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Even after eight years of teaching history, I struggle with helping my students retain and make effective use of their learning. Several years ago, a returning senior asked if she could retake the final exam in my United States history course in September. She had earned a solid "A" just three months earlier, but after a long and eventful summer, she wanted to know how much she remembered.

As it turned out, not much. My once-shining star had devolved into just an average student, earning a "C" on the same exam. She couldn’t recall historical intricacies that once rolled off her tongue, nor could she effectively articulate the main arguments for American territorial expansion from 1820 to 1860, and the impact this had in leading up to the Civil War. Little deep or lasting "learning" had taken root.

To better understand why this happens, I recently spoke to Mark A. McDaniel, co-author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis.

Connect Content With Meaning

My student found no reason to remember facts which meant little to her personally. Throughout the year, I had failed to encourage her to connect her own experiences and interests to the content. As McDaniel tells me, "Techniques that stimulate the learner to bring in a lot of prior knowledge and personal experience help make the learning more meaningful." I now champion the art of historical inquiry over breadth of coverage, and I strive to connect what students care about in the news, such as police shootings and protests, to the Civil Rights Movement and the United States Constitution.

Discourage Rote Memorization

I had also formerly encouraged my students to burn facts into memory by reading and rereading the text. In hindsight, this was horrible advice. McDaniel tells me that familiarity and fluency with a text is often an ineffective and misleading indicator of true learning. "They're getting cues that make them think they know more than they do." This might explain not only why my student forgot so much over the summer, but also why some learners, no matter how hard and diligently they study, still perform poorly on assessments.

Encourage Self-Testing

McDaniel encourages certain techniques to foster learning and memory. For example, teachers should remind students to regularly test themselves, which, McDaniel says, "has direct effects in improving subsequent retrieval and also helps the students better calibrate what they know and don't know." Following this advice, I frequently ask students to explain aloud to themselves (and sometimes to others) how and why certain themes and terms connect. I also provide detailed study guides for tests and quizzes, with ample time for students to assess their learning and seek extra help. Next year, I hope to heed more of McDaniel's advice by giving frequent but brief surveys, asking students to assess their learning after each major lesson.

Let Students Figure Out the Problem

To improve learning and memory, McDaniel also suggests merely pointing out where students run into difficulty, without providing detailed feedback. "If you're telling the students exactly what's wrong every time, they never know how to figure that out on their own," McDaniel tells me. Certainly, I need to improve in this area, especially with feedback on written work. At times, students view too much feedback (and too much red ink) from me as an affront. I've found much greater success by having my classes identify and correct mistakes from anonymous student work.

Give Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments

As a rookie teacher, I failed to recognize that assessments should be used to gauge learning progress -- not simply to test how much data a student can squeeze into his or her brain. Furthermore, since I formerly gave fewer assessments, each carried significantly more weight. Not surprisingly, my students cared more about seeing the final grade, and not reviewing their mistakes. McDaniel says that frequent low-stakes assessments signal to grade-worried students that, as he puts it, "we're not testing, we're helping you learn." This strategy reinforces the learning and improves long-term memory, no matter how familiar or redundant students may regard certain quiz material.

Don't Penalize Errors Harshly

Along these lines, in most cases I give students opportunities for full or partial retakes, no matter what grade they receive on an assessment. As I often write, I'm not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept -- just that it is in fact mastered. McDaniel reinforces my philosophy, saying, "I think the culture of the classroom and teaching has to change so that errors are viewed as an opportunity to improve and correct yourself." This certainly creates more work for the teacher, but it's well worth that effort if even one more student feels secure in making mistakes and recovering from failure.

How do you make learning meaningful and lasting in your classroom? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Adam Buchbinder's picture
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

Ensuring that content is meaningful and relevant is critical to making that learning stick. I absolutely agree with the value of connecting content to students' schema. Their ability to use prior knowledge will aid in their understanding of new concepts.

Have you tried using the resource Listen Current It is a listening and literacy platform build around public radio. My students love it for its engaging non-fiction stories that bring content to life. All audio is available for free. I highly recommend it.

Kathy Maxwell's picture
Kathy Maxwell
High School Social Studies Teacher

Listen Current is the best! I have used it in my social studies classes for the last two years as both an in-class and out-of class resource. My kids love listening to the stories and it has really improved their critical listening skills. My administration helped me purchase a Premium subscription but you can also access the stories for free. Could not agree more with Adam. It's the real deal.

taz's picture

I agree that students need to know the relevance of what they are learning in class. As my students are working on an assignment, I want them to make the connection between what is happening in class to real world use of the skills and its application. Using information that allows prior knowledge to come out enhances the learning experience. Occurrences that are happening within the community or town reinforces the relevancy. In my S.T.E.M. class, students had to design a soccer stadium for our new MLS team by creating blueprints, taking measurements, and purchasing supplies. They soon realized why math skills were important and how good communication with others in their group made the task easier to accomplish. Several children connected the work in class with jobs their father's did. This is why content with meaning is invaluable.

The_Singing_History_Teachers's picture
Learning by any means necessary

It was last year that I felt the same way with my 6th graders and now that I'm teaching 7th grade I could see that the information that I taught them did not stick. So I have now changed my idea of how history should be taught and tested.

I decided that the goal was for the students to apply the information rather than just memorize the key terms, dates, or people. Recently we covered the Black Death, so rather than just jumping in we looked at the Ebola outbreak and how it impacted our modern day society, then we compared that to the black death. I also began the practice of having students write their own tests or to create a worksheet that would teach another student the information so they can remember it. Another thing I have started doing was chunking tests by subject, so for example, if a test covered from Feudalism to the Reformation I would break the test into 5 separate sections and grades. This way if a student bombed one part I would only have to give them a small retest rather than a larger test. It also showed me what areas I could improve in. Also works well with writing assignments and projects if you break the overall assessment into parts.

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