How students learn: How I teach

Applying learning strategies in my classroom

Illustration of colourful abstract typography for part of the article title "How students learn "

A few years ago, I was teaching at a small school where I often taught the same students throughout their time in high school. In many cases, I taught the same students science, chemistry, and/or biology every year for four years straight. What teaching the same students over and over again showed me, was how little course material my students actually remembered. I knew exactly what I taught them the year before, and yet time and again, the learning didn’t seem to stick beyond the test or exam. What was going on? The scientist in me wanted to know why.

Around the same time, I discovered #Edutwitter. This is where I first started to hear about cognitive science. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology that seek to understand how the mind works and how we learn. I quickly became fascinated with the field and the implications it had on my practice.

At first, I started to read books on memory and the science of learning written by cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDonald. I also started to read articles and research summaries from American Educator and the Education Endowment Foundation, among others. Websites and blogs by the Learning Scientists, Retrieval Practice, and The Effortful Educator also helped to influence my practice. All of these resources included references to empirical research and I soon started to seek out this research as well.

Finding the research is the first challenge. As a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, I have access to the Margaret Wilson Library and its research databases, but it doesn’t provide access to many of the journals where research in cognitive science is published. I’ve had to use other methods to find what I am interested in. A simple Google search will often lead to a PDF file of an article. Some articles are open access and can be downloaded for free and others are open access for the first 50 days of publication. For articles that are behind pay-walls, many researchers will share their research when contacted through social media or email and explain why you are interested in it and what you plan to use it for.

Reading and understanding the research is more challenging, as like many educators, I don’t have any formal training in this area. Impact has a free poster that summarizes key terms used in educational research. Daniel Willingham’s book, When Can You Trust the Experts? is written specifically for educators who want to understand educational research. For myself, I was looking for findings that were well supported by empirical research, that were valid in both in the lab and in the classroom, and that explained what I was observing. I was also looking to find strategies that I could use to help support the long-term learning of my students.

What I have learned is that over the past 20 years, findings from cognitive science have shown what a huge impact memory has on learning, and what I assumed about memory and learning, was completely wrong.

No one really knows exactly how the mind works, but there is a simple model of the mind based upon the work of psychologist Alan Baddeley that is quite useful. Working memory is the part of the mind that holds the information that you are thinking about at this moment. Long-term memory is where factual knowledge (what a running shoe looks like) and procedural knowledge (how to tie your shoelaces) are stored. “Everything we see, hear, and think about is dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.”

Making new memories (learning) generally involves three steps: encoding (getting new information in), storage (storing new information in long-term memory) and retrieval (bringing stored information from long-term memory into working memory).

There is a popular analogy that compares our mind to a computer. According to this analogy, our minds have limited memory capacity but can pull up information easily when needed. This model also claims that if the information can’t be recalled, the memory has decayed over time or has been lost. However, what research in cognitive science has shown is that our mind doesn’t work this way at all. We have, for all intents and purposes, an unlimited capacity for storing information, but have great difficulty in retrieving information when not used often. A memory hasn’t necessarily decayed or been lost, we’ve just forgotten how to find it.

How does this explain what I was observing with my students?
The junior science curriculum consists of four main content strands: biology, chemistry, physics, and earth & space science. In the past, I taught each unit, gave a few quizzes, a unit test, and then moved on to the next unit. Generally, the only time students would see course material from a previous unit was on a cumulative final exam. I was spending a lot of time getting course material into my students’ heads, hoping that it would stick, but I was spending very little time getting students to retrieve what they had learned. My practice also encouraged students to cram—they may stay up the night before or spend a couple of days before a test or exam reviewing their notes and/or textbook. They would remember enough course material to pass the test or exam, but then they quickly forget it.

I realized that I was encouraging short-term learning strategies that focussed on performance, not long-term learning. If I really wanted my students to learn for the long-term, I needed to change my practice. What I discovered is that there are simple, yet effective learning strategies that educators (and students) can use to promote long-term learning. The two most effective learning strategies are retrieval practice and spaced (distributed) practice.

Over a century of research has shown that the most robust method of improving student learning is to get students to retrieve what they have learned from long-term memory. Retrieval practice involves taking something you’ve learned in the past from your long-term memory and bringing it into your working memory to think about right now (e.g. what did you have for breakfast three days ago?). The past part is really important—you need to forget that information at least a little in order for retrieval to be effective. When you retrieve information from long-term memory you are strengthening that information and making it more retrievable in the future.

The spacing effect was first demonstrated by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 19th century and has since been replicated hundreds of times. Spaced practice is the opposite of cramming (massed practice). When students spread out their studying over time rather than in one long session, even if they use the same amount of time to study, more information is retained over the long-term.

Both of these strategies involve what cognitive scientist Robert Bjork calls a desirable difficultly. They make learning more challenging. We tend to assume that when learning feels easy, we are more likely to remember it, but the opposite is actually true. When learning is slower and requires more effort, the better it is for long-term learning.

How do I use these learning strategies in my classroom?
I figured the simplest way to incorporate these strategies was to give students a quiz that asks them questions not just on the current unit or topic, but on content from earlier in the semester. This didn’t work out too well—many of the students were getting way too anxious about the quizzes. I also found that I was putting more effort in than the students were.

The next semester I made some changes. I really wanted my students to understand why these learning strategies were better for them in the long run. I needed something that would make an impact on them. So, I gave them a quiz on the first day of class based on what they learned the previous year. As Dylan Wiliam says, “the best person to mark a test is the person who just took it.” We took up the quiz and the students made their own corrections in green pen (I wanted a colour most students don’t use to highlight what they couldn’t retrieve). Many, including my top-performing students from the previous year, did very poorly on the quiz. That really got their attention. I spent the rest of the class explaining how our memory works and how the learning strategies were better for long-term learning. I continued with the weekly quizzes, but had the students correct their own using green pen. I also made the quizzes no-stakes—they didn’t count toward their final mark. I had the students keep the quizzes in a folder and I would quickly review them each week. It was great way for me (and my students) to get feedback on how they were doing and to illustrate how much they had learned over the course of the semester.

I soon started to spend more time each semester going over the various learning strategies with my students and sharing more of what I have learned about how the mind works and how we learn. I moved from weekly retrieval practice to daily retrieval practice at the start of every class, using a variety of retrieval strategies. Brain dumps (e.g. writing down everything you can on cellular respiration in 10 min); three things (e.g. something you learned last week, last month, last year); graphic organizers (e.g. giving them diagrams of the stages of the cell cycle and having them describe what occurs at each stage); and games such as retrieval-tic-tac-toe. I still use short answer quizzes and Plickers (an online quizzing app) to mix things up. I’ve also changed the way I set my tests and assignments and have incorporated other learning strategies such as interleaving and dual-coding.

Has using these learning strategies helped my students?
YES! I can see a clear difference from before and after I implemented these strategies in terms of class results and retention of course material over time. More importantly, the students see a difference as well. When I started out on this journey, I knew I wanted student feedback and input. Every semester I have my students fill out anonymous surveys using Google Forms. While I haven’t convinced every single student of the benefits of using these learning strategies, the vast majority of the comments have been positive.

About Nicole Charron
Nicole Charron is a teacher in District 25, Ottawa-Carleton.

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