Make it Stick Book Summary by Peter Brown


Note: I just moved this post from Improveism, my old website. Some links and pictures might be broken.

Make it Stick on Amazon:


That’s how I describe successful learning.

We’re expected to already know study strategies that actually work.

But then, that’s like saying “you should already be good at social skills!”

It gets even worse.

When we don’t know how to do something, we tend to rely on our intuition–which, by the way, is heavily influenced by what we see other people are doing. That’s called pluralistic ignorance.

And it’s not our fault! That’s just how our brains are wired.

But today, you’re going to learn that your ability isn’t because you “did not study hard”.

If you’re here, I bet ten billion percent that you–at some point, studied really hard but never got the results that you wanted.

After reading this Make it Stick book summary, that’s going to go the opposite direction.

You will be studying without much effort and will get even better results than last time.

I know this to be true, because after reading this book, I managed to study way less than what I normally do, and still end up being at the top of the class in multiple exams.

What’s the secret? Knowing how your brain works.

To be honest, just a summary is enough for this book. What you’ll find inside are plenty more anecdotes where each of what you’ll learn today worked best.

Let’s get started.

Why people can’t ‘make it stick’

The reason? Because successful learning is NOT intuitive.

Just like what I said earlier, we’re relying on our intuition to find the right thing to do for our learning.

But hey, even a Google Search will fail you (bad advice out there) so you might as well find a book on learning better. Just take a look at this when I searched for “how to study better”.

Okay, do you honestly think that even COMBINING all of these will make a difference to your grades?

The worst part is–seeing these results further reinforces conventional bad advice. (reference)

Don’t rely on what feels best. Do what IS best.

A ton of conventional methods for learning feels incredibly good, as you’ll soon discover.

They make you feel productive.

They leave you feeling smarter.

Worse, the most effective methods for learning are actually disliked by students. (study) What’s the reason?

  • Effective learning methods require more mental effort. (But LESS time)
  • Effective learning methods quickly expose your weaknesses.
  • Effective learning methods require so little time that the students don’t feel like they’re studying at all–they mistake busyness for progress.

At first, it was a huge shot to my ego.

I was literally so skeptical that I wanted to shrug the advice off and not take it.

But I decided to give it a shot…

And in just a few days, I was incredibly amazed by how much my scores were improving in each succeeding exam.

“Holy crap, this active recall thing works.” as I told myself, with an evil grin on my face.

Later, you’re going to learn just that–the best methods for learning. To summarize it here:

  • Retrieval Practice
  • Interleaving
  • Spaced Practice

And more importantly, the major players to your success:

  • Principle-based Learning
  • The Growth Mindset

Using these strategies, you will be able to avoid what we call the Illusion of Knowledge that often sabotages learning success.

The Illusion of Knowledge

I first learned this one in the book, A Mind for Numbers by Dr. Barbara Oakley.

It’s basically that amazing feeling of smartness and productivity after you’ve studied a ton of material.

And just as I have discussed in my other study tips articles, it’s the moment we mistake familiarity for mastery that we fall to the illusion of knowledge.

I’d like to reinstate my point so you know this is important:

Familiarity is NOT mastery.

Notice that my purpose is to tell you this is important rather than to make it stick into your memory.

As you’ll learn in the next sections, repeated exposure does NOT mean you’re going to master the material. As Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says…

A lot of students experience this every day–especially when they have engaging professors.

I experienced this firsthand when I decided not to review for a quiz just because my professor was so good at discussing everything I felt like I learned a ton of material.

Ultimately, that was the worst score I got in my entire life.

Make it Stick on Amazon:

3 COMMON learning methods that make you FORGET rather than remember

Have you been diligently rereading, highlighting, underlining, or even rewriting your notes before an exam?

That sucks because those are the most ineffective methods when it comes to retaining information.

“All I’ve been doing my entire life is ineffective?”

The truth hurts, I know. But again, it’s not your fault.

It felt really productive.

It also gave you a boost in scores when you did all-nighters.

