Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.
Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.
In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.
“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”
The Forgetting Curve
We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.
Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.
So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.
The Persistence of Memory
The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.
MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.
Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:
For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.
5 Teacher Strategies
When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.
Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:
- Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning (Sekeres et al., 2016).
- The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
- Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
- Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
- Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).
So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.
This project investigated whether participation in a group cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) anxiety program assists children on the autism spectrum to function better at school, including their anxiety, mood, social skills, and academic outcomes.
When students are monitored regularly and targeted teaching is planned and implemented in a timely manner, fewer students succumb to the Matthew Effect (Rigney, 2010) whereby the gap between struggling learners and their year level peers widens rapidly and, with each passing year, is more difficult to close.
While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible (Rigney, 2010).
Monitoring student literacy progress against agreed expectations is central to targeted teaching (Goss, Hunter, Romanes and Parsonage, 2015).
The purpose of monitoring is to provide information about student learning. This information can be used by teachers to evaluate their teaching. It can also be used by students to assess their own progress. Monitoring is the general word that describes the specific ways you plan to pay attention to, and track, your students’ progress (Department of Education and Training, 2015).
Alignment of assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and literacy in the classroom is the most proactive approach to acknowledging the diverse learning needs of students and improving teacher practice and student outcomes. Continuous monitoring of students’ ability to apply literacy understanding and skills in the curriculum supports teachers in reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t. This enables them to either maintain or alter current teaching practices to ensure students are achieving at the standard expected of them in classroom tasks and assessment.
The P-10 Literacy continuum and Early Start are tools for helping teachers to monitor literacy progress.
The P–10 Literacy continuum ‘identifies the literacy skills and understandings regarded as critical to literacy success. It maps how critical aspects develop through the years of schooling by describing key markers of expected student progress’ (NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2010). By mapping students’ current abilities on the continuum, teachers are better able to meet students’ literacy learning needs and plan for longer-term progress through intentional instruction against year level expectations.
Early Start is a suite of literacy materials for use across the early years of schooling:
- on Entry to Prep
- end of Prep
- Year 1
- Year 2
Schools and teachers can use Early Start to generate purposeful data about literacy achievement, track progress and measure growth for Prep to Year 2 students.
Continuum can be found also in OneSchool
Learn how you can use open-ended math tasks to teach your students valuable mathematical problem-solving skills while deepening student engagement, understanding, and retention – Absolutely FREE!
Why grand conversations?
“…student engagement in discussions
about text results in improved reading
comprehension, higher level thinking skills,
and increased literacy motivation.”
Oral language is the foundation for the complex literacy skills that are critical to
a child’s success in today’s knowledge society. The capacity to analyze rich text
(including media and digital representations), to explore different perspectives, to
negotiate meaning and to critically question authors (and authorship) are all expectations
of today’s literate learner. This monograph, building on Gordon Wells notion of
“grand conversation,” explores the kind of talk that enables students to meet these
expectations and build the comprehension skills that are the foundation for high
levels of literacy.
Each child, in each school, in each of our communities deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. That’s what a whole child approach to learning, teaching, and community engagement really is.
The demands of the 21st century require a new approach to education to fully prepare students for college, career, and citizenship. Research, practice, and common sense confirm that a whole child approach to education will develop and prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow by addressing students’ comprehensive needs through the shared responsibility of students, families, schools, and communities.
All educators want to improve the work they do for students, their families, and the community. Whether it’s instruction, school climate, leadership, family engagement, or any of the other issues schools face on a daily basis, all educators need tools to help them improve their actions and methods. A whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, sets the standard for comprehensive, sustainable school improvement and provides for long-term student success.
School improvement tool:
So 4 kids in a motorhome…whose crazy idea was that 🙂
Well it has certainly been an “adventure”…a word we began to mistrust every time we heard it discussed as part of the next element of our holiday…
I thought I would take an opportunity to share a couple of stories about some places we visited and the lessons that they taught me and I hope have had an impact on my children. After all it is our children who may have the opportunity to right some wrongs and promote the positive messages we heard or saw along the way. Plus share a couple of photos…
I wanted to talk about a couple of places we visited and some impressions of the things we saw, the people we spoke to and also the sense of the history of the place. For the point of this article I will just talk about Woomera and Coober Pedy in South Australia and Katherine Gorge and Kakadu in the Northern Territory.
