Training Superglue: Design elements that make learning stick

Are the following statements about learning true or false?

  1. The best way to learn from a textbook is to read it over and over.
  2. Learning material is retained if it is easy.
  3. Practicing a skill over and over leads to successful performance.
  4. Creativity is more important than knowledge.
  5. Testing is an ineffective learning tool.

stickyYou might be surprised when you check your answers (see the bottom of this article for the key). In their book, “Make It Stick” learning theorists use research to debunk misconceptions about learning (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014). According to the authors, rereading leads to illusions of knowing, or the misconception that recalling textual information means the reader understands its message. A more effective strategy involves retrieval practice (a.k.a. testing) which forces learners to recover information from memory, increasing the likelihood that they will recall it later when they need it. Learning is also ineffective when it’s too easy. Showing learners the correct answers to questions (or a bullet point list) is much less effective than asking them to first come up with the correct answers themselves. You might be surprised to hear that practicing a skill over and over again, exactly the same way, isn’t as effective as practice that is varied and dispersed; even better, allowing a little time between practice sessions makes learners put forth more effort, increasing learning even further. Yes, that’s correct, when learning tasks are difficult but not impossible, knowledge acquisition is more effective. So if you are exerting effort in a course you are learning. Finally, perhaps “creativity is more important than knowledge” if you are Albert Einstein, but for the rest of us, creativity without knowledge is pretty useless. Creativity must follow knowledge so that we have a foundation for analysis, synthesis and creative problem-solving.

superglueTo design training that sticks, we must incorporate eight practices that correspond to how people learn (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014).

  1. Retrieval practice involves the recall of previously learned information. The best way to do this is with the misused and misunderstood test. This need not be a formal test that will make or break a final grade but can be self-testing, flash cards, or practice tests. Learners will not only get feedback about what they know but will also strengthen their memory of information. Active training strategies that include quiz games or simple self-tests like that at the beginning of this article can enhance learning and recall.
  2. Intermittent practice means that material isn’t drilled over and over again and then forgotten, but reviewed, tested, and practiced periodically during training. In training, you might start each Module with a quick review of what was learned in previous Modules.
  3. Mix it up by alternating content. Rather than covering a single idea or concept and then moving on, intersperse ideas, skills, and problems throughout training to challenge learners to stay alert and engaged and force them to also differentiate between concepts.
  4. Elaborate by asking learners to relate content to what they already know, explain it to someone else, and relate it to life outside of class (ideally back on the job).
  5. Generation is the attempt to solve a problem or answer a question before providing the solution. In training, you might ask learners to interpret a diagram, take an initial self-quiz, or solve a brief case study before delving into content. This primes prior memory and triggers experiential learning.
  6. Reflection combines the retrieval of information with elaboration. It can be as simple as asking learners what they recall from training and how they will use it in the future. It can also include a discussion of how the training went—what worked, what didn’t—even a smile sheet can serve as a reflective tool.
  7. Calibration is the act of checking knowledge with objective feedback. Although tests can serve as feedback, work-based projects, assignments, and case studies are a better gauge of mastery.
  8. Retrieval tools like mnemonic devices are handy for storing and retrieving information quickly and accurately. Musicians use FACE, geography students recall HOMES, and we use Keep calm at all sporting events to recall Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning.

(Key to self-quiz: all answers are false)

So let’s elaborate . . .

  1. Which of the 8 practices work best for you in your own learning?
  2. How will you incorporate the 8 practices in your training design and delivery?


  • Great piece! Personally, the “elaborate” practice works best for me. When I can relate things to my personal life or to something that is relevant for me, it sticks and I can better recall what I learned. Explaining what I’ve learned to others also helps in my learning process. I am around small children a lot and this helps me to break down and explain information in its most simple form. Details matter!

  • All of these concepts of learning while training seem like great option to practice. I imagine that many of them would surface within the same training session as to not confine one’s approach to a set model. For me, reflection is the strongest method for my personal learning style. I like the process or referencing past knowledge and using new ideals to enhance it. It allows me to be more confident in how I retain and share out what learnings I have experienced. Application to real world examples is also more meaningful to me as well since past information is like y to surface again once triggered in actual situations where it can be processed and utilized. Each of the 8 practices can be implemented in a training session, but the challenge comes wth making it cohesive, especially if there is a short time frame so I would identify those that have easy transitions amongst them.

  • as a teacher it’s important to have what you teach your students stick. I like that it tackled certain myths such as, “does reading a book over and over” make the knowledge stick. In my opinion, the best way to make something stick is to associate it with something of familiarity to me.

  • All eight are applicable to learning transfer; however, if I was to select a personal effective method, it would be retrieval practice. The act of retrieval assists in making the permanent neurological connects or schemas. Retrieval practice also taps into the adult learner’s experiential knowledge, internal motivation and increases learner readiness.

  • When considering which of the eight works best in my own learning, I have to select reflection. As stated, “it combines the retrieval of information with elaboration” which I personally prefer. I enjoy discussing the benefits and how to appropriately apply what I’ve learned.

  • For me, #6 Reflection is what I would relate my learning style with. Being able to repeat what I’ve learned by thinking back on it, helps me to recall the information better. For example, I am in the process of studying for my series 7 investment license, and at the end of the day, I reflect back on what I learned from the days study session and that is how I am able to apply the learning.

  • 1.Which of the 8 practices work best for you in your own learning? Great question. Elaborate works best for me. Once I can explain the concept to someone and relate it back to something that I have already experienced on the job it sticks better for me. It’s like the light bulb goes off and makes it easier for me to recall.
    2.How will you incorporate the 8 practices in your training design and delivery? This was a great blog. The information has armed me with an assortment of methods to use to fit the individual trainer. As you can see, what works for me may not work as well for the next person. Having an arsenal of tools to pick from enables the trainer to incorporate more flexibility into the training utilizing multiple tactics.

    • I agree variety is essential. Although all tools should work for most people with typical learning capacity, we each have our favorites, and as research shows, mixing things up is good for learning.

  • For me number #4 Intermittent Practice works for me the best. I find that the learning, testing and then putting into practice cements in to my head. The doing is what really put it over the top . I will use this by having coaching clients try out the techniques that we discussed in sessions.

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