In the 8th grade I took a test. In the 8th grade there were many tests, but this one in particular stands out. I don't remember the subject of the test, and that, actually, is relevant to this post. It may have been on the amendments to the constitution of the United States. I remember studying for that test, I remember reciting the relevant information over and over, perhaps cramming, possibly memorizing the relevant information. I passed the test. The first test. A week later our instructor gave us the same test again, this time as a surprise. Most of us did not pass the second test. I remember my teacher telling us that this proved that we were not actually learning the material, but merely memorizing facts to take a test. I recall feeling chastened for studying incorrectly. I do not recall that we were instructed in techniques to aid in long-term retention of the assigned material, and I wondered where I went wrong. If memorization and cramming are not enough, what indeed is the proper way to study?
Last year I felt driven to slow down my reading. I am sure this impulse was somewhat reactionary in that there were a few years when I felt overwhelmed and distracted and although I read, I continue to feel like I did not really focus my attention on my reading. I feel like what I read filtered through my brain like a sieve, leaving little lasting impression. And this continued to bother me. But I am also not convinced that some part of me didn't wish to slow down as attempt to align my reading pace more closely to my ability to review the books. That ended up being an epic fail, as rather than reviewing more, I actually almost stopped reviewing altogether. But the experiment itself was a success.
Then in December I picked up Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown. Brown's thesis is that many of the things that we assume about studying and learning are in fact wrong. He then explains what we have learned about how the brain works and discusses what techniques work and why. He also explains why study techniques like repeatedly rereading and underlining, then reviewing the underlined passages don't work even though we believe they do.
The book is a pretty easy read. Brown basically tells you what works early on, then spends the bulk of the book fleshing it out, telling you why some things work and some don't, reviewing the science and interspersing it with stories aimed at helping the reader relate to the content. Then in the end he reiterates his main points, with more examples of people who use the techniques and how they have helped them.
There is a lot of fluff. But the fluff is actually necessary. The fluff hides the patterns, which is the point. The reader has to sift through the story and reflect on the meaning, which feels frustrating, but which also aids in learning. Brown points out that an author is a storyteller. We relate to information through stories, and it is through our own adaptation and interpretation of those stories that we write our own stories, which help us ultimately to retain the information. But in order to write our own version of the story, we have to understand the underlying principles. We have to think about the story, not just copy and memorize a list of points.
You learn through the connections and relationships your brain builds between bits of information. When you make your own associations, the information takes on meaning, just as I recalled the 8th grade test. I certainly hadn't thought about that test in decades. But that test did change the way I studied. And the changes I made at the time also informed the changes I made to my reading this year, techniques I had devised in high school and college that helped me retain information and which actually made preparing for finals easier. I was never one of the students pulling overnighters cramming for exams.
I certainly don't use all of the techniques Brown mentions, although I might use more of them were I following a course of study rather than just reading for pleasure and edification. You might use a different combination of techniques, or use them in a different way. But reading Make It Stick helped me reflect on my own reading habits, and my reviewing habits as well, and why sometimes I feel torn between wanting to review a book while simultaneously being wrapped up reading another book, and how both difficult and ultimately rewarding it is to go back, and summarize and put my thoughts on a book on paper after it has had time to marinate in my brain for a while.
For a while I struggled with my inclination to want to go back and reflect on what I had read. My inclination is to read then put the book aside and do something else, even watch tv, then come back, write down what I thought I had read, refer once again to the book to test my own memory and then come back again, usually later, to write my own reflections and elaborations on what I had read. This functions well as a technique for making the knowledge mine. This often takes days if not weeks. Sometimes I wonder if I make things too hard for myself. It feels hard, but actually having to work hard on memory, cements that memory more firmly in place. Restating new information in my own words, associating it with something I already know or an issue I am already struggling with, embeds that knowledge in my own neural pathways.
In the same way, my own tendency to interleave my reading materials by reading several books simultaneously, as well as the distractions caused by the general hubbub of life, helps to solidify the impression made by the book. The harder I have to work to retrieve the memory, the more likely the memory is to stick. When I was young I thought I wasn't very smart because I had to work so hard, rewriting and quizzing myself in order to fully absorb things. I was envious of those who read and underlined and made it look easy, even thought I knew that didn't work for me. It ends up that effortless study does not really help any of us; it is the effort that makes it stick. Although I didn't realize the impact then, my efforts paid off. As I mentioned, I was not cramming come exam week, although many of my classmates were. I already knew the material. I didn't have to crack my text, just review my own copiously rewritten notes, and quiz myself on a few points. It was my classmates who made it look so easy during the semester were up all night cramming their brains into oblivion, showing up with gray skin and dark circles under their eyes.
The point is to read or study, forget, at least partially, then retrieve. My own inclination to rewrite and reflect is a form of retrieval. I finished the actual reading of this book around the 30th of December. I finished my notes on January 2nd. It has taken me over a week to articulate what I wanted to say in this review, which is in effect, yet another final review and restatement of my thoughts on the book. It is completely different from my notes of the 2nd, which I reviewed briefly before sitting down to write this, and set aside.
Granted not all books are worth the effort. They should not be. We all need to rest, to escape, to wind down however we chose to do so, be it a beer with friends, a mindless television show, a silly book. Learn. Rest. Learn something else. Wander. Recall. Begin again.
One of the two books that I finished the first weekend of this year addressed this exact problem.