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The Magic Spell

The Magic Spell

Alex Partos, Upper School Principal- Escola Americana Do Rio de Janeiro

As educators, we are always searching for that magic spell which will enable our students to remember everything we have taught them. At times, especially after summer vacation, we have the impression that they have forgotten everything they have learned. This difficulty of remembering is often magnified when we ask questions pertaining to the lesson we have just delivered only to discover that students remember only bits and pieces of that information.

To understand why this happens and how we can insure our students retain information I take the liberty to share this observation:

Any one of us who are parents has most likely witnessed our children immersed in playing a video game or using the Nintendo Wii. The level of focus and engagement is a source of amazement. The commitment of our children to level-up is absolute. They are having fun.

If we take the time to analyze the components of these types of products and activities we find that they all contain the following:

  1. They are well packaged and advertized (the hook).

  2. They require hands on activity (the action).

  3. They promise a challenge (the skill).

  4. They offer a level-up for incremental steps (the reward).

  5. Today, many games also offer an on-line community for play (social).

One can draw many similarities to good teaching and planning. When teachers present a topic which captures the interest of their students, has a component of hands on activity, is challenging, promises a reward, and has some social component, students will most likely respond in a positive way to their learning. But how does this help them retain information?

To determine the process of long term retention we must refer to what science tells us about the brain and what research tells us about memory.

The brain is a complex organ that is constantly creating and strengthening connections known as neural paths. These neural paths can be strengthened when neurons fire more frequently which is the product of attention. For the brain to store memories, the memory must be encoded. The encoding of information and events becomes stronger the more the information or event is experienced. Encoding is also strengthened when there is a strong emotional response, which is why people can easily remember what they were doing during significant events.

What does this have to do with long term retention?

As with the game playing mentioned at the beginning of this article, encoding occurs as the players are trying to get through each level. In order to successfully maneuver their way through all of the challenges, they must remember where all of the traps were located. As a result of repetition, this memory is strengthened through constant encoding.

If we consider this as educators, it stands to reason that the more we repeat the information we are teaching, the stronger the encoding will be and thus long term retention will occur. However, the obvious question is how we can constantly repeat information and still get through our curriculum?

Through the research of Henry Roediger[1] and Eric Mazur[2] we find a solution to our dilemma of delivering our curriculum successfully and in a timely manner. Roediger’s research of over 30 years has focused on strengthening long term retention. Without going into the intricacies of his methodology, Roediger[3] discovered that constant testing led to increased retention. His studies indicated that providing students with lots of study or review time did little to help develop retention of material. However, having daily quizzes on material led to a much higher level of retention (remember the game player constantly maneuvering through challenges to level-up?). His studies also indicated that frequent quizzes led to a higher attention rate during class as the students knew they would be tested at the end of the lesson. It should be noted that he also discovered that using a drop-off method of quizzing (dropping off questions students answered successfully from the proximate quiz) was not as effective as asking all of the questions each time students were quizzed.

Utilizing more of a social approach while continuing to quiz during each lesson, Mazur focused on peer instruction. As part of the peer instruction process, conceptual questions were asked of the students. These questions were known as concept tests which involved students turning to each other, discussing their answers and developing their arguments. The results also indicated a much higher level of long-term retention.

Some resources that make generating and giving quizzes easy and fun are Quizlet, Kahootit, and Socrative.

There are many excellent strategies teachers can use to convey their lessons, but given that research is conclusive that when quizzing and peer instruction is utilized, there is an improvement of long-term retention, I believe this Magic Spell should be a strong component of every teacher’s repertoire.

[1] The Critical Role of Retrieval Practice in Long-Term Retention, Henry L.Roediger III and Andrew C.Butler, Department of Psychology, Box 1125, Washington University, One Brookings Drive, St.Louis, MO 63130-4899, USA, Psychology & Neuroscience, Duke University, Box 90086, Durham, NC 27708-0086, USA

[2] PEER INSTRUCTION: A User’s Manual, by Eric Mazur, ISBN 0-13-565441-6 Prentice Hall Series in Educational Innovation, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458, ©1997

[3] Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice, Henry L. Roediger III, Adam L. Putnam and Megan A. Smith, Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 55 # 2011 Elsevier Inc., ISSN 0079-7421, DOI 10.1016/B978-0-12-387691-1.00001-6 All rights reserved.


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