How do students remember

Posted By on May 27, 2010

As the school year ends I find myself thinking pedagogically.  (That is I start thinking about the art of teaching.) Several thoughts run through my head. For one, I start thinking about what I did right and wrong.  I actually make a list of such things and try to improve.

However, the specific thought behind this post is, “What makes students remember what teachers teach?” A commonly stated frustration from teachers is, “I taught it to them, why did they fail the test?”  Well, I have had several times when I have found myself on the receiving end of this.   A teacher, administrator, wife, or friend has told me something that I have forgotten.  They told it to me, why didn’t I remember it?  I have some thoughts on the topic that I want to record before I forget to do so.

Ways to help students remember:

  1. Vertical Connections:
    I find it very helpful to pre-teach subjects that I don’t intend to test on in a specific chapter.  For example I teach vectors in physics.  The first chapter I cover on vectors addresses adding vectors, but not multiplying them.  However, I still introduce the topic. I ask, “What can you do with scalars?” (normal numbers) The answer of course is, add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  So after teaching them to add and subtract I bring up the concept of multiplying and the fact that there is actually a difference between the dot and the x that they’ve  seen in math class.  I don’t test it. I don’t give homework on it, but we do discuss it.  I do this because several chapters later when we actually cover it, it feels familiar.  They’ve heard the words before.  This same concept is used with survey courses in college.  Cover the entire story of the USA in one semester and then come back and fill in the details.
  2. Parallel Connections:
    Maybe this is mislabeled, but I still like it.  Essentially, this is reaching the same conclusion from several different angles.  My best example is proving an equation, or forcing them to reach the same answer using specific, different formulas.  This gets the students to see the same concept from different angles.  I suppose another way to do this would be to have students do several projects. For example, I can imagine a class where the US revolution is covered from the viewpoint of the colonists and from British viewpoints.  This, I believe would make better connections for students, which makes lessons last.
  3. Life Connections
    This, I believe is invaluable.  The more a student can connect to their daily life the more they will internalize the material.  With physics this comes down to talking to students about sports, cars, doors, amusement park rides, and anything else I can come up with that they’ve experienced and will experience.  If I can get them to step on a roller coaster and have flashbacks of my class, then I’ve permanently taught them something about physics.  On a side note the more experiences a student has the more likely that student will be able to internalize a lesson.  This is one of the reason boys, historically, do better than girls in physics. Boys, generally, have paid more attention to sports, cars, tools, planes, etc.  This gives them better connections.   (This type of connection is a complete topic for another time.  It relates the renaissance version of education, Socratic teaching, well rounded students etc)
  4. Memorable Moments
    A great, if silly example, is one from my personal experience. I was once truly frustrated with my students forgetting to use conversion factors.  So, I tried an experiment.  when I passed out their tests, I, uncharacteristically, yelled, pounded on the board, and stormed out of the room declaring that I was wasting my time and planned to quit teaching.  I waited a few minutes and walked back in the room smiling to let them know that I had not lost my mind.  There was a dramatic improvement on the next test.  Who could forget after such a immature display.


    However, a better list of examples would include good labs, field trips, student presentations, guest speakers, movies,  video clips, technology, etc.  This handle is something that students can find again in their index of knowledge later in life. Have you ever heard students talking about, “All I remember from his/her class is the time….”  Obviously, we don’t want a student to only have a single memorable moment in our classes.

So as you go about teaching, or learning, find ways to make connections and memorable moments.  We like to dream that the brain is a steel trap that catches and holds everything it perceives.  While that may be true, on some subconscious  level, for real learning to take place we have to tag that knowledge so that students have a handle to grab onto it with in the future when they need it.

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