Dr. Mark A. McDaniel
Dr. Mark A. McDaniel

How do we learn and absorb new information? Which learning strategies actually work and which are mere myths?

Such questions are at the center of the work of Mark McDaniel, professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education at Washington University in St. Louis. McDaniel coauthored the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

In this Q&A adapted from a Career & Academic Resource Center podcast episode, McDaniel discusses his research on human learning and memory, including the most effective strategies for learning throughout a lifetime.


Harvard Extension: In your book, you talk about strategies to help students be better learners in and outside of the classroom. You write, “We harbor deep convictions that we learn better through single-minded focus and dogged repetition. And these beliefs are validated time and again by the visible improvement that comes during practice, practice, practice.”

McDaniel: This judgment that repetition is effective is hard to shake. There are cues present that your brain picks up when you’re rereading, when you’re repeating something that give you the metacognitive, that is your judgment about your own cognition, give you the misimpression that you really have learned this stuff well.

Older learners shouldn’t feel that they’re at a definitive disadvantage, because they’re not. Older learners really want to try to leverage their prior knowledge and use that as a basis to structure and frame and understand new information coming in.

And two of the primary cues are familiarity. So as you keep rereading, the material becomes more familiar to you. And we mistakenly judge familiarity as meaning robust learning.

And the second cue is fluency. It’s very clear from much work in reading and cognitive processes during reading that when you reread something at every level, the processes are more fluent. Word identification is more fluent. Parsing the structure of the sentence is more fluent. Extracting the ideas is more fluent. Everything is more fluent. And we misinterpret these fluency cues that the brain is getting. And these are accurate cues. It is more fluent. But we misinterpret that as meaning, I’ve really got this. I’ve really learned this. I’m not going to forget this. And that’s really misleading.

So let me give you another example. It’s not just rereading. It’s situations in, say, the STEM fields or any place where you’ve got to learn how to solve certain kinds of problems. One of the standard ways that instructors present homework is to present the same kind of problem in block fashion. You may have encountered this in your own math courses, your own physics courses.

So for example, in a physics course, you might get a particular type of work problem. And the parameters on it, the numbers might change, but in your homework, you’re trying to solve two or three or four of these work problems in a row. Well, it gets more and more fluid because exactly what formula you have to use. You know exactly what the problem is about. And as you get more fluid, and as we say in the book, it looks like you’re getting better. You are getting better at these problems.

But the issue is that can you remember how to identify which kinds of problems go with which kinds of solutions a week later when you’re asked to do a test where you have all different kinds of problems? And the answer is no, you cannot when you’ve done this block practice. So even though instructors who feel like their students are doing great with block practice and students will feel like they’re doing great, they are doing great on that kind of block practice, but they’re not at all good now at retaining information about what distinguishing features or problems are signaling certain kinds of approaches.

What you want to do is interleave practice in these problems. You want to randomly have a problem of one type and then solve a problem of another type and then a problem of another type. And in doing that, it feels difficult and it doesn’t feel fluent. And the signals to your brain are, I’m not getting this. I’m not doing very well. But in fact, that effort to try to figure out what kinds of approaches do I need for each problem as I encounter a different kind of problem, that’s producing learning. That’s producing robust skills that stick with you.

So this is a seductive thing that we have to, instructors and students alike, have to understand and have to move beyond those initial judgments, I haven’t learned very much, and trust that the more difficult practice schedule really is the better learning.

And I’ve written more on this since Make It Stick. And one of my strong theoretical tenets now is that in order for students to really embrace these techniques, they have to believe that they work for them. Each student has to believe it works for them. So I prepare demonstrations to show students these techniques work for them.

The net result of adopting these strategies is that students aren’t spending more time. Instead they’re spending more effective time. They’re working better. They’re working smarter.

When students take an exam after doing lots of retrieval practice, they see how well they’ve done. The classroom becomes very exciting. There’s lots of buy-in from the students. There’s lots of energy. There’s lots of stimulation to want to do more of this retrieval practice, more of this difficulty. Because trying to retrieve information is a lot more difficult than rereading it. But it produces robust learning for a number of reasons.

I think students have to trust that these techniques, and I think they also have to observe that these techniques work for them. It’s creating better learning. And then as a learner, you are more motivated to replace these ineffective techniques with more effective techniques.

Harvard Extension: You talk about tips for learners, how to make it stick. And there are several methods or tips that you share: elaboration, generation, reflection, calibration, among others. Which of these techniques is best?

McDaniel: It depends on the learning challenges that are faced. So retrieval practice, which is practicing trying to recall information from memory is really super effective if the requirements of your course require you to reproduce factual information.

For other things, it may be that you want to try something like generating understanding, creating mental models. So if your exams require you to draw inferences and work with new kinds of problems that are illustrative of the principles, but they’re new problems you haven’t seen before, a good technique is to try to connect the information into what I would call mental models. This is your representation of how the parts and the aspects fit together, relate together.

It’s not that one technique is better than the other. It’s that different techniques produce certain kinds of outcomes. And depending on the outcome you want, you might select one technique or the other.

I really firmly believe that to the extent that you can make learning fun and to the extent that one technique really seems more fun to you, that may be your go to technique. I teach a learning strategy course and I make it very clear to students. You don’t need to use all of these techniques. Find a couple that really work for you and then put those in your toolbox and replace rereading with these techniques.

Harvard Extension: You reference lifelong learning and lifelong learners. You talk about the brain being plastic, mutability of the brain in some ways, and give examples of how some lifelong learners approach their learning.

McDaniel: In some sense, more mature learners, older learners, have an advantage because they have more knowledge. And part of learning involves relating new information that’s coming into your prior knowledge, relating it to your knowledge structures, relating it to your schemas for how you think about certain kinds of content.

And so older adults have the advantage of having this richer knowledge base with which they can try to integrate new material. So older learners shouldn’t feel that they’re at a definitive disadvantage, because they’re not. Older learners really want to try to leverage their prior knowledge and use that as a basis to structure and frame and understand new information coming in.

Our challenges as older learners is that we do have these habits of learning that are not very effective. We turn to these habits. And if these aren’t such effective habits, we maybe attribute our failures to learn to age or a lack of native ability or so on and so forth. And in fact, that’s not it at all. In fact, if you adopt more effective strategies at any age, you’re going to find that your learning is more robust, it’s more successful, it falls into place.

You can learn these strategies at any age. Successful lifelong learning is getting these effective strategies in place, trusting them, and having them become a habit for how you’re going to approach your learning challenges.

The net result of adopting these strategies is that students aren’t spending more time. Instead they’re spending more effective time. They’re working better. They’re working smarter.