And it’s hard to argue with the results…

Except that ‘effective’ does NOT mean ‘optimal’.

Just because a method gives results, does not mean it’s the best thing out there.

Axes can cut trees, but you can’t argue that chainsaws work better.

So, what’s a better, scientifically proven method? 

How do you know when the material’s in your memory already? When you can retrieve it.

Retrieval Practice. That’s the name of the game.

It’s a fancy name for ‘self-testing’, but if I called it self-testing that wouldn’t be interesting, would it?

What do you get from Retrieval Practice? Here’s a short list:

  • Defeat the Illusion of Knowledge that sabotages your learning
  • Effectively stop and slow the rate of forgetting
  • Encode something into long-term memory (in conjunction with Spaced Testing)
  • Discover the truth about how much you’ve really learned
  • Spend less time reviewing for exams so you can spend more time doing what you love
  • Enjoy the accelerated learning benefits that Ultralearners have
  • Maximum learning efficiency that propels you to the top of the class

How do you do it?

  • Recall the main point of what you’ve just read.
  • Create summary sheets without looking at the material.
  • Explain it to someone else.
  • Answer questions at the end of a book chapter.

The point is to test yourself on the coverage of what you’re learning.

Make it Stick on Amazon:

Why “Practice, Practice, Practice” might be bringing your grades DOWN

It’s, again, common advice that we hear even from our teachers (and coaches).

The thing is: it works, but it is largely misinterpreted.

Just like habits, refreshing our memory through retrieval practice is better done in spaced intervals rather than in long stretches of continuous study.

Also, not only this “Practice, Practice, Practice” is inefficient, but it also is unsustainable long-term.

If you’re reviewing for a cumulative exam, how in the world are you supposed to fit in all topics for the “Practice, Practice, Practice” regime?

It’s utterly impossible.

Worry not, there is an incredibly efficient, evidence-based method that’s even used by the memory athletes out there.

Oh, you’re not familiar with the guy with the best memory in the world?

Even he recommends this approach over anything else.

What’s a better, scientifically proven method? 

I’d tell you, but then you’d know the secret to long-term memory right away.

First off, you would like to know that our rate of forgetting occurs at an extremely fast rate.

That, by the way, is called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

What do we do to combat forgetting?

That’s right. Testing. But unlike any other testing, what we’re talking about here is spaced testing.

I’m talking about Spaced Repetition.

That, my friend, is the SECRET to your long-term memory.

No more forgetting before exams again.

No more forgetting ‘just because it was a long time ago.’

And most importantly, no more wasted time doing endless, unproductive repetitions.

All you have to do is recall successfully, and then schedule it with increasing intervals–that’s it!

A great app to use for this purpose is Anki.

It automatically schedules when you should learn something, and it reinforces active recall!

I’ve personally used it with great success. And because it’s a reaaaally powerful app, it deserves its own section in this blog.

Check it out here.

So, how does Spaced Repetition work? You see, whenever you recall something JUST BEFORE you forget it, it results in a tremendously powerful retrieval experience that strengthens your memory of the retrieved information.

Visually, here’s what it looks like:

The green lines represent the forgetting curve AFTER a successful recall. 

Notice: The curve effectively flattens out. Which means it will take longer for you to forget something after a successful recall.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

You can learn more about it in my study tips section, as I discuss this topic in full detail.

Make it Stick on Amazon:

The #1 reason why a lot of students think Math is difficult to learn

Most people think that being good at math is an innate talent.

And that’s really far from the truth.

You see, the most common way we’re taught to study math is like this:

  1. We learn how to do it
  2. We ‘practice’ over and over again in one sitting until we get it down cold
  3. We make sure we never make mistakes again before we move on to another topic

Here’s the problem. 

This approach is like going to the gym to run for 3 hours straight and then never doing it again. Ever.

Learning scientists call this method blocked practice.

As Dr. Barbara Oakley states in her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You’ve Flunked Algebra), you only have to get the basic idea of the topic before you move on.

Repeating what you know over and over again (in one sitting) will just create more interference, and will not teach your brain how to discriminate between problem/question types.

