Helping students remember more

“Now class, this novel refers to a famous event in American history from the 1930s. Can you tell me what you remember from your U.S. history class about this era?”

Blank stares and silence.

“Certainly, you remember something?”

One student offers, “I think it has something to do with the war.”

The above scenario is familiar to many teachers. They bring up something in class that they know students have been introduced to in the past, that they should have learned, and yet the students have difficulty recalling the material. Many of these same students aced a test on the subject in the past, and yet now, only months later, they are having a hard time remembering the facts. What happened?

Well, it’s actually entirely normal. Turns out that keeping something locked in our memories is not as easy as we might have hoped. Our brains naturally do a good job of pruning out information not deemed as essential, which often means something that has not been accessed recently or was never firmly implanted in the first place. In other words, just because a student has done well on certain material and committed something to memory once does not guarantee the information will stay there.

At Colorado Academy Upper School, I am pleased to see more attention being paid to teaching techniques that have their foundation in brain research. We all strive for our students to be deeper learners who grasp concepts, not just for the immediate future, but for the long term. Helping them learn effectively and retain what they have learned will serve them well in college and beyond.

Four ways to help information ‘stick’

So what are the keys to helping students (and anyone, for that matter) remember something and keep it in their memories? How do we make things more “sticky” for students, so that they hang onto the concepts or specific information longer? Educators have been asking themselves these questions for as long as students have been in classes.

In the past, I did not find much support in helping us do better in this regard. But I have seen great progress in the past decade, thanks to brain research. Now that we know much more about the brain, we can apply this research to our educational practice at CA.

Aytekin Tank, the CEO of an online tool called JotForm, writes in Entrepreneur magazine that he has identified four major strategies for improving memory recall:

  • Space Repetition—practicing repeatedly over a longer period of time and finding ways to circle back to something even after you think you have learned it.
  • Reflection Time—allowing yourself the opportunity to really analyze what you are learning (meta-cognition).
  • Breaking it down—simplifying what you are learning into smaller pieces or doing something step by step.
  • Transfer what you learn—applying a new concept or new skill to a new situation to reinforce the learning.

All of Tank’s suggestions are borne out by brain research and, after 30 years of teaching, resonate with me anecdotally as well. Following any of the four points above, or, even better, layering in all four strategies, can lead to deeper learning and increase the “stickiness” for students.

Tools to help retain learning

Another article from one of my favorite educational websites, Edutopia, applies brain research even more directly to the classroom. In “Why Students Forget and What You Can Do About it,” Youki Terada offers several ideas, including what he calls the “spacing effect,” which is similar to Tank’s concept of spaced repetition.

At CA, this particular strategy has shown to be especially effective in vocabulary learning. Teachers in our Spanish, Chinese, and French classes know that you can’t expect a student to nail down new vocabulary with just a quick introduction and a quiz. Instead, those new words must be returned to repeatedly throughout the year in order to cement the learning.

Similarly, CA’s English department has adopted a new online vocabulary tool called Membean. One of the program’s many advanced techniques includes showing students words they had mastered weeks or months ago. Suddenly that word may pop up again, testing their recall.

One of Terada’s other strategies is also employed by Membean: combine text with images. In that vocabulary program, visual clues provide students with more ways of embedding the word into their memories. Since so many of our students are visual learners, it only makes sense to help them connect the letters on a page with something more visually stimulating.

Finally, Terada also suggests that peers should help teach other, which I have found to be extremely helpful in enhancing deeper learning. A student may nod politely to the teacher, “I’ve got it,” but if the teacher asks the student to explain the concept to a friend, he or she may stumble. We all know that teaching is a great way to learn, so putting students in that role really helps the student to learn more—not to mention assisting peers with their learning. As Terada notes, “This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning,” which in turn has been linked to better recall.

With practice using these techniques, CA students can move beyond blank stares when a question takes them to past material and instead make connections that are the sign of true retention and learning.