• Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #18: Making meaning


This is post #18 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams.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.


Sticky learning, or learning that is easy to recall and apply in new and unique situations, has multiple memory tags associated with it. We remember it because it links to something else we already know, is connected with different senses and emotions, and is related to a larger narrative or big picture. If we want a document to be found easily on our computer, there are various steps we can take to organize our filing system and naming conventions. If we want students to later recall something we are trying to teach them, there are also multiple tactics we can employ to make learning stickier.


Active learning allows us to have a larger palette of unique mental, emotional, and physical states, key memory makers that are essential to learning. Each separate state mobilizes additional neurons in more lasting and complex connections than mere semantic, or word-based, lessons, such as lectures or reading from a textbook. Trial and error involves more emotional structures because of the brain’s natural tendency to predict what will happen next. The feelings that arise out of successful or even unsuccessful predictions can activate the pleasure centers in the brain far more readily than simple memorization or reading tasks.


Physical activities, like role-playing, conducting a science experiment, or welding something in metal shop class, are very easy to recall. They create wider, more complex, and generally better sources of sensory input than mere cognition activities. However you design your learning experiences, the more active they are, the better. Simply by trying, failing, and trying again, students will better encode knowledge than if they were to passively receive it.


Another method for making learning stickier is one that takes virtually no preparation or even grading – cultivating a habit of reflection in the classroom. When students think about what they’ve learned and the experiences they’ve had while learning, they tend to craft them into a story or larger narrative. This structure strengthens learning because our minds are designed to crave stories (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).


Reflection works so well because it involves several cognitive activities. First, students retrieve past learning, either from short-term or long-term memory. Second, they elaborate on knowledge, connecting new information to what they’ve already learned. Third, students generate knowledge by rephrasing key ideas in their own words, oftentimes visualizing and mentally rehearsing what they might do differently next time. Finally, the reflection usually has some type of output, written or oral, that provides yet another opportunity to relate topics to prior knowledge and other disciplines.


At the end of a lesson or while packing up to go for the day, put some reflection questions on the board for students to ponder. What went well today? What could have gone better? What other experiences did it remind you of? What strategies might you try next time?


What can you do tomorrow?

Make learning active. Think about how you can make an upcoming lesson more active. Reduce the amount of passive listening and increase students’ participation in creating their own understanding.


Build in time to reflect. Have students think about what they learned and use their experience to predict how they will perform in the future.


What does this look like in the classroom?

Classroom tasks include reflection activities to stamp learning, such as:


· Thinking about what parts of the lesson went well for the students;


· Judging their level of learning and using that to predict their future success; and


· Evaluating their confidence in their learning and justifying it.

If we as teachers can do a better job of supporting students as they encode new information, their engagement will increase alongside their achievement while misbehavior fades away. Students all want to learn and be successful because their brains are designed for it. I share in a previous book, Worksheets Don’t Work (Daffern, 2020), that elaboration is an important tool that teachers can use to help students link new information to prior knowledge and add memory tags so it is easier to recall. Using the term elaborate as an acrostic, there are several thought processes and actions that students can take to make learning sticky – explain, look, associate, build,