In other words, by doing blocked practice, you’re leaving money on the table by NOT training yourself how to IDENTIFY the problem.

As an example, you can answer Algebra over and over again, but when Analytic Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus come and you’re presented with a problem with Algebra involved, it will be hard for you to discriminate whether or not it’s an Algebra problem at all.

What’s a better, scientifically proven method? 

Make it Stick and A Mind for Numbers both recommended the same technique for solving this problem.

And it’s a technique that allows you to solve fewer problems but get tremendously better at them.

That technique is called Interleaving.

Interleaving is basically another fancy term for ‘mixing it up’.

When you’re practicing to solve math or science problems, make sure you’re not only doing one problem type that uses the same solution as the previous numbers.

As you’ll figure, it’s quite a common suggestion to do that based on most textbooks’ layouts.

But don’t follow this approach.

Instead, you want to create your own problem set that covers the entirety of your subject rather than a single topic alone.

It’s incredibly efficient that it will allow you to get away with just answering 10 problems per day and then going on to score the highest on your next Math exam.

As an abstract example, look at this image below:

Get it? Onward.

Make it Stick on Amazon:

The maxim that’s actually right 3 times in a row

It’s something really popular, I think you’ve already heard of this.

It goes like this…

Think you can get better? You’re right.

Think you can’t? You’re right.

Hence, the statement is right. (That’s 3 times in a row, now)

It’s been proven that students who believe they can develop their skills perform better in the long run as compared to those who believe in their talent; even if they’re incredibly talented.

I’ll probably make a summary of the book I got that from soon, but if you’re curious, it’s from the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck. (lots of Doctors out there writing books; they are literally shortcuts to success)

You’re the one in charge of your learning!

In the book, Make it Stick, one of the most impactful things I’ve learned is about Successful Intelligence.

There’s this thing called Neuroplasticity that allows our brain to learn new information or skills at any given time.

Now, this is handicapped by the two mindsets–the Fixed Mindset, and Growth Mindset.

If you have the Growth Mindset

It doesn’t matter if we’re not good at Math right away–through Interleaving and Spaced Repetition, we can get better.

It doesn’t matter if we’re not born with Einstein’s and Tesla’s brain combined–we can learn new things and create new insights from our learnings.

When you have the Fixed Mindset, you won’t believe in any of those.

You’ll believe that achievement is for those who are born intelligent. (that’s actually not the case)

You’ll believe that you HAVE to show you’re smart. (instead of actually becoming smarter through practice/learning)

You’ll believe that anything can’t be changed. If you can’t do it, then you can’t.

What’s it gonna be? Remember, you’re 100% in charge of your learning.

Not your teacher. Not your classmate. Just you.

Knowhow over knowledge

One particular thing I’ve seen a lot of students do is they study for their grades, not for their learning.

When you fall into this trap, you don’t become in charge of your learning.

When you’re not in charge of your learning, NO ONE is.

When no one is in charge of your learning, you stop developing as a person.

You want to know the principles behind what you’re learning and not just the facts.

By knowing the ‘knowhow’, you avoid getting trapped into this one-to-one trap where you can only answer the questions you prepared for–nothing else.

Always ask, “Why” and “How”.

That’s how you become an effective learner.

Other Effective Study Methods according to Make it Stick (in no particular order of importance)

  • Elaboration
  • Generation
  • Reflection
  • Calibration
  • Memory Techniques
  • Discerning what’s REALLY important

Well, it will take a really long time for me to discuss it here.

And I don’t want to waste any more of your time, so do yourself a favor and get this book before your classmates discover this.

I’ll leave the link here if you want to check it out. (Link to Amazon)


Bottom Line: Make It Stick Book Summary

The principles in this book are actually where I based my entire study tips section on (besides my experience; and of course, I dug deeper into discussing them here).

I honestly believe this is the best starter book for anybody interested in accelerated learning.

I highly recommend it.

Besides that, thank you for reading! Make sure to sign up for my newsletter below if you want to be the first to get insider tips that I gather from different books!