7 Brain-Based Ways to Make Learning Stick
“I teach a great lesson on Monday, and by Tuesday, they’ve forgotten it. What’s wrong with their brains?”
“I can top that! I asked my social studies students to do a simple multiplication problem using fractions, and they said they had never learned fractions! I marched their math teacher into my classroom and suddenly they remembered!”
I can remember years ago handing back a chapter test to my students. The grades were disappointing. One brave young man raised his hand and said, “Mrs. Sprenger, you didn’t ask the right questions. I didn’t study this!”
Along with the teachers quoted above, I believed that this failure to learn was the students’ problem. They are so busy with their Minecraft games and Instagram accounts, they just aren’t taking the time to pay attention and practice information to get it into long-term memory.
My colleagues and I were impulsively saying, “These kids today…what are we going to do with them? Their brains just don’t hold on to information.” The funny thing is, I’d been saying that for each decade that I’d been teaching.
It was time for me to quit playing the blame game and find out what was going on inside their brains.
Understanding what makes memory sticky
When my students forget from day to day (short-term memory) and from year to year (long-term memory) can I just blame their distracted brains? Or is there a teaching issue here? The fact is, moving learning from short-term to long-term memory is not a single step.
For most information to be remembered, seven separate steps are required. Most are steps that teachers have been trained to use, but there are a few things we miss, according to the experts.
Some years ago I had a conversation with Dr. Daniel Schacter, Harvard professor of psychology and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory, Searching for Memory, and Introducing Psychology. Responding to his “seven sins,” I suggested seven different ways of teaching that – taken together – would help assure that my students could store and retrieve the information they learned.
He agreed with the following steps which I have been using and sharing ever since. They are not “lock steps” – the order may change depending on the information being learned. What’s important is addressing all seven.
- Reach. In order for any information to be stored in the brain, it must be received through sensory memory. It therefore behooves us to take into consideration novelty, need, choice, attention, motivation, emotion, and meaning to get and keep student attention.
- Reflect. There’s an old joke about teaching being the instructor’s ability to take his notes and give a lecture that will go to the student’s notes without passing through either’s brain. Giving students time to “linger over learning,” may help make the connections from new material to old.
- Recode. This is simply the act of students taking information and putting it in their own words. We know that self-generated material is better remembered. Writing is a memory strategy.
- Reinforce. Once students have recoded, teachers must provide feedback on the recoded information. We don’t want to rehearse misinformation.
- Rehearse. Strategies for rehearsal will help teachers and students discover optimal rehearsal techniques.
- Review. Whereas rehearsal puts information into long-term memory, review presents the opportunity to retrieve that information and manipulate it in working memory. This act makes the memory stronger.
- Retrieve. The type of assessment used can affect the student’s ability to retrieve stored information. Accessing stored memories may be reliant on specific cues.
What I have discovered by visiting schools and observing thousands of teachers is that two of these steps – reflect and recode – are often missed. Lack of time is usually the culprit.
Yet think about how much time re-teaching takes. If we can give our students the opportunity to reflect and make connections to prior learning, the networks in their brains related to the content are “awakened” and ready to be used. And if we take the time for students to recode, we get to know if they know it.
For this short article I am going to share some of my favorite cross-content strategies for each of the steps.
Step 1: Reach
When students enter the room to study the Lewis and Clark expedition, instead of beginning with a short lecture, there’s a picture of a very large mosquito on the smartboard or screen. Beneath the picture is written: One of the biggest obstacles of the Lewis and Clark expedition is mosquitoes. There are so many that you often inhale them! Research how you might deal with this problem as a member of the expedition. Visuals get students’ attention.
Step 2: Reflect
I know my students may not think about their learning without a tool. I like to give them a question to think about, talk about, or write about. All three modes lead to reflection. Such a question might be, “What do you know about this topic that might help others understand it?”
Step 3: Recode
I was fortunate to have small white boards in my classroom with enough for each student. They recode and I walk around watching them. From a standing position, I can read what they are writing or drawing. This lets me know in just a few minutes whether they “get” it. If you don’t have white boards, slide a sheet of white paper in a page protector and use these with dry erase markers.
Exit cards can also be used. Students can recode what they’ve learned in just a few minutes before the end of class or school. Have students write about the day’s learning on an index card or small piece of paper. This is the first retrieval practice they will have, and many other practices will follow.
Step 4: Reinforce
A study by several prestigious universities recently shared the 19 word-phrase that provides the strongest effects from feedback. “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Share this message with your students as you check their recoding and reinforce the learning. Even on their Exit cards, write something!
Step 5: Rehearse
I have many favorite rehearsal strategies. Once the students have the basics of what you want them to learn, it’s time to practice. At this point in the learning I focus on the five memory systems: semantic, episodic, emotional, procedural, and automatic.
Here’s an example. Studying fractions? These ideas address all five systems:
Semantic: Work problems on the board.
Episodic: Take a “field trip” around the school and find items that are fractions (half-full glass of water; a room with some stacked and some unstacked chairs; etc.)
Procedural: Bring in a bag of different colored candies. Have students sort the candy by color. Ask students to count the total number of candies and figure out what fraction of the total each color represents.
Automatic: Use flashcards for students to learn fractions and decimals. There are also fraction videos with fun songs filled with information.
Step 6: Review
Usually review revolves around the question, “Do you have any questions?” or “What would you like to review?” But kids don’t know what they don’t know. Writing down what’s in their brains, comparing with other students, and discussing differences raises test scores!
I like to have groups of students create mind maps using their notes, texts, etc. Then we hang up the maps and the students compare. They can see what they forgot, what is inaccurate, and what is unimportant. Practice tests (retrieval practice) are always a strong component of review.
Step 7: Retrieve
Practice testing, also called retrieval practice, is possibly the BEST way to know if students know. I like using Blank Page strategies as I describe in detail in my book How to Teach So Students Remember (ASCD, 2018). If you are giving a selected response test, add a blank page at the end of the test on which students can write what they know about the topic. This recognizes that sometimes we don’t ask the right questions in the right way for every student!
When we think about students learning, we usually think about how to get information into memory. But we know that we also have to get the information out. Practice these steps to strengthen their connections to the learning and make memories permanent.
Marilee Sprenger is an international consultant in educational neuroscience, memory, differentiation, reading, and vocabulary and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. She has authored 12 books on the brain and learning, written numerous articles, and has DVDs, webinars, a quick reference guide, and online courses available through ASCD. Her bestselling How to Teach So Students Remember is now available in a new 2nd Edition.