Monday, January 4, 2010

Learning? Diving Required!

If you’ve ever swum in a hotel swimming pool, you’ve likely seen the sign: “No diving! Water depth is too shallow.” The pool is not deep enough to allow safe diving, and the fear, of course, is that the hotel will be sued if swimmers injure themselves by diving head-first into the pool.

It is probably a good policy for hotels, but not for constructing lasting learning. According to memory researchers, depth of processing increases retention. Why? Because deep processing “allows a richer and more elaborate code, which in turn becomes more readily available.”1 This idea is not a new one. In 1890, William James wrote:
“The one who thinks over his experiences most, and weaves them into systematic relations with each other will be the one with the best memory.”2

The message: to make learning memorable, engage students in deep thinking about new material. But what constitutes deep thinking in new learning? Research suggests two mental activities, comprehension and elaboration.

Comprehension involves organizing new data. “During comprehension, the brain sorts, labels, and organizes the raw sensory data.”3 As teachers, we often organize material as we prepare to present it to students. However, the research claims that the students must label and sort new material themselves to increase the likelihood of retaining it. Even if students replicate the teacher’s organization of the material, the act of sorting and labeling the data themselves contributes to learning. Learning is somewhat like medicine. If the teacher takes the medicine, it does the student little good. But when the student takes the medicine, when the student thinks deeply about new material, the medicine can work as intended.

So, what does comprehension look like in the classroom? Students manipulating representations of ideas into structured schemes, such as tables, sequences, hierarchies, or even stories. For example, after explaining and modeling the steps involved in eliminating unneeded or ineffective modifiers from writing, a teacher may have the students develop flow charts to illustrate and sequence the steps. Naturally, the teacher presents and models the steps in their correct order, but having the students sequence the steps engages them in one aspect of the deep processing that promotes retention and recall.

This is also true of deep thinking’s second mental activity, elaboration. Elaboration “involves linking the material being rehearsed to other material in memory.”4 The term conceptual blending aptly describes elaboration. “The brain receives and sorts sensory data causing patterns to emerge. The patterns direct the brain to search its long-term memory stores for previous experiences that illustrate similar patterns…Once recalled, the previous experience provides a reference point for further thinking about the newly received data.”5 Understanding develops as a student recognizes relevant connections between the reference point and the new data, and “blends” these ideas.

What does elaboration look like in the classroom? “Increasing the variety of ways the brain processes information (e.g., both verbal and nonverbal) increases connections between new and known information.6 Learners deepen their understanding of new information by representing it in varied forms.” Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences offers a way to vary the ways students interact with material. For example, during an earth science unit, a teacher may challenge students to find or create music that illustrates volcanic eruption or create personified accounts in which a volcano shares its goals, fears, and strengths as it prepares to erupt. “Note what such tasks require of the learner. Significant connections between the new material [e.g., volcanic eruption] and a nonverbal reference point [e.g., music] must be explored.” Such exploration engages learners in deep processing of the new material. “The resulting connections, which stem from the student’s life experience, create a conceptual network that gives him greater flexibility in thinking.”7

Unlike a shallow swimming pool, when it comes to learning, diving deep is good for one’s head!
  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W., & Anderson, M.C., Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009) 102.
  2. Ibid. quoted on p. 102.
  3. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 8.
  4. Baddeley, 103.
  5. Washburn, 14.
  6. deWinstanley, P. A., & Bjork, R. A., “Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways that Engage Effective Processing,” in Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (Eds.), Applying the Science of Learning to University and Beyond, vol. 89 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
  7. Washburn, 21.
photo credit: englishpianobloke (


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