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Make it Stick - Book summary

Learning is one of the key success ingredients in any area of life. Yet, most of us are learning the wrong way. Make It Stick explains why many of our existing learning strategies are ineffective, and presents a better approach that will deliver deeper, more precise and more lasting learning. These ideas and tips are useful for students, teachers, trainers, and anyone who believes in lifelong learning. In our free Make It Stick summary, we’ll briefly outline how learning occurs, and share some of the effective learning strategies that truly work.

Understanding Learning

The most effective learning strategies are actually counter-intuitive. In this book, the authors debunk common learning myths and education/training strategies which are built on theories and intuition rather than real empirical evidence, and present alternative principles for effective learning which are backed by research studies and experiments.

All of us learn continuously throughout our lives, be it mastering a new skill at work or picking up a new hobby. Effective learning must be retained in our memory, so we can call up the skills and knowledge for future problems and opportunities.

The 3 part learning process

To learn effectively, we must understand how learning occurs. It’s involves at least 3 step process:

Make It Stick summary_how we learn

In our complete Make It Stick summary, we explain these 3 steps in more detail. In a nutshell:

• During encoding, new information is received by your brain in the form of chemical and electrical charges. These are encoded into memory traces (or mental representations of the patterns you’ve observed), which are held in your short-term working memory. Most of these memory traces are forgotten.

• During consolidation, material is placed in your long-term memory. Your memory traces are reorganized and connected to past experiences and knowledge in your long-term memory to give them meaning. This process strengthens and stabilizes the mental traces.

• During retrieval, you fetch material from your long-term memory. This concurrently strengthens the memory traces and reconsolidates them by connecting them to the new learning.

We can learn how to learn, as well as improve our abilities through learning.  For learning to be effective, we must (a) anchor the new material firmly when we recode/consolidate it from short-term memory to long-term memory, (b) link the material with a wide range of cues so we can recall it more easily later, and (c) develop sound mental models which capture real understanding.

In our full book summary, we also explain the difference between knowledge and conceptual understanding, and why effective learning not only improves performance but actually changes your brain and intellectual capabilities (a term called “neuroplasticity”).

Make Learning Stick

Throughout the book, the authors deliberately repeat the key ideas and tips in different contexts to enhance readers’ learning and retention. They also differentiate between empirical evidence, preliminary research evidence and their own theories about learning. Our full 14-page summary broadly classifies these strategies into 3 ineffective strategies (which are widely-adopted but don’t work well in reality), and 6 effective strategies which are empirically proven.

Make It Stick summary_strategies-learning retention

Let’s now zoom in on 2 of these effective strategies.

1. Use Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is about recalling concepts, facts or events from memory. It’s different from “massed practice” which is about repeating something rapidly and single-mindedly to try to commit it to memory.  This is also known as the “testing effect” or the retrieval-practice effect. Generally, taking a quiz is much more effective in reinforcing your learning than re-reading materials.

The key is to use testing as a tool to retrieve learning from memory, rather than a dipstick or a form of judgement of how much someone knows.
• As you learn something, pause occasionally and ask yourself what you’ve learned and how they relate to what you know.
• Instead of rereading materials, use quizzes (self-testing or a third-party test) to retrieve knowledge and skill from memory.
• Set aside time to quiz yourself regularly on past and new materials on a topic you wish to master. Remember to check your answers and so you can correct your mistakes.

2. Use Spacing, Interleaving, Variation

These are 3 related ingredients that can make your retrieval practice more effortful and effective. The key is to mix things up and vary them, so you break mindless repetition, and simulate retrieval in a way that’s similar to the random and varied nature of real-life challenges. Our complete Make It Stick summary explains in greater detail why this works how you can apply it in real-life learning.

Spaced practice means spreading out your retrieval sessions with a meaningful time-gap between practice sessions.

Interleaved practice means alternating topics or deliberately leaving regular blanks or intervals between practices. This is more effective than focusing on the same problem or topic for an extended period of time.

Variation. Rather than repeat the same retrieval practice every time, vary the type and context of your retrievals. Similar to interleaving, variation enhances your ability to compare similarities and differences across various scenarios, and to integrate related ideas and/or skills into meaningful schemas or mental models for better solutions.


Here’s an overview of other effective learning strategies/principles:

Effortful learning. It’s a myth that great learning should be fast and easy. Learning is actually deeper and longer-lasting when it’s more difficult and effortful, as it helps to reconsolidate memory, create mental models and increase brain neural connections.

Learning Structures, not Learning Styles. Rather than focus on your preferred learning styles (e.g. visual vs auditory learning), it’s more effective to focus on building learning structures or mental models of how you learn.

Avoid Illusions of Knowing. We are generally poor judges of what we know and don’t know.
Understand our brain’s natural biases and illusions, and use “calibration” to objectively evaluate your learning.

• You can also use other proven strategies like generation, reflection and mnemonic devices to enhance and deepen your learning.

Getting the Most from Make It Stick

Ready to learn effective strategies that present a better approach that will deliver deeper, more precise and more lasting learning? You can get a detailed tips and examples of the various learning strategies and applications with our complete book summary bundle. This includes an infographic, a 14-page text summary, and a 25-minute audio summary.Make it Stick summary - book summary bundleThe responsibility for lifelong learning fundamentally rests with each of us. Whether you are a learner, trainer and/or educator, it’s up to you to apply and tailor the tips and strategies to suit your goals and circumstances.

You can purchase the book here for more details of learning research and examples, or check out more resources at

Want to learn faster and better? Do also check out our summaries for: Ultralearning, A Mind for Numbers, and Unlimited Memory.

About the Authors of Make It Stick

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is authored by  Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel.

Henry L. Roediger is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at the Washington University. His research is focused on human learning and memory, and he has published 3 textbooks and over 200 articles and chapters. Roediger graduated with a B.A in Psychology from Washington & Lee University and received his Ph.D. from Yale University.

Mark A McDaniel is a Professor of Psychology, with a joint appointment in Education at Washington University. He graduated with an A B in Psychology and Mathematics from Oberlin College and received his PhD from University of Colorado. McDaniel is well known for his work in the application of cognitive psychological principles to education. He has published 2 books and over 200 articles and chapters.

Peter C. Brown is an American writer who has produced both fiction and non-fiction works.

Make It Stick Quotes

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

“The elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your control.”

“It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a huge difference.”

“Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”

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

“If you’re good at learning, you have an advantage in life.”

“The more effort required to retrieve (or, in effect, relearn) something, the better you learn it.

“Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them.”

Click here to download Make it Stick book summary and infographic

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