Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Retain in the Membrane

The actual research figures are all over the place regarding student learning retention rates, but one thing is agreed upon by all. And that is the fact that students will not remember everything, not even half, of what they learn in school. I'm not talking about skills, like addition, subtraction, and critical thinking skills, I'm talking about the lesson of that day, that one thing you taught that was so important at the time yet two weeks later only two students remembered what you talked about.

Retention rates in written language are very much the same as they are for spoken language, sometimes even less. I couldn't tell you one single fact about any of the textbooks I worked out of while I was in school, and I graduated high school less than 10 years ago. This isn't a failure of schooling entirely (although I would wager to say that the set up of the traditional classroom doesn't help). The process of information moving from short term memory to long term memory in the brain is complicated, and considering that this mechanism isn't fully functional in children yet doesn't help matters.

This doesn't mean that there's nothing you can do about it, but it is important to keep a few things in mind:

  • First, understand that every day doesn't have to be about drill and kill, textbook and respond, worksheet worksheet worksheet, and sit quietly and don't talk. These things can actually hurt retention over the long term. Talking is ok, it's good actually. The more students are allowed to reflect on and engage in what they've learned by discussing it, the better the chances are that it will make the journey from short term to long term memory. Interaction is key. Take an idea, and play around with it. Let them get curious, this ongoing play with the idea helps it stay in the brain.
  • Don't test to death. You don't become a doctor by taking tests over and over again. The test is simply a measure to determine that the skills have been learned over the short term, and again later over long term. Even on my master's degree exam, I wasn't expected to quote things verbatim and remember every single thing that was taught. I was expected to hit on general ideas, and have a detailed understanding of large concepts, that's the way it is. You learn to specialize later, no one specializes in everything. Use your tests sparingly.
  • Remember that everyday is unique, but you don't have to account for every second. It's ok to have fun in the class sometimes. Tell stories, allow students to revisit prior concepts, and by all means let it get loud as long as it doesn't get crazy. If you don't remember to make the ultimate use of those 15 minutes of instructional time, guess what will happen? Nothing.

If your students are reading something that they don't feel interested in, aren't connected to in some way, or don't understand altogether, they won't remember it for very long. If it's something that they are interested in, for whatever reason, they'll contemplate it, dig deeper, ask questions, and in the long run, remember more. You can't expect them to remember specifics, like character names, dates (unless you drill them), specific situations down to the very detail, and things like this. Heck, most adults can't do it in the long term.

Long term retention, especially in literary practice, is a difficult thing. The key is to not consider it an obstacle, just realize that this is part of the equation. Long term memory has to develop, and even then, it's not everything it's cracked up to be (I have a terrible memory, but am actually a very intelligent person, or so I'd like to think).