Every student can learn. But can they do it better? Research suggests that the answer is yes, and that having a great tool kit of strategies for learning and being able to use the right strategy at the right time have a significant impact on student outcomes.
The concept of neuroplasticity is layered on this—our brains are constantly changing as a result of the experiences we have, both positively and negatively. The time of greatest neuroplasticity is, unsurprisingly, the years that students are in school.
How do we help our students maximize their learning? Let’s start by looking at some of the best evidence-based strategies for helping students learn.
Use Retrieval Practice
It’s important for retrieval practice to be at the heart of how students study. Here are some examples:
- Have students take out a sheet of paper and write down everything they know about a topic. Then have them check their notes and revise what they wrote.
- Provide a test study guide for students. For each point, have them write what they know, check, then revise. When they can recall all of the details for a point, they’ll put a check next to it on the guide. They should keep going until they can check everything off.
- Give your students answer keys to problems, and coach students in how to answer them. They can use the key to check their answers and try to solve the problems they have. It’s best to use class time early in the year to build students’ capacity to do the work with increasing independence as time goes on.
Because retrieval practice feels more challenging than rereading notes and highlighting, students often find it frustrating. Coach students that it feels harder because their brains are working harder and making more connections. Because of this, the information and skills they’re learning are going to stick in their memory longer. Be sure to build in breaks for your students. A good rhythm might be 30 minutes of distraction-free studying, then 5–10 minutes of a proper break, then repeat this cycle. If 30 minutes of full focus is too long, try 20.
Use Spaced Practice
The close sibling of retrieval practice is spaced practice, which allows students to get a bit rusty before asking them to retrieve the material from their brain. This also feels hard for students. Make sure to tell students why you’re doing it. If you feel you have to grade it, grade based on effort rather than accuracy. Being incorrect and then fixing what they don’t know are key steps for students in spaced practice.
Students of all ages and abilities struggle to organize spaced practice. It helps if you build it into classwork and homework in the two weeks prior to a test. Use copious amounts of formative assessment to figure out what students currently know well and what they’re starting to get rusty on (and would benefit from spaced practice). Remember that any kind of assessment or activity can be used formatively.
Over time, build students’ capacity to do retrieval and spaced practice with increasing independence, and fade those initial scaffoldings away. Some students will need some scaffolds reapplied at some points, and this is OK. The first rule of scaffolds is: All scaffolds are temporary.
Explain the Purpose of Taking Notes and How to Do It
Students don’t have to record every word you say, but rather re-create key ideas and examples to help them study later. The goal of note-taking is to help students begin learning information right away. The focus is about getting them to summarize and paraphrase, and to capture key definitions, phrases, etc.
Put some class time aside early in the year, and explicitly teach students how to use their class notes to help them study. Here’s an example:
- Before taking notes, ask students to draw a vertical line three-quarters of the way down the page, and write notes on the left side.
- After they take notes, they can review them. For each section, they should come up with one or two questions for which that section of notes is the answer. Have students write these questions on the right side of the line.
- Next, have students fold the page in half along the line.
- Then, have them read the question and try hard to answer it.
- After they’ve answered the question, they can flip the page over and check their answer.
- Repeat this process for all the questions.
All students can benefit from explicit instruction in how to take notes in the context of that particular class—it’s important not to make assumptions that they can do this already.
Students can get context from a text through a quick scan of the introduction and subheadings; they can go chunk by chunk rather than read the whole document. Ask them to read a section, then close the book, and try to write down what they remember. Then they can open the book, reread the section, and amend what they wrote. Advise them to collect and prioritize any questions that arise.
Keywords and Flash Cards Are Effective Tools
There are other ways for students to retrieve information that stem from effective note-taking: The keyword method helps students memorize words and definitions. They find a sound or word hidden in the word they’re trying to learn and make up a tiny story that links it to the definition.
Flash cards can be a good way to help do this, but they’re rarely used well, so explicitly teach students how to use them correctly. At the start of the year, save some class time to help students create and practice using flash cards.
The must-do moment is pausing to think hard after they read the front of the card before flipping it over. If they know the concept, they should try to connect the idea to one or two others. If they don’t know the concept, advise them to take their time before flipping it over. Even if they can’t recall, this process helps the answer stick better when they read it.
If they really know a card, they can put it aside for a while but put it back in the deck to review later that day or tomorrow. Counsel students not to get carried away with arts and crafts studying. Making beautiful flash cards can be an immensely rewarding experience but can also leave students with insufficient time for studying.
Explain that memorizing keywords and definitions can help students learn. Their active working memory, where all their thinking takes place, can hold very few items (three to five) for a very short time (10 to 20 seconds). Having key words and definitions stored in their long-term memory frees up space in their brain to process the new things they’re trying to learn.
These effective and efficient strategies ask more of students’ brains and help them to learn the material right away so that they’ll have less to study when the test comes around. It’s important for students to know them—while these aren’t all of the game-changing evidence-based strategies out there, they’ll help get your students off to a good start.
Remember, these strategies are only good if students can get them to work within the context of your class. Help them to do this by building the strategies into class time, and actively encourage each student’s capacity to do this with increasing independence over time. Only they can do the work.