Making Learning Meaningful and Lasting

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 Learningand 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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