If you have been employed in education or even hung around educators for a while, you’ve likely heard this question: “Why can’t the students remember what I’ve taught them?” I was guilty of asking this question when I was in the classroom. I remember the frustration of sitting in on a scholars bowl event when my students were not coming up with the correct answer to simple history questions. Afterward I came up to the kids and groaned, “We covered that information last year in our history class!” I whined, “I can't believe you guys don't remember that information!” I’m not sure who felt worse, the students missing the information or me in not creating an environment that would allow them to retain and apply the information in their lives.
After spending several more years in the classroom and then moving into administration, I learned more about instruction and how the brain works. The key to students learning and retaining what is taught is getting the information that enters the brain indexed in the correct category so it can be pulled out at the right time. So how does this process work for the students?
Above the right eye everyone has an area of their brain about the size of a postage stamp that serves as a scratch pad. This area of our brain holds pictures, smells, and sounds for a few seconds and then will discard them into the long term memory of the brain. As a person remembers something, such as someone's face, the postage stamp area will send a signal to the long term memory of the brain to retrieve that information. When these signals are sent, a new link to neurons are made. If the link has already been established, then it is strengthened.
The key for educators in getting students to remember information is to put more emphasis on retrieving it from the long term memory than sending it to the long term memory. How can we do this? Let me give you example. Most educators do a very good job of explaining how their content can be used in real life. Some teachers will tell students that they will need to know this information in order to balance a checkbook, or measure the square footage of a room for carpet, or serve on a jury, etc. Doing so is great way to relate the content to real world experience. The problem is that just explaining it doesn’t strengthen the neuron link to the long term memory. We are just filing information into the long term memory. If it is not filed correctly, however, students may not know when or how to use what they've learned in the future.
If a business class is teaching students how to run a business, why not actually run a business to reinforce the neuron strands? If a math class is teaching students algebra that applies to some type of engineering feat, why not have them design and build a bridge in the classroom? Same thing in a government class. Set up a mock government or have the students have a mock trial. Better yet, implement the skills they’re learning into the school system and have court proceedings over disciplinary issues. These are just a few ideas of my own. I’m sure classroom teachers could design far better lesson applications than what I have covered.The brain is just like any other organ in the body. If it isn't used properly or usefully, then it won't function the way it was intended to function. The good news is that the brain has a great ability to bounce back. Through practice it can grow stronger in retrieving information properly. As educators we should be at the forefront of this development in our students’ brains. The key is setting the table for our students to continually pull the information has been covered in the classroom from their brains for use in real life situations. Let our motto be "Strengthening the Neuron Link" for our students.