And It’s Not a Bad Thing
Occasionally, we can teach a lesson and come back to it later only to find that the students have forgotten it entirely. You might have felt that the initial lesson was a diamond—everything went well, the students were engaged, interest and participation were high, everybody left happy and wiser—and now suddenly you feel like a failure. Indeed, if you’ve been teaching for a while, this has undoubtedly happened to you countless times.
This can really come to a head with unit quizzes or end of semester reviews, not to mention end of year national exams, because students receiving low grades after forgetting everything that you have taught them reflects badly on you as well as them. Parents might have even complained to you before because they asked their child what he learned at school on a given day only to receive the answer, “I can’t remember”. What are you doing in your classes that my child can’t remember what you have taught him!?
While it is a problem if teachers aren’t handling this properly, which we’ll look at shortly, the reality is that everyone forgets; students, teachers, parents and examinations board members alike. Your students will forget the majority of what you teach them, but that is not a bad thing. On the contrary, not only is it natural and largely unavoidable, there is reason to believe it’s actually a good thing.
Stages of Learning
There are many things that can be said about the processes, stages, sequences and so forth of learning. Most confidently, we can say only that we don’t really know what learning is and that we are far from understanding how it works on a neural level. However, there are many models and descriptions of learning that have been put forth and that stand up well to observation and experimentation. One such model, which forms the main basis for the book Make it Stick by Peter C Brown et al, suggests that there are three stages involved in properly learning something: encoding >> consolidation >> retrieval. It is through this process that we commit something to long-term memory and can be said to have truly and practicably learned it.
Encoding is encountering some new information/data. We see it or hear it for the first time; we consider it and understand it; we take it in. As an aside, it certainly seems that many education systems are predicated on the notion that this alone is enough to be considered learning. It is not. Teachers who spend all of their time transferring knowledge from their heads (or their textbooks) to their students’ heads via the blackboard are relying on the idea that encoding is learning, whereas in fact, it is only the beginning.
Consolidation is a partly natural (i.e. involuntary) process whereby the brain organises and catalogues learning over time. Depending on how effective the initial learning experience was, learning settles into the brain as neural pathways are constructed around it, becoming useful information for the future. The more points of reference contained in the learning, the more neural connections can be established.
Retrieval is the final stage, but it is also the stage that demonstrates that this process is never really over. Retrieval is the process of recalling prior learning from memory for use. This might happen when somebody asks you a question or when you need to solve a problem you encounter in life or just when you take a test. The longer this takes place after the initial learning, the more effort it is likely to require, and thus the more valuable it is to the learning process—the harder you have to work, the better your memory will be in the future.
But more than that, retrieval is also further learning, because with each retrieval of prior learning, you’re introducing it into new contexts and providing more reference points, which means more neural pathways. Therefore, each retrieval also constitutes new learning, which is encoded in the moment and must then be consolidated, etc. etc.
Using This Information
This is a fairly intuitive model of learning that I suspect you’ll identify with quite strongly from your own learning experiences. However, if you’ve never really stopped to think about it, you’re probably not particularly aware of these things going on in the background of your learning experiences, let alone your students’. But if you pay attention to it and plan with it specifically in mind, it can make for a much more efficient teaching-learning process.
Each of the three stages, encoding, consolidation and retrieval, can be enhanced by the way you facilitate them in your lessons. Planning and teaching with these in mind will make you far more conscientious of why you’re doing the things you’re doing in your lessons and will make your students’ learning much more effective. It will also require that you think about the big picture in planning, thinking on the scale of whole courses rather than just one lesson at a time.
Here I’ll take a look at each of the three stages in turn and suggest some of the ways that you can maximise effectiveness through your teaching approach.
The best way of encoding effective learning is to have as many different aspects and contexts incorporated into the learning experience as possible. The more there is to refer to and relate to, the more the new learning can embed itself into the network of your prior learning and the more triggers it can prime for future recall. I’ll refer to these points of reference generically as nodes. A node is any element of learning that can be connected via neural pathways to other learning, either prior or future.
Learning a list of words and their definitions by copying them from the whiteboard will provide very few nodes. There is the word, its precise definition, and that’s about it. Words have their own natural cataloguing and categorisation mechanisms, so they will form collocations and connotations based on your repeated experience of them and your encounters with them, so each sentence the words are placed in will provide extra nodes regarding how these words are used, but it’s still very sparse.
Starting from this point, a simple way of increasing the node count would be to introduce the word with some synonyms and antonyms and sentence examples rather than just definitions. Synonyms and antonyms are good because they very quickly build up wide networks of words that can be used in close proximity and they strengthen understanding through context and shades of meaning. Sentence examples help us place the words syntactically and provide collocations, and they can also make language more personally relatable if the sentences are well curated, which can then embed the words into our neural network of personal experience.
