How many times have teachers said, “I know I taught it, but they don’t remember it?” Forgetting is natural. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus undertook several experiments to plot how quickly people tend to forget. The forgetting curve—pictured below—shows how quickly new learning is lost. In just twenty minutes, nearly half of what has been taught is forgotten, unless some action is taken to strengthen recall.
This figure is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
Recall is best when there is an action or prompt that encourages student’s brains to transfer learning to long term memory. Cognitive load theory explains that there are limits to new learning and “instructional techniques are most effective when they are in accord with how human brains learn” (Center for Education Statistics and Evaluation, p. 2). Working memory is what an individual can hold in their brain at any one time. These short-term thoughts are transferred to long-term memory where they are sorted, organized, and utilized.
Assess in the Short Term, rather than relying on infrequent summative tests. Use entrance slips to see what students remember from a previous lesson or un-graded exit slips to guide the start of tomorrow’s lesson. Ask students to explain gravity to an extra-terrestrial or compassion to a novice superhero.
Provide Multimodal Experiences: Each student is a unique learner, but it is not realistic to prepare lessons for each one. Instead, include a sensory experience with each learning intention. Offer these options: Individually or in small groups, summarize learning by writing a brief rap, interpret song lyrics such as ones from “Hamilton,” clap to the beat of Shakespeare, or transform a traditional nursery rhyme into a current news report.
Assess Chunked Learning: Engage students in each chunk by recording a key idea, questioning the statement or action, offering an alternative solution, or inserting sticky notes.
Give Peer to Peer Feedback: A simple turn and talk can be enhanced with a talk-back, where a listener not only listens but explains what they heard the speaker say. The speaker then explains why they concur with the other’s summary or may clarify or amend their own comments.
Revisit and Recycle: Include previous material in new material. Especially for key foundations of learning. Ask students how they are using the scientific process during each lab. Build student confidence by starting a new test with some review questions.
Teach With Feeling: Emotions serve to embed learning. Laughter, stomping, and other sounds and movement help students connect what they just learned to an emotion. For example, express a character’s anger by stomping, make a face to express your feelings about current events, demonstrate astonishment at an awesome science demonstration. Then ask students to explain or elaborate those feelings using electronic post-its or annotating their test.
These momentary pauses that solidify learning can enhance student memory and ease everyone’s cognitive load. Now, having translated the essential ideas of forgetfulness and cognitive load theory perhaps I’ll have better recall next time I try to persuade policy writers to: