Saturday, January 17, 2015

Make It Stick - The Science of Successful Learning

While I've been sick, I listened to a very interesting audiobook: Make It Stick - The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel.  It currently has 4.5 stars on Amazon from 151 reviewers.  This is not the Heath brothers' book Made To Stick, which is a good book about how to convey your message so it will stay with your audience longer.  I wrote about that one back in 2007.

Make It Stick is about learning.  How people learn.  What works.  What doesn't work.  And why.  It throws cold water on the standard practices of re-reading material, study groups, and some routine sports drills.  And it describes methods that have been shown to work much better for learning and long term retention.

This book is full of helpful tips and guidance for anybody wanting to learn or teach.  That's basically everybody.

Below I've listed some of the concepts presented in the book.  If any of these intrigue you, then you'll probably enjoy the book.  I apologize if I misunderstood any of these concepts... I was sick.

Effortful learning lasts longer
  As it is with lottery winnings, a pile of knowledge handed to you doesn't tend to last very long.  We retain what we learned better and longer if we had to use some effort to learn it.

Rereading and highliting text is not very effective
  Re-reading material can result in self-deception: we think it works because we become more familiar with the material.  This can be helpful if cramming, but it will not last.  Re-reading does not result in durable memory.  It is time consuming; time that is better spent on other methods.

Familiarity is not mastery
  This is a recurring theme in the book.  Many popular learning techniques are good at building familiarity.  We often confuse this with learning.  While familiarity is definitely useful, it is not the same as learning the subject matter.  To trivialize and over-simplify this to an extreme: An average American can live in Paris for 3 months and they will gain familiarity with the language.  However if you ask them to write a 3 page essay on any topic in French, you will be disappointed.

Retrieval practice produces better learning
  When we practice remembering what we have recently learned, we will remember more and it will last longer.  Flash cards are a simple example of this method (although it's important to shuffle the deck and to not remove cards too soon).

Testing and quizing is very effective, even if it doesn't count
  Tests are effective because they exercise the retrieval method.  They also help us to identify our weaknesses, and to focus future learning activity on those weaknesses.  Teachers and college professors have started to notice this: giving frequent quizes and tests consistently results in better overall scores and grades, even if the quiz scores are not counted (and the students know they don't count).

  Learning is improved when we revisit material at a later time.  This exercises the mind to recall the material and reinforces the memory.  Spacing is far better than burning something into memory through sheer repetition.  So, spending 100 hours in one go to drill yourself on a topic is less effective than spending 100 hours spread over a period of time.  It helps most if the time gap is just enough that you're beginning to forget.  Then retrieving the memories of what you previous learned helps to strengthen the neural synapses and build new ones.

  We're all famililar with the method of practicing one thing until you get really good at it, then you move on to the next thing.  This is called "mass practice" and it's quite effective.  The book describes how mass practice is good at short term memory but is not ideal for long term performance.  You can improve your overall training performance if you interleave practice of one thing with practice of another thing.  This break in the linearity helps us to solidify our learning and it will last longer.

Difficulties help us learn
  Airline pilots spend valuable time in simulators going over emergency situations - challenges - difficulties.  This is by design and it is very effective.  The SEALs have a saying that goes something like: the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.  There are tons of similar examples where people choose to employ difficulties in their training regimine in order to boost their overall performance.

Generation is more effective
        Filing in the blank is more effective than picking from choices.  Multiple-choice tests are fun because it's relatively easy to achieve the level of familiarity needed to perform well on them.  Recognizing something is not the same as knowing something.  So, if you're going to design a quiz (for others or for yourself), then use blanks and not multiple-choice.  I think "generation" is a variant of "retrieval" in the book's vernacular.  But I'm probably missing some subtle distinction.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Flu

By the looks of the CDC map, the nation is largely sick.  I sure have been.  For 20 days now my infection has visited all over my respiratory system.  Each time I think it's gone, it pops back up.  Starting as a scratchy throat and then a cough.  It gave me the joys of acute bronchitis for a while before adding my sinuses to its conquered lands.  I'm now down to just a nagging cough.  I think it's almost gone.

Monday, January 12, 2015

How Google Works

I recently listened to the audiobook version of How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.  I liked it so much, I bought the hardcopy.  There are a lot of management books you can buy.  Many of them are junk.  Most are lacking in a key area: actionable advice.  How Google Works includes the typical examples and case studies, some of which were failures.  The book also includes a decent amount of ideas that you might be able to actually try in your organization.  I think it also hints at some of the things that make Google so notably successful compared to their peers.

Here is an outline of a few items illustrated by the book.  These are my own distillations.  For more information, or a more accurate representation, please read the book.

Bezos 2-Pizza Rule
  Teams should be small enough to be fed with 2 pizzas.

  The most important thing a manager does at work is hiring and keeping the best people.

    I agree with this completely.  I'm astounded that most of the managers I know would never include this if asked what important things they do.

The Herd Effect
Hiring the best people will result in a herd effect, drawing more of the best people.
Hiring less-than best will result in growing dilution of the talent pool.

The P-word
Passion is overused.  Passionate people don't wear it on their sleeve.

    I agree.  The word is not just overused, it's vague and subjective.  And yet, you'll find "passion" in a lot of Google job postings if you search them.  It's right up there with "problem solver" in the list of useless adjectives for job candidates.  Most 8 year olds are passionate about things and are also problem solvers, but you probably wouldn't hire them.

Hire Learning Animals
Most companies hire a person who has excelled in exactly that same role.  This is not ideal.
You should favor intelligence over specialization.

I agree.  Too many people try to hire the candidate who has done exactly this role for a long time.  That's fine as long as the role will never change.  But in the white collar "knowledge worker" world, things change.  They can change a lot.  You need to hire people who are smart enough to spot the changed conditions and then change what they're doing.

Interviews should last 30 minutes.
Employees should be incentivized to participate in interviewing.

  This is an amazing thing Google does.  I'm surprised that so few companies do this: properly incentivize staff to genuinely participate in the hiring process.  I think this is one of the things that makes Google so strong and successful.

Google Interviews Look for:
Role-Related Knowledge
General Cognitive Ability

Sample interview questions: 
What surprised you about ______?   A great way to elicit demonstrations of their communication skills, knowledge, analysis & reasoning, and more.
If I were to look at your browser history, what would I learn about you that isn't in your resume?

Repetition Doesn't Spoil the Prayer   (guidelines for over-communicating)
Does the communication reinforce core themes?
Is the communication effective?
Is the communication interesting, fun, or inspirational?
Is the communication authentic?
Is the communication going to the right people?
Are you using the right media?
Tell the truth, be humble, and bank goodwill for a rainy day.

1:1 Topics:   
Job Performance (metrics)
Relationships with Peer Groups
Management / Leadership

These are Google's, however I prefer those from Manager Tools.

OKRs   (Objectives & Key Results)
Good ones marry big-picture objectives with measurable key results.
Stretch to achieve.  Hitting 100% of OKRs should be almost unattainable.
Make them aggressive but realistic.

70/20/10 Rule
70% of resources on core business
20% on emerging business showing some early success
10% on completely new things with high risk of failure

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Dakar Rally

Today the 2015 Dakar Rally begins.  This year it starts and ends in Buenos Aires.  Minis have supplanted Touregs as the dominant vehicles in the car class.  Robby Gordon is back again in his HST (Hummer Style Truck).  I hope he does better this year.

The Dakar is on my list of things I want to attend some day.  Right there with Burning Man and the World Cup finals.

Friday, January 02, 2015


I learned something today.  From the Roman libra pondo to twitter's hashtag, the octothorpe has had an odd history.  Some links: