by Willy Wood
Does this sound familiar? You start a new unit of instruction with your students, and you do a brilliant job (mostly) of presenting the information, the students seem (mostly) engaged, and they seem to (mostly) “get it” while you are presenting. Then, a couple of days later, you take a few minutes to review and check on their retention of the previous instruction, and you find that they remember almost nothing that you covered just a few days ago! Of course it does. Anyone who has ever taught has experienced this problem.
For those of us who remember our Ed. Psych. Classes from college, this occurrence should hardly come as a surprise. After all, good old Hermann Ebbinghaus did the original research over a hundred years ago and demonstrated what John Medina, in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School calls “one of the most depressing facts in all of education: people usually forget 90 percent of what they learn in a class within 30 days….The majority of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.”
But does it have to be this way, or are there steps we can take to make sure our students both get the information in their heads (encoding) and are more efficient at getting it back out to use it when they need it (retrieval)? The good news is that yes, there are steps we can take—many of them, in fact. In this article, I will cover seven of these steps any teacher can take to immediately increase the amount of information students retain.
Step One: Personalize the Information
Most teachers understand that the goal of teaching content knowledge is long-term memory. After all, if they don’t retain the information months, even years later, what was the point of the instruction? So, how do we get beyond the “cram-and-forget” cycle in which so many students engage? The first step is to be aware that long-term memory starts with long-term memory. That is, any time new information is presented, the first thing the brain wants to do is to check the information already stored in long-term memory (prior knowledge) to see if the information is already stored there.
If the information is not already in long-term memory, the brain often finds related information and tries to use this knowledge to infer the meaning of the new information. This is metaphorical thinking at its most basic level. It should be no surprise, then, that metaphorical/analogical thinking (identifying similarities and differences) has been identified by Robert Marzano in What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action as one of the nine most effective teaching strategies. It works because this is the way the brain works. But it only works if the instruction is designed to allow students the time to engage in this natural thinking process.
It would thus seem to be merely common sense that teachers would, as a habit, identify what students already know and believe about upcoming content. Unfortunately, in my classroom observations, I find that it is not so. Most teachers simply teach the unit as laid out in the curriculum without ever checking with the students to see what they know about the topic at hand. This leads to ineffective teaching and wasted effort. So, the first step teachers need to take if they want to ensure long-term memory of new content in their students is to find out what their students already have in long-term memory about the topic.
The second part of this process involves building a “bridge” from students’ current understanding to the new information. In the book Quantum Teaching: Orchestrating Student Success, DePorter et al. describe the “prime directive” of their teaching philosophy—Theirs to Ours, Ours to Theirs. What this means is that we should enter the students’ world first by accessing their knowledge, interests, and motivations and then guide students to make connections between that prior knowledge (their world) and the new content we have to teach (our world). Finally, after they have acquired the new information, we need to guide them as they apply their new understanding to new situations that are relevant to their lives (their world once again), which is the third part of the process. This prime directive, then, is more than just a philosophy—it is an extremely efficient lesson and unit structure that facilitates the addition of new knowledge (memory) to previously existing knowledge.
Step Two: Use an Inductive Lesson Design Whenever Possible
In discussing the first step, above, I pointed out how important it is to identify what students already know in order to efficiently and effectively add to that knowledge. But what if, upon assessing students’ current knowledge, we find that there are large gaps in that knowledge? Obviously, it would do little good to plow ahead anyway. Instead, we need to fill those gaps before we attempt to move forward. Again, this is common sense, but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s an easy thing to do. So, what’s the best way to go about it?
In my experience, if students have gaps in prior knowledge, those gaps usually stem from the lack of relevant life experiences. The brain learns best when it makes its own meaning related to lived experience, and what we call prior knowledge is simply the semantic residue of those experiences—the way we explain those experiences to ourselves. So, it makes sense that the most effective way to fill gaps in prior knowledge is to lead students through an experience exactly like or similar to the missing life experience in question. I realize that it is not always possible or practical (time-wise) to create or simulate first-hand experience, but whenever possible, this is the most effective way for the brain to learn, and once that experience gap has been filled, the brain is now prepared to learn the new knowledge embodied in the next unit.