Nevertheless, the best way to maximise the node count when encoding new learning is to learn through contextual encounters—learning by doing. This way, the learning is embedded through multiple input channels and has much deeper, real-life meaning. This means that in the future, context triggers will be much more powerful, meaning that i we find ourselves in the kind of situation where the learning is useful, we will better remember it because we have already associated the learning with that situation.
Consolidation is a little tricky because it is largely a natural process. However, there are ways to enhance it and also ways to impede it. Consolidation is a background process. It happens while the new learning is settling in, finding its appropriate place in your network of prior learning. The better the encoding experience, the more complex this will be. However, one thing that can lessen the consolidation effect is over-drilling. Consolidation appears to happen during the process of forgetting, that is, as the learning fades from current, short-term, working memory. This will not happen until drilling is finished because drilling keeps the learning in the working memory. This goes for quizzing immediately after learning; it is not testing long-term memory and so does not give any guarantee of useful retention in the future.
Therefore, it is important to give your students time for forgetting and consolidation before you test them on learning if you want to really see how useful their learning has been. Also, it is valuable to enhance consolidation over time by re-encoding prior learning, which means reteaching prior learning but with different approaches and different contexts, which has two major benefits: the first is that recalling prior learning exercises the brain and strengthens the neural connections because the brain favours information that is used and therefore useful, and the second is that relearning in new contexts adds new nodes and constructs more complex neural networks around the learning.
To maximise this effect in your classroom, incorporate spiralling into your syllabus plan. Spiralling is the structural practice of revisiting topics and units multiple times throughout a semester and approaching them differently, rather than teaching each topic and then moving on in a one-directional, linear fashion. For example, if you’re an English teacher and the future with going to turns up in unit two about holiday plans, then think about reteaching the same grammar later in the semester but this time have your students plan a school trip, perhaps. Then later, come back to it again, perhaps to talk about what students are going to do after they graduate from school. This way, you are adding nodes to the learning and enhancing the consolidation process, while also utilising retrieval.
Retrieval is effectively any attempt to recall prior learning. As mentioned above, many syllabus plans mistake end of lesson or end of unit quizzes for retrieval practise, but if the learning has not had the chance yet to pass from short-term/working memory, then it is not good retrieval practice. For retrieval practise to be effective, the process of forgetting should have already started, such that retrieval is a challenge. This exercises the brain very differently and it highlights any of the neural pathways that have been established through consolidation as valuable ones. If there has been no time to forget, then the retrieval is not challenging enough and there has not been a good enough opportunity for consolidation.
Therefore, a good way to make use of retrieval practise is to shuffle up your unit quizzes a little, so that you don’t teach unit one then quiz unit one, teach unit two then quiz unit two, and so on, but instead you maybe hold off on your unit one and two quizzes until after unit three, then maybe teach unit four and five then quiz unit four then unit three. This way, the retrieval process is more natural. If you quiz too quickly, there has been no forgetting and no consolidation, and if you quiz too linearly, the brain can take a shortcut by using the syllabus itself as a trigger for retrieval rather than the scenario. What I mean here is that testing in this linear fashion might only end up testing your students ability to remember unit two after discussing unit one. This is quite different from being faced unexpectedly with a scenario that requires information from unit two and being able to retrieve and implement it usefully.
The other implication here is that just as encoding is best done through experience and simulation of real life scenarios, so too testing is most valuable when students are asked to respond to real life scenarios and solve real life problems. This is the one and only way that you can predict how well a student will be able to use their learning effectively in real life after graduation. A formal exam does not demonstrate this at all; it merely tells you how well your students are at answering academic questions, the likes of which they will probably never be asked again as professional adults. Test your students practically through real-life tasks and simulations if you want to be really sure that they have learned something useful from your lessons.
Not Just For Kids
I have written this article with classroom teachers in mind, hoping to offer some guidance on how to make teaching more effective in schools and institutions. However, the principles apply to any learning (including incidental learning). With that in mind then, you can also apply them to your own professional development. Consider how these stages apply and how they can be facilitated and enhanced next time you attend a seminar or watch a YouTube tutorial or even read a book or an article like this one.
Think about how you can best make the learning applicable to your own life and how you can apply those contexts at the encoding stage. Perhaps write a reflection after learning something exploring the ways you expect the learning to be useful in your life. Maybe attempt to use the learning in a real life scenario immediately after the learning experience is over, for example planning a new concept into your lesson the very next day, so that you can bolster the learning with experience. Then, perhaps keep your notes and test yourself on them after some time has passed. See how easy it was to remember and focus on re-encoding the things that were more hazy. Also, readdress your notes in light of any new learning or experiences; has your stance changed, are there any ways that you can elaborate on what you learned before, does it relate meaningfully to anything new that you have learned since.
Most importantly, try at all times to be an active learner. Think carefully about what you are learning and how you are learning, and structure your learning experiences purposefully to make the most of these processes. This way your learning will be stronger and will last longer, having a greater practical impact on your life.
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