Category Archives: Active learning

Teaching Professionals to Be Learners

Make It Stick has given me a lot to write about; I don’t love everything about it, but it has given me some ideas for how I can work with my team to infuse principles into our curriculum that can help professionals, particularly professionals early in their career, be more effective learners. In no particular order, here are some worth thinking about:

  • Be mindful while reading (p. 213). Stop frequently and quiz yourself on what you just read. Make reading an active search for answers, not passive information absorption. It takes longer, but is more effective. Audit and accounting standards can be dry, as can contracts, leases, and other documents, so this is a nice fit for CPAs, who have to extract information from documents like these.
  • Adopt learning goals instead of performance goals (p. 180). Based on the ideas of Carol Dweck, a learning goal is when you focus on acquiring new skills and knowledge. A performance goal is focused on “validating your ability.” Getting an A is a performance goal; learning the material in a way that you can apply it to a real world problem is a learning goal.
  • “Be the one in charge” (p. 159). “Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills, and processes, is a quest. It is not a grade on a test, something bestowed by a coach, or a quality that simply seeps into your being…”
  • “Describe what you want to do, know, or accomplish. Then list the competencies required, what you need to learn, and where you can find the knowledge or skill. The go get it. Consider your expertise to be in a state of continuing development, practice dynamic testing as a learning strategy to discover your weaknesses, and focus on improving yourself in those areas.” (p. 159)
  • “Don’t rely on what feels best” (p. 159). Learning should feel effortful. If it feels easy, you probably aren’t learning as well as you think you are.



Varied Practice

Make It Stick starts the chapter on massed practice with an interesting research anecdote about a group of eight-year-olds who practiced throwing a beanbag into a bucket three feet away. Half the group practiced with the bucket three feet away and half practiced by throwing the beanbag into buckets two and four feet away.

They did this for 12 weeks and then were tested throwing a beanbag into a bucket three feet away. The subjects who practiced on the two and four foot away buckets did much better than the ones who practiced the actual task. Interesting!

And counterintuitive. I would have anticipated the opposite, on the strength of the principle that the closer the practice is to the real world task (or the exam), the better the preparation.

If I wanted to learn a song in a piano book, clearly I’d be better off practicing that song than the song before and after it in the book. But, thinking broadly, maybe I would learn the song better if I practiced it in varied keys. And in the long run perhaps learning a variety of styles of music would help me become stronger in my preferred genre.

In terms of cognitive skills, it’s hard to know how far to take this, and the authors acknowledge that more research is needed. However, it seems reasonable to me that if you were an aspiring CPA and were learning how to audit cash at financial institutions (banks), you’d benefit from practice auditing cash at other types of businesses. The risk is that you waste time practicing learning and applying principles and facts that don’t apply to any of your actual clients, but the upside, maybe, is that the varied practice makes you a stronger auditor in financial institutions.

Actually, the bigger risk I see is that if you specialize in auditing financial institutions, taking time to practice auditing other kinds of institutions may force you to deal with concepts that are foreign to you, raising the cognitive load higher than it needs to be. Cognitive load is not an issue when you are throwing beanbags into buckets, but it is with complex cognitive problem solving.

Thus, a model for using varied practice to learn cognitive skills would have to include guidance on what cognitive variations are useful and which are harmful.

The Testing Effect

I’ve written previously about the Posttest Paradox. Makes it Stick in contrast speaks of a “testing effect,” which is the idea that retrieving information from memory–say, for an exam–increases your ability to retrieve that knowledge later.

I don’t like the term “testing effect,” because it implies formal exams. I’ve spent the last few years cautioning my firm that exams have hidden costs and may not be the best way to achieve their objectives, so calling this the “testing effect” undermines that when in reality, it sounds like the effect had more to do with practice and application than exams per se.

Their alternative name, the “retrieval-practice effect,” is a little better, but not exactly memorable.

There’s also a lot of emphasis in the book on retrieval. While the ability to access important knowledge is important for problem solving, in the real world, people can also look stuff up. I’d have liked to see more focus on conceptual understanding and the ability to generalize to related problems.

Reflection Is a Form of Practice

The authors of Make it Stick highlight the principle that reflection is itself a form of practice, that thinking about a problem is a form of useful rehearsal.

The recently revised standards for learning for CPAs put out by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) stipulate for the first time that classroom learning must be active. For now, the rules for minimum interactivity are, indeed, minimal. To give formal credit, classes have to have one interaction per hour, of which that interaction can be nearly anything, including asking participants to reflect silently for a few seconds on a given question.

Lecturing for 45 minutes and then asking participants to reflect silently on a question asked by the lecturer is not necessarily effective design. But I applaud NASBA both for requiring interactivity and for keeping the requirement open. The more prescriptive the targets, the more proforma the execution. Keeping it open will result in many developers trying to do the minimum, for sure, but it may also help developers take ownership of active learning and try to understand NASBA’s intent.

Quiz Before Teaching

One of the core principles in Make it Stick is “trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (p. 4)

I get it; finding out you don’t know something as well as you thought can make for a powerful learning moment.

On the other hand, I’ve tended to advise course developers to avoid asking learners right/wrong multiple choice questions before actually teaching the content, arguing that they are unfairly setting learners up for failure. (Intentional and actionable diagnostic pre-testing is an exception.) Philosophically and temperamentally, I much prefer trying to set learners up for as much success as possible. But I do understand that there are proponents of failure-based learning and am open to the possibility that there could be elements here that I should add to my playbook.

Learning Is Effortful

I just finished Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. It’s interesting how much my frame has shifted over the years as I get farther from college and graduate school and deeper into helping professionals learn and develop. Make It Stick, while not specifically about academic settings, is clearly geared toward academic learning, which inevitably raises questions when thinking about how everything applies in professional settings.

For instance, the very first principle in the book is that deep learning takes effort. If it feels easy, then it probably won’t stick.

I’m sure that’s generally true, but does a rich schema have a mitigating effect? Does a rich schema make learning easy (in the narrow area of expertise, anyway)?

Wellness: Return on Investment

I was challenged recently about whether the food and breaks at our internal learning conferences are conducive to learning from an energy management standpoint.

That challenge seems reasonable. No matter whether a course is well- or poorly-designed, the physical state and alertness of learners should impact learning. So, I’m reading about it.

One incidental thing that was interesting to read: apparently wellness programs at work return on average $5.50 on every dollar. That’s impressive, and appears to be from a pretty good meta-analysis*. The building my firm is in just installed a free gym downstairs, and I get a lot of use out of it; I hope I earn my firm back that kind of return for whatever they are paying.

*Frustratingly, the meta-analysis is behind a huge paywall. I could only find a brief, so it is hard to know what all the assumptions and limitations are.