One more important note here—if a teacher decides that the best way to fill a particular gap in prior experience/knowledge is to use a combination of an experience (or a simulation of the experience) plus some explanation/direct instruction/debriefing of the experience, he or she would be wise to remember this phrase: experience before explanation. Why is it so important that the experience come first (an inductive, rather than deductive approach)? Because the experience creates a context in which the explanation (content) makes sense. If the teacher puts the direct instruction first, students often give only partial attention to the instruction because it is not meaningful to them. If the experience takes place first, however, not only are students engaged right off the bat, but they are often much more interested in the explanation (debriefing) of the experience that follows.
Step Three: Make the Initial Encoding as Elaborate as Possible
Research has consistently shown that the more elaborate the initial encoding of information is, the better it will be retained. One way to make the initial encoding more elaborate is to involve as many senses as possible. So, step three aligns nicely with step two: by starting with an experience that involves multiple senses, we not only build new life experience that we can use as a bridge to new learning, but we also more robustly encode that experience so that is likely to be retained in memory for the long term.
Another way to make initial encoding more elaborate is to have students reflect on the experience immediately. By focusing on the personal meaning of the experience, students further solidify the connections between the experience and prior knowledge. While simply having an engaging experience places the event in episodic memory, reflecting on the experience puts it into words and it becomes part of our story of how the world works, our mental maps. The experience, and our description of the experience, thus become part of long-term memory.
Step Four: The “Four P” Approach
The first three steps I have outlined above have to do with the early stages of learning—assessing prior knowledge, filling gaps in experience with new experiences that provide a context for the new learning to come, and making sure that those experiences are robust and elaborate so that they remain in memory. However, at some point we have to move into instruction of the new content and some amount of direct instruction is going to be necessary. Steps four through six have to do with making our direct instruction time more effective.
We all know that long stretches of lecture are ineffective for long-term memory. Research since the 1960’s has consistently proven that retention rates of lecture material are no better than 10%–and that’s after only 24 hours! And, of course, we hardly need the research to prove this point to us; we have all had the experience of listening to an hour-long lecture and being unable to recall a word of it the following day. So, the question is, why do so many teachers still use long stretches of lecture as their primary mode of instructional delivery? I have some guesses about the reasons behind this practice, but I won’t go into them here. Instead, I would prefer to offer some solutions that are so easy to implement that even the most entrenched lecturer might be willing to give them a try.
First and foremost, we must break direct instruction up into shorter “chunks.” Drawing on both research and practical experience, I have found that, when working with high school students, direct instruction is most effective when kept to no more than 10 to 12 minutes at a time (even with adults, I don’t like to go longer than 15 minutes at a stretch, as attention begins to dip). The ability to effectively pay attention also appears to be developmental, and the younger the student, the shorter the stretches of direct instruction need to be. From personal experience, I have found that 8-10 minutes is the limit for middle school students, 6-8 minutes for upper elementary, and no more than 6 minutes at a stretch for lower elementary. These are simply rough guidelines, of course, and how long a person can pay attention at a stretch depends on many factors (the relationship between teacher and students, how energetic and expressive the presenter is, how interested the audience is, etc.). The important point is that teachers need to look over the material they plan to present through lecture and break it up into chunks with no more than a few key ideas in each chunk.
