Why Books Don't Work: Constructivism Over Transmissionism

2020-09-22 2021-01-30 2021-01-31

This article is my response to Andy Matuschak’s article Why books don’t work. If you haven’t please read it first. However, if you want you can read this article now. I believe the following content should still make sense.


It took me over a year to finish reading this article. Why? Incremental Reading

Constructivism over Transmissionism

In summary: lectures don’t work because the medium lacks a functioning cognitive model. It’s (implicitly) built on a faulty idea about how people learn—transmissionism—which we can caricaturize as “lecturer says words describing an idea; students hear words; then they understand.” - Andy Matuschak

I’d say constructivism is a more accurate cognitive model than transmissionism to describe how we actually learn. Bada, & Olusegun, S. (2015). Constructivism Learning Theory : A Paradigm for Teaching and Learning.:

Constructivism’s central idea is that human learning is constructed, that learners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. This view of learning sharply contrasts with one in which learning is the passive transmission of information from one individual to another, a view in which reception, not construction, is key. Information may be imposed, but understanding cannot be, for it must come from within.

The first [important idea of constructed knowledge] is that learners construct new understandings using what they already know. There is no tabula rasa on which new knowledge is etched. Rather, learners come to learning situations with knowledge gained from previous experience, and that prior knowledge influences what new or modified knowledge they will construct from new learning experiences.

On the role of teachers and educators:

An important restriction of education is that teachers cannot simply transmit knowledge to students, but students need to actively construct knowledge in their own minds. […] This constructivist view of learning considers the learner as an active agent in the process of knowledge acquisition.

The [constructivist] classroom is no longer a place where the teacher (“expert”) pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled. In the constructivist model, the students are urged to be actively involved in their own process of learning. The teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding, and thereby their learning.


It took me over half a year to finish reading this paper. Why? Again, Incremental Reading

Constructivism learning model provides a good foundation to explain why books don’t work and understand how we actually acquire knowledge. Transmissionism puts the learner at the back seat while Constructivism at the driver seat. One analogy of Transmissionism is that students are like sponges “soaking up” the knowledge. For Constructivism it’s more like piecing together a puzzle that’s different for everyone. Whether it’s reading a book, watching a video, or attending a lecture, for Transmissionism the focus is on “absorbing”, “putting in” or “taking in” the information presented. For Constructivism, what matters is what you do with (i.e., construct) the information, not what and how it’s delivered.

I believe Constructivism is a central theme behind Make It Stick, Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques, Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding. They all describe “what works”, but if you view it as “Constructivism vs. Transmissionism” we can get a glimpse of “why others don’t work” since these are two opposing ideas. With a learner-centric perspective, you can see that what works has one underlying principle: the learner is an active agent “making sense” of the information.

The following are some quotes from them.

Make It Stick

This story is a bit long but it illuminates the impact it has on learning when switching from Transmissionism to Constructivism:

Michael Young is a high-achieving fourth-year medical student who pulled himself up from rock bottom by changing the way he studies.

Young entered medical school without the usual foundation of premed coursework. […] Despite his spending every available minute studying his coursework, he barely eked out a 65 on his first exam. “Quite honestly, I got my butt kicked,” he says. ”[…] I mean, you come to class, and in a typical day you get about four hundred PowerPoint slides, and this is dense information.” Since spending more time studying wasn’t an option, Young had to find a way to make studying more effective.”

What did change? He explains it this way: I was big into reading, but that’s all I knew how to do for studying. I would just read the material and I wouldn’t know what else to do with it. So if I read it and it didn’t stick in my memory, then I didn’t know what to do about that. What I learned from reading the research [on learning] is that you have to do something beyond just passively taking in the information.

He became more mindful when he studied. “I would stop. ‘Okay, what did I just read? What is this about?’ I’d have to think about it. ‘Well, I believe it happens this way: The enzyme does this, and then it does that.’ And then I’d have to go back and check if I was way off base or on the right track.”

“When you go back and review, instead of just rereading you need to see if you can recall the learning. Do I remember what this stuff was about? You always test yourself first. And if you don’t remember, then that’s when you go back and look at it and try again.”

The process was not a natural fit. “It makes you uncomfortable at first. If you stop and rehearse what you’re reading and quiz yourself on it, it just takes a lot longer. […]” But the only way he knew of to cover more material, his established habit of dedicating long hours to rereading, wasn’t getting the results he needed. As hard as it was, he made himself stick to retrieval practice long enough at least to see if it worked. “You just have to trust the process, and that was really the biggest hurdle for me, was to get myself to trust it. And it ended up working out really well for me.”

Really well. By the time he started his second year, Young had pulled his grades up from the bottom of his class of two hundred students to join the high performers, and he has remained there ever since. […] He has been invited to tutor struggling students, an honor few are given. He has been teaching them these techniques, and they are pulling up their grades.”

This is essentially the transition from Transmissionism to Constructivism: from re-reading thinking he’ll “soak up” the information to constructing the knowledge through self-explaining and self-testing.

Learning as a Generative Activity

Generative learning is helping learners to actively make sense of the material so they can build meaningful learning outcomes that allow them to transfer what they have learned to solving new problems.

Learning is a generative activity when learners actively generate their own learning outcomes by interpreting what is presented to them rather than by simply receiving it as presented.

Suppose you sit down to read a book chapter, you attend a PowerPoint lecture, or you view an online multimedia presentation. You are proficient at reading and listening, so you can easily understand all the words. Yet, when you are finished with the lesson, you are not able to apply what you have learned to new situations or to use the material to solve problems. What could you have done to help you understand the material rather than simply to process every word?

