Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Teaching Strategies

“One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examine, I found consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.” ~ Al Einstein

Examples of short & long-term memory

Long-term memory is parking your car at the supermarket and short-term memory is remembering the quart of milk you intended to buy. The difference between the two memories is how the brain stores the information. Location of the car is stored in your long-term memory. Note that no neurons in the frontal lobe are encoding the car’s location or are continually active therefore the memory becomes extinct.

The item you are looking for, the milk, is stored in your working memory. This information is “online,” in that it is constantly in your consciousness in a way that corresponds to the uninterrupted activity of certain frontal lobe neurons. How do the neurons remain active during this delay is a mystery. One hypothesis, the presence of recurrent loops, neuronal networks that keep the activity going by stimulating each other.

Teaching Suggestions to Enhance Long-Term Memory

1. Review, review, and when in doubt, review again.

Why is repetition important? The typical human brain can hold about 7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds. If something does not happen, the information becomes lost – the memory becomes extinct. Memories may not be fixed at the moment of learning, but repetition, doled out in specific time intervals, is the fixative. You need to re-expose yourself to the information, which is called maintenance rehearsal.

To illustrate the above, gaze at the following list of symbols for about 30 seconds, and then cover it up before you read the next paragraph.

4 % 9 @ D + !

Can you recall the symbols without looking at them? No. Remember the same applies to students: 7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds. The above example was take from Brain Rules by John Medina and is called phonological looping.

Hermann Ebbinghaus showed the power of repetition almost 100 years ago. He created forgetting curves, which showed that a great deal of memory loss occurs in the first hour or two after the initial exposure. The relationship between repetition and memory is clear: re-expose students to information if you want them to retrieve it.

2. Do not use the drill and kill review method.

Hermann Ebbinghaus also demonstrated that the loss of information could be lessened by meaningful, elaborate and deliberate repetition, which is the most successful technique for the most effective and robust retrieval. Furthermore, the timing of re-exposure is critical. This is a central principle of learning called long-term potential, which is discussed below.


For a glimpse of the results of the “drill and kill” method of instruction, watch Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The video is meant as a reminder of what I hope all educators are beyond-not being or becoming Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher.


The belief that teaching by a smart person who delivers the content in a lecture mode has long been debunked by research and cognitive science (unfortunately, I feel this is the image of a teacher that policy makers carry with them today). This video illustrates the need for more powerful teaching to help students deeply understand the material through an understanding of the positive affects of empathy and affective pedagogy, the need for students to apply knowledge by inquiring, conducting investigations, problem-solving, and complete in-depth analysis.


Reflect and enjoy:

3. Space out the review, cramming does not work.

Research clearly demonstrates that learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory in fixed, spaced intervals rather than processed all at once or jammed in over a very short time period.

So what is the correct time period for review? Again, I refer to research by Hermann Ebbinghaus showing that the sharpest decline for forgetting is in the first twenty minutes, then in the first hour, and then it evens off after about one day.

In recent lab experiments, researchers have confirmed that the excitement between two neurons is temporally strengthened when learning first occurs but becomes extinct (forgotten) within 90 minutes if the same information is not sent by the sending neuron. The neurons will literally reset themselves back to zero as if nothing happened.


Teaching Tip: Using two study sessions with time between the sessions can result in twice the learning as a single study session of the same total time length.


Teaching Tip: Using two study sessions with time between the sessions can result in twice the learning as a single study session of the same total time length.

Employ this technique when presenting a new topic or reviewing.  During the first 8 minutes of class, introduce the first half of a new topic or the topic to be reviewed.  Following the initial presentation, students complete a corresponding 5-minute activity.  Next, present the second half of the topic followed by a related review activity that encompasses the entire topic.

In Welcome to Your Brain, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang describe this phenomenon as spaced learning vs. cramming. They write that synapses can be maxed out or lose their ability to learn new information, which is called long-term depression or weakening of a synapse connection. A way to avoid this is to utilize two study sessions vs. cramming hours for an exam.

4. