Learning That Lasts

By Bryan Goodwin, Educational Leadership, October 2014

Different teaching strategies support different stages of learning—so when it comes to delivering instruction that sticks, the question isn’t so much what to do, but when and why to do it. Answering that question starts with a clear understanding of how the brain translates new information into long-term memory.

Brain researchers and cognitive psychologists tell us that before new knowledge finds a home in long-term memory, it traverses a long and perilous journey through three stages of information processing:

  1. Short-term memory. To learn anything, we must first notice it, or put it into our sensory registry. By design, though, our brains quickly forget most stimuli in our sensory registry. Only a small subset of input is retained in our short-term memory; it remains there for only about 30 seconds.
  2. Working memory. When we consciously focus on stimuli, we begin to move that information from short-term memory into working memory, where we can hold information for about 20 minutes before it either decays or continues the journey to long-term memory.
  3. Long-term memory. Factors like repetition or rehearsal determine whether information moves into long-term storage. Instead of being stored like folders in a filing cabinet, though, brain research suggests that long-term memories are actually networks of neural pathways and are often retrieved through association with other words, settings, or sensations—which may explain why the smell of fresh cookies can remind us of our grandmother’s home or recalling that we read Macbeth beneath a tree can help us conjure up the words that follow the line “tale told by an idiot.”

Understanding what happens at each of these stages of learning [can help] students develop “sticky” long-term memory and deep knowledge. Here’s what research suggests about some tried-and-true instructional strategies….

For Short-Term Memory, Call in Emotion

Our senses are constantly bombarded with stimuli, [so] our brains…filter out most of them…. Experiences that offer new learning without emotional content are less likely to make it past the filter and into our sensory registry…. Students must feel emotionally engaged before much learning occurs, supporting what most educators intuitively know—positive relationships with teachers are crucial to student success. It also confirms the value of including an emotional hook at the launch of a lesson….

In Working Memory, Manage Cognitive Load

Once we have students’ attention, we must help them move information into their working memory…. When information is simply presented orally, we only retain 10% of it three days later, but when it’s presented along with a powerful image, we recall 65%. Such findings suggest that nonlinguistic representations, such as graphic organizers, may be useful at this stage of learning to help students process new information….

Our working memories generally hold only about seven bits of information at a time. (For younger students, it’s even fewer.) If we introduce too much information at once, we may overload students’ working memories, causing fatigue and frustration.

One way around this limitation is helping students mentally cluster information into larger concepts, or main ideas…. Working memory tends to time out after 5 to 10 minutes for preadolescents and 10 to 20 minutes for adults, so it’s best to present new information chunked into shorter segments, providing opportunities for processing in between.

For Long-Term Memory, Incorporate Rehearsal

Whether knowledge moves from short- to long-term memory…starts with the extent to which learners make personal meaning by relating new knowledge to their own experience….

Not surprisingly, classroom research has found positive effects for asking students to set personal learning goals and objectives. This research suggests that the most powerful time to emphasize personalized learning goals—to help students answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”—may not be when we want to capture students’ attention, but rather when we want to help them move learning into long-term memory.

The most important key to long-term memory lies in the simple notion of repeat, repeat, repeat; rehearsing new knowledge and practicing new skills to reinforce neural pathways in our brains. But not all practice is created equal. Massed practice (sessions grouped together) can be useful to develop automaticity with a new skill. Distributed practice (sessions spread over time) is more strongly correlated with long-term memory. Similarly, rote rehearsal (e.g., memorizing lists through mnemonics) can speed automaticity and information recall, but elaborative rehearsal (e.g., paraphrasing or summarizing, reciprocal teaching [students talking about the lesson with one another], making predictions, or generating questions) is more effective in supporting long-term memory.

Not Just What, But When & Why

The teaching strategies mentioned here reflect only a small fraction of an expert teacher’s repertoire. The key point, though, is that just as different physical exercises serve different purposes—to build strength, shed weight, or improve cardiovascular health—different teaching techniques serve different purposes in the learning cycle. Expert teachers need to have as much knowledge of cognition and learning as personal trainers have of physiology and exercise so they understand not just what to do, but when and why to do it. With that expertise, teachers can serve as personal trainers for student learning.

Bryan Goodwin is chief executive at McREL(a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan education research and development corporation). He is the author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day.

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