Our proposed solution is that you could engage in generative learning strategies during learning - activities that are intended to prime appropriate cognitive processing during learning (such as paying attention to the relevant information, mentally organizing it, and integrating it with your relevant prior knowledge).

For example, you could try to summarize the material in your own words (perhaps by taking summary notes), you could create a spatial summary of the material as a matrix or network, you could make a drawing that depicts the main ideas in the text, or you could just imagine a drawing. These are all ways of translating the lesson into another form of representation.

Alternatively, you could give yourself a practice test on the material (such as trying to answer some questions), you could explain the material aloud to yourself during learning, you could explain the material to someone else, or you could use concrete objects to act out the material in the lesson. These are all ways of elaborating on the material.

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques


You can see that learning techniques rated moderate and high are learner-centric:

  • Elaborative interrogation: asking and answering the questions yourself.
  • Self-explaining: explaining the concepts in your own words, how it relates to personal experience or coming up with examples.
  • Practice testing: Active recall (retrieving information from memory), e.g., doing flashcards.
  • Distributed practice and interleaved practice: making the retrieval process “harder” (desirable difficulty). You don’t want to review the flashcards immediately: it’s too easy, but at the same time, you don’t want to do it too late that you’ve completely forgotten about it.

However, not all “learner-centric” learning methods are effective: summarization, keyword mnemonic, “imagery use for text learning” are quite “thinking intensive” but they are rated low in utility. One reason has to do with the criterion tasks. For example, with “imagery use for text learning”, mentally imagining how the heart works doesn’t help with answering inference-based questions about the heart. For more please see the original discussion

Why lectures don’t work

It’s easy to attend a lecture and feel that you understand, only to discover over that night’s problem set that you understood very little. Memory feels partly to blame: you might sense that you knew certain details at one time, but you’ve forgotten. Yet we can’t pin this all on memory. When you pull on certain strings from the lecture, you might discover that you had never really understood, though you’d certainly thought you understood during the lecture. - Andy Matuschak

And here are my selected quotes from Make It Stick that elaborates on it:

Too common is the experience of a college professor answering a knock on her office door only to find a first-year student in distress, asking to discuss his low grade on the first test in introductory psychology. How is it possible? He attended all the lectures and took diligent notes on them. He read the text and highlighted the critical passages.

How did he study for the test? she asks. Well, he’d gone back and highlighted his notes, and then reviewed the highlighted notes and his highlighted text material several times until he felt he was thoroughly familiar with all of it. How could it be that he had pulled a D on the exam?

Mastering the lecture or the text is not the same as mastering the ideas behind them. However, repeated reading provides the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Don’t let yourself be fooled. The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject.

Had he used the set of key concepts in the back of each chapter to test himself? Could he look at a concept like “conditioned stimulus,” define it, and use it in a paragraph? While he was reading, had he thought of converting the main points of the text into a series of questions and then later tried to answer them while he was studying? Had he at least rephrased the main ideas in his own words as he read? Had he tried to relate them to what he already knew? Had he looked for examples outside the text? The answer was no in every case.

Why books sometimes work

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing. - Andy Matuschak

Learning begins not when you read something, but when you think about it

Learning always builds on a store of prior knowledge. We interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know.

When you study the principles of heat transfer, you understand conduction from warming your hands around a hot cup of cocoa; radiation from the way the sun pools in the den on a wintry day; convection from the life-saving blast of A/C as your uncle squires you slowly through his favorite back alley haunts of Atlanta.

How ably you can explain a text is an excellent cue for judging comprehension, because you must recall the salient points from memory, put them into your own words, and explain why they are significant—how they relate to the larger subject. - Make It Stick

Books “work” when you do recall instead of recognition. Recognition is the act of merely reading, i.e., recognizing and glancing over the written words. But if your goal is not about mere recognition (which probably is), but understanding ideas and making them useful, then you have to do recall (think about it). Reading alone won’t cut it. “Making books work” is about turning raw data (written words) into information that’s personally meaningful (by connecting to your prior knowledge):

Text -> Ideas and concepts

Data -> knowledge that’s personally relevant and meaningful

For more please see How to Stop Forgetting What You Read

This also reminds me of a scene from the TV show The Big Bang Theory:

Scene: The apartment. Amy is staring into space.

Leonard: Amy?

Amy: Yo.

Leonard: You okay?

Amy: Oh, sure.

Leonard: I thought you were reading.

Amy: I was. Now I’m thinking about what I read. You all right, Leonard? You seem very uncomfortable.

Leonard: I, I’m fine.

My suggestion to make books work

Connected to prior knowledge—a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days. Rapid-fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence, spaced practice works better. The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory. - Make It Stick

My short answer is SuperMemo’s Incremental Reading (IR). SuperMemo’s IR is about using a spaced repetition algorithm to combine the reading and testing process. It’s about spacing your reading so you don’t have to finish a book chapter in one go. It’s about distilling the golden nuggets (important parts) from your reading, and then turning them into flashcards so you can test yourself later. It’s about having SuperMemo handle all the review sessions for both the reading and testing parts, so you can focus on what matters: making sense of your learning material.

The general idea is to form a “funnel of knowledge” in which a vast worldwide web is converted into a “selection of own material”, that moves to important highlights (extracts), that get converted to active knowledge (cloze deletion), which is then made stable in memory, and, in the last step, acted upon in a creative manner in problem solving. - Incremental reading

For more please see SuperMemo’s Incremental Reading: Explained and Incremental Reading: How I Use This Program to Learn with Self-Explaining.


The dots I connect from Andy’s article, “Constructivism Learning Theory” and “Make It Stick” are serendipitous and based on my learning experience. I hope it’s helpful.