How often have you read a book that you can apply the principles immediately, even while reading the book? I am talking about Inception style “dream within a dream.” That is exactly what happened to me while I read make it stick. The book is about how we learn and retain information effectively and I found myself applying the techniques to solidify the learning strategies in the book. When this happens, you know you found a real gem. You haven’t even put the book down and you are already finding ways to apply it.
One of the biggest takeaways was how important retrieval practice is for durable learning. Retrieval practice means self-quizzing on material you have previously learned. Rather than rereading a textbook or notes, you ask yourself questions which require you to retrieve the information from memory. This habit requires more effort but leads to deeper learning. The illustration given in the book is that learning anything new is like adding beads to a string for a necklace. You can add many beads to the string but unless you tie a knot at the end, the beads will slip off. The beads are compared to all the new things you learn. Retrieval practice is compared to tying the knot on the end of the string. The more you recall learned information, the better your knot and the more snug your beads will remain.
A real world application of retrieval practice is reflection. Since reading this book I have been trying to apply this by reflecting on my day at work. I think about the conversations I had, about the meetings I was a part of, the deliverables my team sent out, presentations I gave, and communication I had with my clients. I ask myself questions like:
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- What might I do differently next time?
I have a journal which I used to write down my thoughts. This practice helps me recall what works and what doesn’t so that I will be better prepared next time.
Another takeaway from the book was the authors perspective on failure. In the west we relate error to failure and achievement to ability. This is a fixed mindset (for more on this read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset). A fixed mindset means you see yourself as having a fixed intelligence that cannot really be changed. With this mindset if you fail or make an error it means you are not intelligent. The opposite of this mindset is the growth mindset. With the growth mindset you do not see your intelligence as fixed. Failure does not mean you are unintelligent, it just means you have work to do. We should see failure as a badge of effort. In order to learn new things we must focus on what is difficult not what is easy but this means we may fail. Mistakes can be good teachers as long as we are open to the feedback. We should look at mistakes and problems as good information not failure.
The two different mindsets also lead to different goals. When you have a fixed mindset you tend to set performance goals which will help validate your ability. This can cause you to shy away from challenges because you may worry you won’t succeed which will prove you aren’t as smart as you thought. On the other hand, a growth mindset tends to lead you to learning goals. With learning goals you are attempting to learn more and increase your skill. You pick challenges and see setbacks as useful information on where you should focus more effort to get better. I have been trying to apply this at work in the way I perceive difficult projects or tasks. When I get assigned a difficult project with many challenging aspects, rather than seeing it as a problem and complain, I want to train myself to see it as a learning opportunity. The challenges will help me become a better engineer as long as I learn from them.
The principles in this book have helped me understand how to obtain deeper learning through retrieval practice. A real world application of this is reflection. I reflect on my day, the challenges I faced, what I can learn from them, and how I can be better. I also learned that it is far more satisfying to have a growth mindset coupled with setting learning goals. With this mindset my intelligence is not fixed, I have room to reach my potential, and I can see failure and setbacks as useful information rather than a lid.