Take CHARGE of the Classroom #12: Memory
This is post #12 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.
Learning is deeper and more durable when it requires effort. Learning that’s easy is like building a sand castle on the water line during low tide – only there for a short time. But probably most often missed in a definition of learning is the requirement of prior knowledge.
When students are skilled at extracting the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems or scenarios, they’re more successful at picking the right solutions or strategies in unfamiliar situations. All new learning, however, requires a foundation of prior knowledge. Without something familiar to hook the new learning onto, it won’t stick long enough to turn it into long-term memory.
So, we know that when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer. We also know that new learning is built on the foundation of prior knowledge, giving it a hook to latch onto. Learning always builds on a store of existing concepts. We interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know.
Learning is not a simple or linear event. It happens in three stages, some of which have their own sub-stages. The first stage is called encoding. We convert sensory information and perceptions into meaningful representations. This initial encoding is held in our short-term working memory before being consolidated into a cohesive representation of knowledge. We teach kindergarteners about the five senses because the majority of our learning begins as a sensory experience.
The second stage is consolidation. The initial representations are strengthened for long-term memories by connecting them to prior knowledge. The memory traces are reorganized and stabilized, given meaning, and connected to past experiences and other knowledge already stored in long-term memory. This stage happens subconsciously and takes some time, typically occurring while we sleep.
The third stage in memory is retrieval. Once information is stored in long-term memory, knowledge is theoretically available but practically out of reach. For us to use our vast stores of facts and figures, we must recall the correct particulars from long-term memory back into our conscious working memory. This allows us to take previously learned information and apply to similar or even unique situations.
Yet retrieval holds a powerful possibility. As we bring information out of storage and into working memory, we can update it and encode it again. Using it in a new situation allows us to encode the information all over again with additional memory tags and layers of meaning. As it gets reconsolidated, it now holds new cues associated with it in addition to the original set. When knowledge gets used again and again, it gains more memory tags through each act of retrieval and reconsolidation. Thus some information, such as multiplication facts, become so robust through constant retrieval that they gain automaticity.
What can you do tomorrow?
Incorporate retrieval. To boost learning and recall, incorporate retrieval practice into your lesson instead of a traditional worksheet. Ask them to recall what was taught last week rather than today.
Retrieve in different ways. Have students write down or discuss what they learned from the lesson. Use retrieval practice to encode and consolidate information in a continuous cycle, robustly linking prior knowledge with new learning.
What does this look like in the classroom?
Students practice retrieval regularly, using techniques such as:
· Stopping during instruction to discuss or write notes about what was just learned;
· Purposefully recalling information from past lessons; and
· Writing a short summary of the lesson for homework.
When engaging in retrieval practice, build in a little bit of feedback time so students can check the accuracy of their recall. This can be done by referring to notes or to a textbook, checking answers with a friend, or briefly giving the correct answers to the class as a whole. Either way, students need to not only practice recalling important information but also get immediate validation of the precision of their recollection.
Yet as powerful as retrieval practice is on its own, it gains more potency when combined with two other techniques, the first of which is spacing. Learning and memory improves when done in shorter sessions with rest intervals rather than constant exposure to new or the same material. Less is more. Too much content in too short of a window will greatly reduce its permanence. Processing time is needed so information can solidify rather than going out as quickly as it goes in (Jensen, 2005).
Spaced practice allows for continuous retrieval and encoding. Rather than cramming as much learning as possible into the narrowest time period imaginable, spaced practice boosts learning by spreading the retrieval out over time. Every time the knowledge is pulled out of memory, it is briefly interacted with and encoded with additional memory tags, making it that much more robust (Agarwal & Bain, 2019).
The final ingredient in the secret sauce that makes retrieval practice so potent is interleaving. Instead of continuously practicing with similar problems or recalling information that is nearly identical, interleaving is a deliberate practice that varies the types of problems being recalled or retrieved. Another advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your outlook) is that interleaving is simply more difficult.
Interleaved practice would mix up the types of problems that students are asked to complete. Instead of mindlessly multiplying, students might see an array of problem types, some asking students to multiply, some to divide, and some to use both operations in a two-step problem. When the practice or recall is varied, it forces students to slow down and really read to understand what is being asked of them.
What can you do tomorrow?
Space your retrieval. Spread out your practice rather than massing it altogether. Ask students to recall and apply learning from last week instead of always applying something they just learned that day.
Mix things up. Interleave the retrieval practice with similar items. This increases desirable difficulty and gives them an opportunity to grow in their ability to distinguish between problems and apply the correct solution strategy.
What does this look like in the classroom?
Students review material using memory techniques, including:
· Immediate feedback to validate the retrieval;
· Spacing out the recall to increase the difficulty; and
· Mixing up the content to encourage recognition and discrimination.
To read more posts in this series, click here.
Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. ASCD.