ATD Blog

Make it Stick

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Talent development professionals have a firm grip on the culture and resource implications of building a learning organization. Most learning strategies that are taken for gospel are based on theory, lore, and intuition. In other words, they are methods that have been handed down through the ages, but not all of them are particularly effective. 

In my field of cognitive psychology, many of us with long careers in empirical research have dedicated years to studies aimed at a deceptively simple question: What teaching and learning strategies lead to better learning and longer retention? 

The Testing Effect 

Learning is perceived as the task of getting new knowledge into the brain. Common strategies are reading texts, hearing lectures, and dedicating days to in-service training seminars. But the most effective strategies, whether for simple learning or complex mastery, turn out to be those that emphasize drawing knowledge out of the brain. 

Every time you recall a memory you change it. Texts, lectures, and seminars introduce us to new material, but the actual learning and durable retention accrue from practice at recalling and applying knowledge or skills: struggling to articulate the central ideas, relating them to what you already know, practicing retrieving them from memory, and applying them in many varied contexts. 

Testing is usually seen as a dipstick to measure what you know, but the power of retrieval to lock in learning is known among cognitive psychologists as the testing effect. 

Desirable Difficulties 


Some impediments that slow down learning make the learning stronger and more durable. Most people think of practice as an episode of single-minded, rapid-fire repetition—hitting your 20 foot putt from the same place a dozen times in a row, for example. In fact, “massed” practice like this typically shows satisfying gains, but these gains lean on short-term memory. What you don’t perceive in the moment is just how rapidly your new prowess melts away after you stop practicing. 

Practice is far more effective when it is spaced out and you have to struggle a little to reconstruct what’s been learned earlier. Why is this so? In order for new learning to be durable, it must be consolidated in long-term memory. 

Memory consolidation takes time, though. When you space out your practice sessions, retrieval is harder. Your finesse has rough edges, and you struggle. This mental grappling causes the learning to be reconsolidated, making the main points more salient, connecting the new material more strongly to what you already know, and strengthening the neural pathways for recalling it again later. Spaced practice does not feel as effective as massed practice, but countless studies show it is far superior for getting lasting results. 

Putting Theory into Action 


Here are five tips that can help make your learning organization highly effective. 

  1. Retrieve. Emphasize retrieval practice in all its many forms: quizzes, essays, role-playing, hands-on demonstration. Think flight simulator vs PowerPoint lecture. In addition to the learning benefits, quizzing and the like reveal areas of weakness and quickly dispel illusions of mastery.

  2. Space out practice to let some forgetting set in between sessions. Electronic apps like (to name only one) enable trainers to send periodic refresher quizzes over the days and months following training to help stem forgetting and lock in learning.

  3. Mix up the practice of different topics or problem types. This slows practice but improves learners’ ability later to differentiate the kind of problem being faced and to select the correct solution. Mixed practice simulates real-world conditions. It also helps learners extract the underlying principles that differentiate or unite families of specimens or problem types, such as structural properties of materials, business security vulnerabilities and interventions, and characteristics and treatment of diseases.

  4. Reach back and carry forward. Once learners have demonstrated successful retrieval, they may be tempted to forgo practice to focus on new material, but anything that you want them to retain in memory must be periodically practiced. Retrieval of older material in conjunction with newer learning helps to update older learning and build more complex mastery.

  5. Help learners create mental models. Don’t get sidetracked trying to adapt training to individual learning styles; there is not a body of evidence to warrant doing so. But not all learners are adept at organizing new knowledge in a meaningful way. Some evidence suggests that these learners do better when asked to net out the key ideas contained in new material and to explain how these ideas relate to what they already know. 
About the Author

Henry L. Roediger, III, is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author of Make it Stick, the Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press, 2014).

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
I now understand this concept of spacing out practice. It makes sense to permit the learner time to forget before being quizzed again. They can enjoy a sense of accomplishment when remembering the concepts. What they did not get right may now be the focus of their desire to understand and try to push it into long term memory.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.