Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Retain New Learning, Do the Math

Every teacher experiences the frustration. Content and skills taught throughout the year seem to abandon students during springtime standardized testing. “How can they not know this?” thinks the the teacher. “We learned this back in November.”

Recent research reveals some likely causes, and the principles for retaining new learning may not be intuitive to us as teachers. For example, multiple retrievals rather than multiple exposures promote better retention of new learning.1 In other words, the more students are required to recall new content or skills, the better their memory will be. Reviewing the material with students does not have the same effect. The students must be engaged in activity that requires them to recall the material. Even when students recall details incorrectly, if the teacher promptly provides the necessary instructive feedback, engaging students in recall of the material fosters better retention of new learning than a teacher-led review.2

But how often should teachers be engaging students in recall of newly learned material? Two findings provide answers.

First, repeated recall should occur frequently immediately following new learning. For example, a teacher who teaches students to add fractions should engage students in recall and use of that material several times over the school days immediately following instruction. Again, even if students do not recall the skill correctly, requiring recall combined with immediate instructive feedback is more effective than reviewing the skill.3


Second, once the initial period of learning and multiple retrievals is past, students still need to be engaged regularly in recall of the material. In general, students need to recall the material after a delay of 10 to 20% of the time between initial learning and final testing.4 For example, if students learn a new skill with only a month of school (about 20 school days) remaining, they should be engaged in recall of that skill every 2-4 days. This increases the likelihood that the new learning will be part of their knowledge when they begin the following school year. (Ideally, they would be recalling that skill every 7-14 days over a 10-week summer break!)


So, let’s go back to our opening scenario: a teacher teaches material in November that students need to recall for testing in May—a gap of about six months, or about 120 school days. To increase the likelihood that students will recall the material in May, they should be engaged in retrieving it every 12-24 days, once or twice a month, probably closer to every 12 days for the first few months and every 24 days for the last few months. It is critical that every retrieval be accompanied by immediate instructive feedback.


One more principle helps us design activities that engage students in retrieving new learning. The more material students are required to recall, the better. For example, if students are required to retrieve or construct an explanation of how to add fractions and actually apply the skill to add fractions, their retention will be greater than if they are merely required to apply the skill.4


According to this research, many of our classrooms may be structured for minimal memory retention. If we begin every school year reviewing material from the previous years and spend the second half of the school year introducing new material, students are less likely to retain the new learning in future school years because they were not engaged in recalling it throughout the school year. We need to be teaching more new material at the beginning of the school year and reviewing that material as the school year progresses. Perhaps this helps explain another common teacher frustration: the “They should have learned this last year” syndrome that we’ve all experienced.


Retrieval + Instructive Feedback = Retention of New Learning.

  1. Devachi, L. The Limits of Memory: How to Maximize Your Memory Trace. Presented at the 2008 North American Neuroleadership Summit, New York.
  2. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  3. Ibid. 74.
  4. Ibid. 82.

6 comments:

Marsha said...

This has been my experience with students..I also think it's important for them to have some method of reflecting on what they've learned and how that applies to work they're doing.

So when you revisit the procedure, you need to ask them to score their problems. for the ones they did incorrectly, they must write down why they got it wrong. Was it because they couldn't remember the procedures, a silly arithmetic error, etc. By helping them do this kind of analysis, they figure out what THEIR most common mistake is and have a vague notion of what to look out for when they go into testing situations.

Thank you for your blog post. It affirms why I have a review section on every test...we have 5 problems from what we've covered this year. Despite all this my 6th graders still have a dickens of a time remembering the multi-steps needed to add, subtract, multiply and divide rational numbers.

Anthony said...

From reading your article, I'm reminded of the inefficiency in how my school currently tries to review social studies content prior to our state's California state test.

The week prior to the test, the 7th grade world history teacher comes into my room and spends the period reviewing content from the year prior. We both know its an exercise in futility and the research in your blog post here will help us to better re-design our efforts to be more effective.

Thank you.

Rob Jacobs said...

Kevin, this post has stuck with me for the past few days. I am wondering how this relates to the idea that asking students to do something they can not do is not effective, and some say it is counterproductive.

In other words, asking students to do 20 fractions problems when they do not have the concept mastered is not a useful strategy. They just do it wrong 20 times.

Maybe this is actually a different idea than memory. What do you think?

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Rob, great question! As I read Baddeley's take on the research findings, it's not asking students to do something you (as the teacher) know they do not know how to do, but asking them to recall something you know they have "learned" previously. However, the research emphasizes that immediate instructive feedback is critical to prevent students from practicing incorrect methods/strategies. The point is that engaging the students in recalling (or attempting to recall) is better for long-term memory than teacher-initiated review sessions. It seems it's the path from storage to recall that needs activating to make the memory recall-able when it's needed. Make sense?

Rob Jacobs said...

Kevin, so if I understand correctly, a teacher attempting to prepare students for an upcoming exam would better server his/her students by giving them some questions/problems to solve from content they have previously learned, and letting them work on recalling what they should already know, as opposed to simply reviewing something they have already been shown how to do through a teacher review.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Yes, provided the teacher is actively providing timely instructive feedback. You obviously do not want students repeatedly practicing the wrong way of doing something, but according to the research, recall with error what is corrected promotes better retention than teacher-led review. It's not intuitive, but I think it has much to do with who is doing the processing. For recall, the student's brain must be active. For review, the teacher's brain is active with the students being in a more passive, receptive mode.