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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #18: Making meaning

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

This is post #18 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams.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

Explain Teaching something to someone else requires a high amount of concentration and processing. Though ideas often seem simple when mulling them over in our own minds, putting them into words requires a whole different level of understanding. Students gain deep insights into content when they work to explain it to their peers.

Look The act of observation helps students gather data about what they are learning. By looking and describing what they see, hear, or feel, students invoke multiple senses to aid the encoding of information. Additionally, sometimes students can get a unique perspective by looking at something from a different point of view. By examining ideas or objects from varying viewpoints, they increase the stickiness factor.

Associate Our brains are pattern detectors. One of the greatest ways to improve memory and recall is to link new learning to something that is already known. When students purposefully look for associations between what they are studying and their prior knowledge, their ability to recall it later grows mightily.

Build Abstract concepts can sometimes be difficult to understand without a representation to describe it. Students can work to build examples, diagrams, and frameworks, either physical or pictorial, to help make sense of classroom content. Once these representations are built, students will find it much easier to consider the content conceptually.

Organize Placing new ideas into a larger structure often helps students see the big picture. By classifying information, finding similarities, and exploring nuances, students can work to organize data into memorable forms. These mental models assist students when not only sorting through existing concepts but also help to easily categorize new learning.

Reflect Too often students overestimate their understanding of a concept. Reflective students gauge what they think they know against objective data, seeking to find gaps in their knowledge and forming strategies to fill them. Rather than breezing past known content, being lured by its familiarity, students should frequently examine how much they really understand something. Through reflection, they can figure out if they truly know what they think they know.

Analyze Rarely does learning occur in a straight line with simple relationships. More often than not, inferential thinking, component parts, and complex relationships better describe content systems. Sticky learning requires analysis, asking students to explore connections and understand how pieces work together.

Try One of the simplest ways to make learning stick is to try it out. In video games, it’s called learning by death, as players slowly acclimate to the functions of a game through various attempts and failures. Trial and error, accompanied by purposeful feedback, is one of the most powerful ways to learn something new.

Extend Some of the best teaching strategies or activities are not terminal. If so desired, they can be added onto to extend learning in a multitude of ways. When students take something and stretch it to new and unique configurations, they are engaging in robust encoding.

What can you do tomorrow?

Connect learning. Prioritize generation and linking new experiences to previous learning. Allow cognitive dissonance, either natural or planned, to percolate long enough to increase the learning potential.

Make learning sticky. Create maximized learning opportunities by having students use various processes and actions from elaborate.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Classroom tasks promote active learning using techniques such as:

· Asking students to solve problems and generate solutions before being shown the correct strategy or algorithm (cognitive dissonance);

· Embedding error correction and instructive feedback; and

· Adding newly learned information to mental models.

To read more posts in this series, click here.



Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

Daffern, A. (2020). Worksheets don't work: 50 engaging tasks that make learning stick. Aaron Daffern Consulting.

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