Learning That Sticks

Why don’t most of us remember what we learned in school? It seems a lot of what we were taught failed to stick. In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, there are useful suggestions for improving our ability to retain things. Learning is a three step process – initial encoding, consolidation and retrieval – and it’s deeper and more durable when serious effort is made. Spacing out practice and interweaving it with other learning is more effective than mass practice methods like cramming the night before an exam. Retrieval practice (known as the ‘testing effect’) involving the recalling of facts and concepts from memory through self-testing is more productive than just rereading notes or a textbook. The reason is we are often poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. This is due to illusions of mastery. While all of these strategies are the individual learner’s responsibility, there are ways teachers can make learning stick too.

Most of the following principles are common sense, however there is something known as ‘the curse of knowledge’ that can prevent teachers from making their lessons stick. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it is like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. It can sometimes be difficult for us to share knowledge with others, because we cannot easily recreate the state of mind of our students. Every year we bring new knowledge to our class. Given that we’ve taught it before, teachers need to ensure that we are transforming our ideas into a language that is understandable to our students. Always being aware of the differences between expert and novice is important. It can have a significant impact on making learning stick.


The ability to decide what is most crucial is at the heart of simplicity. It is an essential skill for all good teaching. When planning a lesson or course outline, some concepts are more critical than others, so we ask ourselves: what should be left in and what should be taken out? To get the ideas we are teaching to stick with students, we need to identify our core messages. We need to cut extraneous details. We need to trim the fat.

Teaching with simplicity does not mean dumbing down the curriculum, but instead choosing what content is worthwhile. A good way to communicate lots of information succinctly and make it stick is through anchoring it to what students already know. Teachers use this simple principle of anchoring all the time. Another effective way to make the learning memorable is analogies, the bread and butter of teacher explanation. 


Sparking curiosity is one of the holy grails of teaching. According to George Loewenstein’s gap theory, this inquisitiveness arises when we feel there is a hole in our knowledge. One of the keys to the theory is that we need to open gaps before we can close them. Teachers must make students realize they need to fill these gaps. If we want to know something but don’t, it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. The trick then is to sometimes deliberately withhold information for awhile in order to pique curiosity. This struggle to find the answer can aid in the development of long-term memory.

Some unexpected approaches to use are: create mystery out of ordinary topics, construct your lesson around an interesting story, and ask students to make predictions and estimations at the beginning of lessons. This last technique, also known as ‘concept testing’, forces students to commit to an answer and gets them more invested and curious about the outcome.


Many aspects of a curriculum (especially in math) can seem abstract and mysterious. If we can make concepts more concrete and link them to the tangible through real-world examples, the learning will be more enduring. The Velcro Theory of Memory says that the more sensory ‘hooks’ we can put into an idea, the better it will stick. Using the five senses to provide concreteness helps to etch ideas into our brains. It’s the difference between reading about something in a textbook and experiencing it firsthand through experiments, manipulatives, field trips and other sensory experiences. Think of how much easier it is to remember a song than your credit card number, even though the song has much more data. The same rules apply to learning at school.


Psychology has shown that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’ in the human mind. We seem to be primed to remember narratives more and have a natural affinity for stories. Personal anecdotes, stories of past students or even ones taken from today’s headlines can all be used to help make learning stickier. The stories don’t have to be overly dramatic, captivating or entertaining, as long as they allow students to experience the mental simulation of placing themselves into the story. The mental simulation that stories provide is the next best thing to actually doing something. Stories are like flight simulators for the brain. A class can be transformed through their power, as stories are the currency of our thoughts.


Making our teaching stick is easier than it seems. It just takes a bit of time and focus. Keeping these four principles in mind when lesson planning is a good step towards ensuring that what we teach endures in the minds of students.


2 thoughts on “Learning That Sticks

  1. The other thing that can make memories stick is experiencing something (probably because of the multi sensory nature of experience, as opposed to being told stuff). So I will remember a country I have visited, much more easily than one I have just read about. Similarly I will remember a concept I have ‘experienced’ in some way by doing, more easily than one I have just read about. This has interesting implications for teaching methods if memory is your main long term aim.


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