How can you help pupils remember what they learn?

Dr Ellie Dommett reveals the neuroscientific techniques that can make young people retain information

Teachers and neuroscientists can look at the way pupils learn in very different ways. Educators can view it as an accumulation of knowledge or engagement in an activity. In contrast, some neuroscientists judge learning simply by looking at the excitability of brain cells or neurons. They think of memory as this excitability over prolonged periods.

Neither of these views is wrong, they are simply at different levels. Think of it like a zoom lens, with the neuroscientist looking at a more zoomed-in view to see the connections between individual neurons.

We are born with almost our full complement of neurons, and much of the change that takes place afterwards relates to the connections between neurons, rather than the birth of new ones. These connections can become stronger or weaker; new connections can be built and old connections can disappear.

The process of changing connections differs from person to person, with some seeming to form them more easily than others. Neuroscientists believe these connections underlie learning processes that lead to memory formation. But knowing that learning and memory are about neurons communicating with each other does not add much to the existing knowledge of educators, so can seem of limited benefit.

However, from our knowledge of neuroscience and psychology we can provide evidence to support existing practices aiming to increase the likelihood that information is learnt effectively.

For example, neuroscience supports the idea that for something to be learnt - and therefore impact on connections in the brain - it needs to be salient and often repeated. So, the key to learning must be to use salient stimuli and to repeat information in a way that does not become boring.

For something to be salient, it should catch your attention. Imagine you want to teach pupils about living through a war, including the impact of rationing or evacuation. Resources such as poetry, music and letters could be used, all of which could form key pieces of information. However, there is one very important stimulus that we have not mentioned - the pupils.

Information about oneself is often the most significant - we can nearly all remember what we did for our last birthday and sometimes many before that. Indeed, the network of neurons dedicated to storing information about ourselves is likely to be vast and any way of tapping into it could provide a powerful learning tool.

Therefore, using pupils as resources is an excellent stimulus that takes information from the unknown to the well known extremely effectively. Pupils could imagine how different their lives would be if they had lived through a war, or they could investigate their own family history. Research shows that even if they do not think something relates to them, the process of being asked about whether it does actually increases retention of information.

Of course, even salient sources of information can become less so with repetition. Repetition is a commonly employed strategy for learning, but if it becomes boring it has little impact on the connections in the brain - your brain would literally be unimpressed. It is rehearsal of information, rather than repetition, that is critical.

Deliver the information in a variety of ways, maintaining salience and avoiding repetition. While this statement is unlikely to teach an experienced educator anything new, it does provide a solid neuroscientific and psychological basis for good practice.

Of course, information can be forgotten as connections disappear, but there are ways to maintain them for longer. Think of the connections as a good friendship. It takes differing amounts of time to form a friendship, but once it is formed it can stay strong with a little regular nurturing.

Sometimes you don't see a friend for ages - perhaps you have moved away or started a new job - but when you finally meet up that friendship is still strong. This is because you texted them when something funny happened, you sent them a birthday card, or you let them know your new address.

All these actions were working at your friendship - reminding each other you were there - just as you must work at the connections underlying your knowledge. Reminding your brain that these connections are in use prevents them from being broken down. It really is a case of use it or lose it.

These reminders can be delivered by relating the topic to the next area that is studied, or by regularly revisiting the topic. This analogy of friendships is easily passed on to pupils, giving them additional insight into their learning.

The author

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the Learning amp; The Brain Pocketbook.

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