggestions into your process.