How to help your students remember the salient points

by J.P. Toth, Department of Psychology

Memory is a tricky ability. Not only is it subject to error and distortion, but it can also be impaired by numerous things that are a normal part of student life, including illness (such as colds & flu), medication, and sleep deprivation. Despite these difficulties, research on memory has also uncovered a number of critical factors about how best to learn and remember new information.

One such factor involves how the information is initially thought about or processed. While many people believe that simply repeating information can help it "stick" in memory, this turns out to be one of the least useful ways to remember something for the long term. Instead, research shows that long-lasting memories are best produced by having people process the information "deeply" or elaborately, connecting the new material with other information already in memory, including information about ones' self.

What is the best way to get students to processing information elaborately? Having them relate the material to their own experience is one possibility (e.g., how does this concept apply to your own life? can you remember a situation in which this principle may have been operating?). Another possibility, championed by the social psychologist Robert Cialdini, is to embed the critical information (concept, principle, equation, etc.) within a real-world mystery (described at the beginning of class), with the information then playing a critical role in solving the mystery (which occurs near the end of class). This innovative teaching strategy appears to not only encourage deep, elaborate processing, but it also perks a students interest and motivation to learn. Worth noting in this regard is the general fact that people tend to remember things that are novel, surprising, or that evoke emotion.

Regardless of the specific teaching strategy, however, the key is to get students to relate the meaning of the new information to things they already know and care about. A second factor that can be exploited to increase long-term memory for critical classroom material is repeated testing. Indeed, recent research has found repeated testing to enhance memory for classroom material even more so than repeated studying! Stated differently, testing appears to be a great way to study, especially if one's goal is the expression and use of newly-acquired knowledge. Moreover, the tests can be brief (pop-quizzes will do), can be administered shortly after the critical material has been presented (as long as the material has left short-term memory), and it is not even imperative that the students get the test questions correct in order to enjoy the benefits of repeated testing—simply trying to retrieve the information appears to suffice, especially when coupled with immediate feedback.

In summary, research tells us that memory for the salient points will be best when students initially think about the meaning of those points, especially in relation to themselves and the other things they know; and when they have repeated been given the opportunity to express this information in a variety of testing (Q & A) formats.

Ok, now what did you just learn?


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