Once the teacher has chunked the material, he or she needs to design the lesson in such a way that the students can make sense of it and make connections to prior knowledge. To do so, I use a process I call the “Four P” approach. This simple formula stands for Prime, Present, Pause, and Process. The first step is to prime students for success. This simply means that the teacher thinks about the chunk of material to be presented and asks him- or herself what kind of scaffolding would be helpful for the students to capture the main ideas in the chunk. This may be as simple as saying something along the lines of, “In this next ten minutes, I’m going to go over the three key reasons that….Make sure that you get these three ideas down in your notes.” As the teacher lectures, he or she then makes sure to point out these three points as he or she presents them. This way, every student in the class should end up with the three key ideas in their notes. Priming can be more elaborate, of course (for example, students could be given a graphic organizer to fill in as they listen), but the key point is to make sure that you give students an idea about what they should get out of that chunk of material before you present it. It is amazing how much such a simple “heads up” to students prior to the delivery of the material can raise retention rates—and this is so easy to do, and makes so much common sense, that I am amazed that so few teachers do this as a matter of course.
The second “P” stands for “present.” This is where the teacher presents his or her best knowledge about the current topic. Of course, varying one’s voice, moving around, making eye contact, using visuals, etc., all help the presenter to be more engaging, and that all helps with attention and, therefore, later retention. But the most important aspect of the “present” step is that the teacher keeps the amount of input manageable. One or two main ideas (Medina believes it should always be just one) with supporting details and/or examples. That’s it. If the teacher tries to cram too much content into a “chunk,” he or she risks overloading working memory, and students will forget part of the material.
Now for the third “P.” Obviously, if you break the instruction into chunks, you will have to pause between chunks. So, what do you do with these pauses? That’s where the fourth and final “P,” “process,” comes in. Between each chunk of lecture, you need to provide students with the opportunity to think about the key point or points in the preceding chunk. There are a hundred ways to do this, of course—think-pair-share, journal writing, small group discussion, any number of cooperative learning activities, etc.—but the important thing is to stop inputting new material in order to give students the opportunity to make meaning. The opportunity to make meaning of each chunk will greatly increase retention.
Step Five: Standing “Lecturettes”
Most people, when they think about “memory,” either think about memory of “when and where”—some event from their lives, or they think about “what”—some information that they have stored in long-term memory. These two types of memory (episodic and semantic) are not the only memory processes, of course, but if we understand them better and understand how they can interact with each other, we can be much more intentional about how we structure our lessons in order to maximize learning.
To better understand this interaction, it is important to understand that we never learn semantic content in a vacuum. Let’s say you are learning about the Civil War in a social studies class. Not only are you learning about generals and dates and presidents and battles (semantic content), but you are also taking in those details of your surroundings that you happen to notice—who you’re sitting next to, what that cute girl you like is wearing, what the weather is like outside (all episodic information). The human brain learns semantic content slowly and with difficulty, while it seems to soak up episodic information like a sponge, effortlessly. The point is that what we learn in any given moment is always a mixture of content and context. This has been proven over and over again through research studies that show that when students are tested in the same environment in which they learned the information to be recalled (that is, the learning context and the testing context match), they score much better than when they are tested in a different environment than the original learning (this is called “context-dependent memory”). Knowing this, we can employ a number of strategies to improve retention and recall.
For example, when discussing providing an experience or event to give context for the content in steps two and three, above, I was basically talking about using episodic memory in a calculated way. By carefully embedding key content into a rich experience, we can increase retention of that content. Whenever students remember the event (“Do you remember when we did…?”), they will also have another way to access the semantic content that was presented during the experience. It’s like putting an extra “handle” on the information to increase the chances of retrieval.
Another simple way to use the power of episodic, or contextual, memory is by using standing “lecturettes.” Let’s say you have chunked a lecture, following the advice above, into several short chunks. Let’s say, further, that in one particular chunk there are three key pieces of information that you would like students to remember. Of course, you are going to use priming to give students a heads up that there will be three key points made, and you may also provide some method for them to capture those three points. However, in your mind, the three points, while all important, are not equal. One of the three is especially crucial.
