We want our students to learn everything we teach, or at least most of it. We also want our students to be able to recall and use what they learn. Yet, extensive research and decades of experience point to a reality in most classrooms far below this aspiration.
In fact, most students learn far less than they are taught and retain far less than they learn. Consider the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who conducted extensive research on how human memories function. His research led to the discovery of what is called “The Forgetting Curve.” Ebbinghaus discovered that one of the keys to learning and retaining information is to apply it immediately and repeatedly. This conclusion may seem obvious until we consider that failure to apply the new information within the first 20 minutes means that we will likely forget almost 30% of what we heard. In nine hours, we are likely will lose almost two-thirds of what we heard. And in six days, we will have lost 75% of what we heard.
Of course, this is not new information for experienced teachers. We know that students tend to forget far too much of what we teach them. Most of us can verify from personal experience that we, too, forget far more of what we learn than we would like. Fortunately, there are some steps we can take and strategies we can apply with our students and in our own learning that can increase our ability to retain information at higher levels and for longer periods.
The first strategy addresses initial memory loss, the decrease in recall that happens during the first 20 minutes after we take in new information. Ebbinghaus established that the key to recall is application of what we want to remember. In the context of a classroom lesson, we can counter memory loss through structured application opportunities for students as they are learning. For example, we can ask students to turn to a classmate after several minutes of listening and summarize the main points of what they just heard. We also can coach students to develop “mind maps,” or graphic organizers to track and display what they are learning and then explain to each other the meaning, relationships, and organization of their “maps.” The key is to give students opportunities to reflect and apply what they are learning as they are learning and shortly thereafter. The more students experience meaning and significance in the application of new knowledge, the more of it they are likely to retain.
A second research-based strategy is retrieval practice. This deceptively simply activity has been shown to significantly improve recall of information over time. The process involves selection of a topic, process, or other recall target on which to focus and then perform a “mind dump,” or recounting orally or in writing, of everything remembered about the topic, process, or target information. The action of retrieving information refreshes it in the brain and makes it more available in the future. Interestingly, this process tends to be more effective than reteaching the content. Retrieval practice can occur as an “entry ticket” or opening activity at the start of a class, during transitions, or at the end of class as an “exit ticket,” or summarizing activity. Retrieval practice can be an effective antidote to forgetting, especially when employed during the first several hours or within the first few days after new learning, when memory loss would otherwise be at its height. Importantly, retrieval practice does not have to be graded to be effective. The activity alone appears to be what is required to stimulate memory retention.
A third strategy to counter memory loss is distributed practice. Distributed practice spreads application and repetition of a new skill or process over time. Rather than concentrating intensive practice immediately following the learning of a new skill or process, revisiting and practicing of what has been learned is scheduled over a few days, and eventually over several weeks. Distributive practice tells the brain that this is important information to be stored where it can be easily and repeatedly accessed. While new learning can quickly dissipate over time, distributive practice keeps the learning fresh and maintains recall at a high level.
Importantly, none of the three memory enhancing strategies require special skills, technology, or extensive time. However, they need to be part of a consistent routine to be most effective.