Not a lot to say about this place…really just a spot on a map that is famous for it’s missile and rocket testing. Mostly by the British and later the Americans. The town has a park and a museum filled with rockets and missiles. Only military staff and families work in this town. Huge parts on the map around Woomera listed as no access zones around the town. Lots of talk in the museums about all the great work of the various military forces and scientists etc…what was missing…not a lot of talk about the local indigenous population, nuclear testing or the effects of the environment and the traditional owners of the land. It was sad to see but I guess a lesson to be learned.
Like this piece of junk from a movie set (Pitch Black with Vin Diesel) the town is littered with lots of broken bits of old cars, mining equipment and other random junk. The whole area is made up of holes in the ground where many people come to make their fortune mining for opals. It is a little sad what we do to our country in some places in search of wealth. Though the locals seem to love it…definitely a quirky place. We heard lots of other stories in our “adventures” about some of the crazy things early settlers did in some places in order to make their wealth. One story of an early sheep farmer who brought 120000 sheep to Wilpena Pound (Flinders Ranges SA) and in two years turned it from a lush landscape into a desert. It was good to see that it is now on the mend as a National Park.
I taught in Katherine 20 years ago in my second year of teaching. It was like the wild west to a young man from Brisbane even after doing a year in Alice Springs. I like many city kids could not believe the state of behaviour and conditions of and for indigenous Australians and though as a child witnessing a lot of that casual racism within my own family and being ashamed of it at the time it was easy to fall into thinking about these stereotypes and feeling they were justified.
20 years on there are still big problems with alcoholism and racism in our country and it is on show in central Australia, however, we did have an opportunity to listen to a number of indigenous and non-indigenous tour guides and park rangers who gave me hope for the future of this country.
One young man who was our tour guide for the Katherine Gorge was indigenous but not from the Katherine area (he was from the Whitsundays). He decided as it was his last week running the tour that he would alter his tour information. He spoke of the local traditional owners and the great things that they were doing in the area to manage this beautiful place. He told of their struggles and the history of the place. One fact that had an impact was that it only became illegal to kill and Aboriginal person in 1960. He talked of the destruction of the area and the effect on the local people in a little over a 90 year period (NT history of “colonisation” was a lot later than other parts of Australia). He talked of the impact that a decision made in another part of the country depicted in the Paul Kelly song:
had a positive impact in Katherine and the traditional owners were able to fight for their land back. In one of the greatest acts of forgiveness I have heard about the traditional owners decided to share their lands, despite everything that had happened to them, and openly encourage non-indigenous Australians and others to visit and share their culture. Like a number of other indigenous Australian speakers I heard on this holiday he spoke with a pride and a confidence that I had not seen previously in this part of Australia and in other parts of Queensland that I have visited.
Lots of crocodiles (salt water crocodiles)…don’t put your hand out of the boat…ever…
a very beautiful part of the country…despite the crocs
Again stories from tour guides and park rangers spoke of the skills of the traditional owners in managing the land. Lots of information that puts some of our curriculum into perspective when it comes to learning about indigenous culture. A culture that managed the land for tens of thousands of years and of a people who speak often 4 or more languages. Their languages are part of their culture and the words tell a story about the objects they are describing that teach you about how to survive and the laws of their people. It was fascinating.
All in all it was great trip…I am glad to be back though and I will end this post by sharing some photos that show how beautiful our country is and we should all be proud of it.
I have recently been reading Make it Stick The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel and it has some interesting insights into learning that I thought I would share.
Chapter 1: Learning is Misunderstood
- Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.
- We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
- Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also the least productive. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” of conventional wisdom.
- For true mastery or durability these strategies (rereading and massed practice) are largely a waste of time.
- Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.
- Simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.
- Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain. Space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.
- Try to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt. (Pre-assessment and inquiry based learning)
- The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research.
- In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool to identify and bring up your areas of weakness. (check ins and feedback)
- New learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.
- Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.
- People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organise them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.
- Many people believe that their intellectual ability is hard-wired from birth, and that failure to meet a learning challenge is an indictment of their native ability. But every time you learning something new, you change the brain – the residue of your experiences is stored. (Growth Mindset)
- Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal.
- If rereading is largely ineffective, why do students favour it? Rising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create the illusion of mastery.
Creativity is more important than knowledge – Albert Einstein
One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply – Robert Sternberg