My suggestion is that you have students stand up during your presentation of that essential point. Why do this? Because, contextually, having students stand up sets that one point off (contextually) and makes it easier to remember because they are literally learning the information from a different “angle.” If they learn everything while seated in the same seat every day, next to the same people, the contextual cues from one day’s learning environment run into the contextual cues from the previous day, and the day before that, and so on, and they lose some of their power. But by changing the contextual cues surrounding one piece of information so that they are different than those tied to the other points, you allow students to store that material with a unique set of “handles” that can then be used to retrieve that information later. To heighten the effect, you can have students stand and move to a different part of the room for this one point, then return to their seats. Later, when they need to recall this point, it will be easy; just remind them to think back to what you covered while they were standing. When they visualize the scene, the novel contextual clues will allow them to easily retrieve the semantic
content. Since the whole chunk is not going to be longer than 10-12 minutes, students should only be on their feet for a couple of minutes.
Step Six: Moving Students with Intentionality
The process described in step five, above, can be employed on a larger scale to segment the learning in students’ minds so they can more easily store it and retrieve it. This is done by manipulating the context around the content over the course of larger units of study. Let’s say that a unit is expected to take three weeks to teach, and that within that three weeks, the material breaks down into four natural divisions. A teacher bent on using episodic memory intentionally to set off semantic content into these four larger chunks might have students move with their groups to a different quadrant of the room for each of the four divisions of the material. So, for the first division, a student may be sitting by the window; for the next chunk, he is sitting by the door, etc. Each division of the semantic material is thus tied to different contextual information and, when it comes time to retrieve the information, that retrieval will come more easily, especially if students are coached in visualizing the context of the learning when attempting to retrieve it.
Of course, moving students intentionally can be done in other ways, as well. Field trips, for example, are an extreme case. Since the context provided by the field trip is completely different than the normal classroom context, any semantic content taught in this different environment should be much easier to recall later. And the effect can be enhanced in other ways. For example, the teacher can use handouts printed on a different color of paper for each of the large divisions of the unit. Students can remember the content that was on the red handout as separate from the content that was on the green handout.
Step Seven: The Power of Spaced Learning
We have already discussed how important it is to present new information in small chunks followed by processing time. In addition to this arrangement, we also need to make sure that we arrange our units so that we are revisiting and reviewing these chunks regularly. This is important because distributed practice (learning in multiple short sessions) has proven to be far superior to massed practice (learning in one long session) for long-term memory. Starting each day’s lesson with a quick review of the previous content and ending each day’s lesson with a summary of what has been covered (closure) is extremely helpful, as is reviewing at least once a week all of the major content presented during that week.
Stepping even a bit farther back and looking at the design of learning from a curricular perspective, we can do one more thing to greatly enhance our students’ long-term memory of the content we teach: we can present new material multiple times spread out across the school year, and even across multiple school years. This practice of regularly “looping back” is crucial because long-term memory doesn’t form once and stay in that shape, immutable, for the rest of our lives. Research on long-term memory indicates that for a period of at least a decade, even long-term memories are malleable, which means that information can become corrupted over time if we aren’t careful. Frequent reviews help to consolidate the information accurately.
So there you have them—seven steps for increasing long-term memory in your students:
- Personalize the information so that it is meaningful to the learner.
- Use an inductive teaching structure whenever possible—remember, experience before explanation.
- Make the initial encoding as elaborate as possible.
- Break direct instruction into short chunks, prime students for success, then pause and process (remember the four P’s).
- Utilize standing lecturettes to set more important information off from information of lesser importance.
- Move students with intentionality to tap into the power of contextual memory.
- Use spaced learning (distributed practice) and frequent reviews.
Of course, there are many more ways to improve storage and retention of content than I have presented here, but using these seven steps consistently will greatly enhance your students’ ability to learn. It’s all about matching our curriculum and instructional practices to the way the brain learns best.
Willy Wood is the president of Open Mind Technologies, Inc., an educational consulting firm. In addition to doing workshops on the brain and effective teaching practices both nationally and internationally, he publishes a regular e-newsletter entitled Neuro News. If you would like to be added to Willy’s mailing list to receive Neuro News, or to contact him about his presentations, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.