There are two important ways in which teachers can improve how much students will remember of what they have been taught in class. The first is to link new information to students’ prior knowledge (known as active learning), and the second is to limit how much information students process at any one time (to avoid cognitive overloading).
- Link new information to prior knowledge
To learn something, which means to make durable memories, we need to link the new information we are being taught to what already exists in our memories. Therefore, even if students are taking notes and paying attention during class, thus processing information in their short-term memories, this still does not guarantee that they will have retained much, if anything, by the end of the lesson. The key factor determining whether the information will be retained is whether the student is engaging in active learning.
We discussed this concept in more detail in our previous article, “Why teachers need to understand how memory works”.
- Do not give too much information
The second is to be careful not to overload students cognitively. This is where the concept of cognitive load comes into play. Cognitive load is “the total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory in any one instant”. Unfortunately, and too often in learning situations, students can be cognitively overloaded, which significantly impairs their learning.
For example, consider a student who, while studying, is occasionally distracted by incoming messages, surrounding noises, and other people’s activities in her vicinity. Their working memory available for paying attention to their material is greatly reduced. In other words, their cognitive load is high and their learning becomes sub-optimal. As a result, little effective learning is likely to happen during this period of study.
The same thing can and does happen in classrooms. All learners can process only a limited amount of information at any one time, and lasting memories are made when working memory and long-term memory meet. Consequently, for effective learning to take place, teachers need to be mindful of overloading students’ finite working memory capacity to process what they want them to. In addition, students must be made to be equally mindful of how and where they choose to study and learn.
Content drawn from “_The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know_”, EdX: https://www.edx.org