The principles that guide the design of each Stikky book have deep roots in learning research

Our key principles are:

  • Small units: sequences are composed of small steps, each of which is easily grasped (and the sequences themselves require less than 30 minutes to complete)
  • An illustration on every page
  • Frequent testing of what has been learned with instant feedback
  • Regular reward either explicit ('congratulations') or implicit (the reader accomplishes something they consider an achievement)
  • Self-pacing with guidance ('this should take around 20 minutes')
  • Task-orientation ('how do I find which way is north?')
  • Similarity of the learning environment and the real-world environment, so cartoons, abstractions or simplifications are used sparingly and quickly removed to avoid forming crutches
  • Motivational elements ('which will prove important later') which were designed with the help of a Hollywood screenwriter
  • Expanding rehearsal: the interval between re-testing of specific knowledge gradually lengthens (eg, pause points)
  • An awareness of 'mental modules': that certain abilities are innate in humans (such as counting and language) and others have to be learned (algebra, tap dancing)
  • The 'santa claus' effect: it is acceptable to bend the truth of non-essential points to make a significant simplification that can be easily unlearned later (eg, the Big Dipper is not a constellation)
  • A high criterion: readers are expected to have perfected material before moving on ('if you are unsure, now is a good time to go back')
  • 'We are all rocket scientists': the belief that just about anyone can learn just about anything given enough time and if the material is presented in small steps, so the fault is more likely to be in the presentation than the learner.

Some of these concepts derive from software usability (task-orientation and similarity of environments). But most derive from extraordinarily successful learning models of the 1960s and 1970s such as Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Bloom's Learning for Mastery (and less successful models from even earlier, notably Skinner's Programmed Learning).

Stikky is, as far as we are aware, the first application of these ideas in a commercially-available How To format.

Programmed Learning
Despite great excitement, largely driven by B F Skinner, Programmed Learning did not prove significantly more effective than traditional learning methods (Kulik, Cohen Ebeling, 1980). Some of its principles, though, informed later and more important methods:

  • Small units of 'frames'
  • Overt responses
  • Immediate feedback and correction
  • Rewards
  • Self-pacing.

Learning for Mastery
Bloom's Learning for Mastery (Bloom, 1968/81)is based on the rule that students are only allowed to progress from one module to another after mastering it completely. A student's aptitude determines how much time they need to master a unit, not the likelihood that they will ever be able to master it. Other than this rule, Learning for Mastery is flexible in how it is actually implemented.

A meta-analysis by Block and Burns (1977) found Learning for Mastery had an effect equivalent to moving the average student in a class into the top 20%. In addition, the approach had a positive impact on students' interest in a subject and, understandably, their self-confidence. A very large trial in Korea produced similarly dazzling results (Kim, 1971).

Personalized System of Instruction (PSI)
Keller's PSI is also based around the mastery criterion (Keller, 1968)and the following:

  • Small units, around two hours long
  • Self-pacing
  • Written materials and written answers
  • Unit tests with fast feedback provided by a 'proctor'
  • At least 90% score required before progressing
  • Lectures for motivation purposes only.

A meta-analysis by Kulik, Kulik and Cohen (1979) found that PSI students achieved final examinations results 8 percentage points higher than conventionally taught students.

Research also independently confirmed the value of small units, fast feedback (delayed feedback reduced effectiveness) and high mastery criterion-but the main value of proctors and self-pacing was found to be that students like them.

Levin, Anglin and Carney (1987) review research demonstrating the (not particularly surprising) finding that illustrations significantly aid learning.

Expanding Rehearsal
A number of studies, for example Melton (1963), show that the greater the separation between subsequent repetitions of a learned item, the greater the productivity of learning, assuming the delay is compatible with correct recall. The same effect has been encapsulated in a 'smart flash cards' software application, Supermemo.

Applying this concept in a book that demands around an hour of the reader's time proved a challenge. It resulted in the 'pause point' at which, unusually, the reader is asked to stop reading to allow time between rehearsals.

Mental Modules
Evolutionary psychologists developed the concept of innate mental modules that would have conferred a survival advantage in the evolutionary environment of 200,000 years ago. Steven Pinker (2002) provides a tentative list including intuitive physics, spatial sense and language. The theory (not yet research) suggests that learning material that is closely related to these factory-fitted modules will be much easier with implication for learning step size.

(The material on educational methods and research above draws heavily on Ken Spencer's excellent pages: Information Technologies and Student Learning.)

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J H Block and R B Burns (1977), 'Mastery Learning', in L S Shulman (Ed) Review of Research in Education, Volume 4, F E Peacock, 3-49

B S Bloom (1968/81), 'Learning For Mastery', The Evaluation Comment, 1(2), in B S Bloom (Ed) All Our Children Learning, McGraw-Hill

F S Keller (1968), 'Goodbye Teacher', Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 79-87

H Kim (1971), 'Mastery learning in the Korean middle schools', UNESCO Regional Office for Education in Asia, 6(1)

C C Kulik, P A Cohen and B J Ebeling (1980), 'Effectiveness of programmed instruction in higher education: a meta-analysis of findings', Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 6(2), 51-64

J A Kulik, CC Kulik and P A Cohen (1979), 'A meta-analysis of outcome studies of Keller's personalized system of instruction', American Psychologist, 34(4), 307-318

J R Levin, G J Anglin and R N Carney (1987), 'On Empirically Validating Functions of Pictures in Prose', in D A Willows and H A Houghton (Ed) The Psychology of Illustration, Volume 1, Springer-Verlag

A W Melton (1963), 'The situation with respect to the spacing of repetitions and memory', Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 1-21

S Pinker (2002), The Blank Slate, pp220-21, Penguin