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Put Retention in the Plan

We’ve all had this experience, probably tens of times if not more.

We spend weeks teaching our students important information: new vocabulary words; the primary battles of the Civil War; the differences between animal cells and plant cells, etc.  The class takes a test and performs well. Two days later, we ask a related question that requires our students to remember and / or integrate learning from the recent past. Instead of watching multiple hands excitedly shoot up we observe silence and a collective state of confusion.

How did that happen? They knew it all so well just the other day!

I believe that much of the answer lies with our emphasis and our planning.

Recently, I was giving a workshop for teachers on lesson planning. We talked about core components of successful lessons, including defining objectives, engaging in task analysis to ensure that the objectives will be met, and checking for understanding to confirm that learning has occurred.

Sometime during the workshop I began to speak about memory and what teachers could and need to be doing in order to promote student retention. At that point it dawned on me that few, if any, lesson plans designate space for memory-related techniques and student review.

I will go out on a limb and say that if you ask the average educator as to the “ingredients” of a strong lesson plan they will speak of such things as big questions, time allocation, required resources, groupings, and evaluation.  But they will almost assuredly not talk about memory and retention.

Somehow our conception of good education has come to be centered on what information will be learned and how the learning will occur, with little consideration of how it will be retained. And I think that’s a mistake.

The oldest educational adage that I know comes from the Bible. “Educate the child according to his way, so that when he ages he will not deviate from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) This one line contains so many powerful insights into education and its goals, such as the need to differentiate instruction and produce lifelong learners. It also makes clear that youthful learning should remain with us and inform our decisions and identities as adults.

I have heard some well-known educators suggest that retention is not so important in the age of Web 2.0. If we don’t remember some information we simply have to get online and search. Or put it out there for real time feedback.

But aren’t there things that our students just need to know without pulling out their smartphones? Isn’t there something to be said for being an informed, invested and connected citizen? And how can we be informed and engaged if we fail to retain?

Perhaps you may argue that retention is certainly important, but isn’t something that we have to plan for. It’ll happen with student attentiveness, note taking and review. My response is that this may work for the short-term, but the proof is in the educational pudding. The kind that I’ve tasted leads me to believe that these tasks and strategies alone simply do not suffice.

The good news is that we know so much about the brain and how we remember things (though we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in this regard.) We know that the best way for students to retain information is by embedding knowledge in their episodic memories (episode-based learning that enters into our long-term memory.) The more that learning can be transformed into “episodes” that demand the engagement of the whole child, the better the child will learn and remember.

We also know that lists and other hard-to-remember, loosely connected information can be better retained through use of mnemonic, song, association and webbing. It is our job as teachers to either develop their memory tricks or encourage our students to do so. We also need to teach them how to do it.

There is a word that I learned in seventh grade that I have never used since, except for when giving memory workshops. The word is tawdry, which was defined a few decades ago as “showy and flashy but lacking in good taste.” You may be wondering how I remember a word that is not commonly used and never by yours truly. The answer is that when I was studying for our vocabulary final I converted the word’s first three letters (“t-a-w”) into “w-a-t,” for water. I thought of clothing being put in the washing machine (with water) that was showy and flashy but not very tasteful. Perhaps the technique sounds silly, but it works. Go ahead, test me!

It is my personal belief that every teacher should ask herself each day a number of key questions pertaining to her lesson. These include: “How will I tap into various modalities?” “How will I effectively meet the needs of my many students?” “What can I do to promote genuine engagement?” The list goes on.

We also need to ask ourselves what we can and should be doing to ensure that we give our students every opportunity to hold on to what they have learned. Not only will this increase their motivation to learn (and ours to teach) and their self-esteem, but we will produce the kinds of knowledgeable, informed and inspired adults that will make us all proud and the world a better place.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Education.

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