Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Making Ideas Stick


Are you having problems getting those classroom ideas to attach themselves to the seemingly Teflon-coated brains of your students? While active learning, deep learning, and critical thinking approaches offer effective help, so too does a recent bestseller in the business world.

The Heath brothers’ Made to Stick explains why some major political slogans (e.g., “It’s the economy, stupid”) and advertising campaigns (e.g., “Where’s the beef?”) have become part of our collective consciousnesses. Importantly, the book’s key concepts can be adapted to instructional strategies you can use.

According to Chip and Dan Heath, ideas that stick—i.e., are “understood,” “remembered, and have lasting impact” (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 8)—fall into six categories, templates, or principles. As the authors explain, “here’s our checklist for creating a successful idea: a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story”—S.U.C.C.E.S. (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 18).

Simple. Every course and every classroom session has many ideas to get across, but the key, the Heaths claim, “is finding the core of the idea” (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 27). Critical thinking guru Gerald Nosich concurs, calling the core “fundamental and powerful concepts” (Nosich, 2005, p. 104-107). And if you can keep the idea short and compact it is more memorable. For instance, when we were teaching Romantic poetry, we derived our core concept from a Wordsworth quote: Romantic poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.” Every poem we taught was then explained through this simple, compact idea.

Unexpected. To hold your class’ attention, you need to occasionally surprise them, generating interest and curiosity by thwarting expectations. Literature classes, for example, are supposed to be serious, but we surprise our students with an easy way to remember the definition of Romantic poetry: think of it acronymically as S.O.P.E. opera. The popular form of a television soap opera (which they do watch) produces a similar overly emotional impact as Shelley’s “I fall upon the thorns of life/I bleed” (“Ode to the West Wind”), and the unexpected juxtaposition of a popular and serious art form makes the key concept memorable.

Concrete. As the Heaths assert, we “must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information” (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 17). Rendering an abstract literary concept in terms of a popular weekday (or night-time) visual format helps the audience retain the information. Moreover, as students learn by attaching new knowledge to old, we have reminded them of something with which they are familiar (soap opera) and attached to it something new (the definition of Romantic poetry).

Credible. Making an idea credible can involve details, statistics, or examples. We can prove our Romantic definition by having our students randomly pick any poem in the Romantic period and then examine it to spontaneously discover overflowing emotion. That exercise gets them beyond merely accepting a Ph.D.’s words as a credentialed authority.

Emotions. Admittedly it’s difficult to get students to feel about all classroom ideas. However, you can make them emotionally connect with the concrete examples of the ideas you introduce. The former Alabama coach Bear Bryant once claimed that people don’t tie to an English class, but they do to football. Making your examples as concrete as Crimson Tide players and games allows the attachment of emotions. Of course, most Romantic poems contain an emotion to which students can easily tie, whether it’s Wordsworth’s nostalgia “(e.g., “Tintern Abbey”) or Coleridge’s loneliness (e.g., “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).

Stories. Any time you want to grab your students’ attention, sit on your desk and cross your legs in the manner of the ancient storytellers. Tell the class a tale relevant to a key concept, whether it’s a moment from your childhood or a literary anecdote. We make literary figures very real and memorable by narrating one good story about each. Any student who’s gone through one of our American lit classes can recall Robert Frost’s trying to read the poem he composed for President Kennedy’s inauguration or the Wordsworth-Coleridge walking tour of the lake country.

While we can’t guarantee the Heath brothers’ “SUCCES” approach will work 100% of the time, it’s a worthy complement to active learning, deep learning, and critical thinking approaches. Some studies have shown that 90% of everything students learn in class is forgotten in three months. Using the “SUCCES” methodology might help you improve that rate. We still have students from 20 years ago who come up to us at alumni weekend and shout “FABONSY,” proving they can still remember the silly acronym for the seven conjunctions (For, And, But, Or, No, So, Yet) that require a comma when linking independent clauses.

Adapted from: Sweet, Charlie, Co-Director, Teaching & Learning Center, Eastern Kentucky University http://www.tlc.eku.edu

Tip References

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York, Random House.

Nosich, G. (2005). Learning to Think Things Through. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson.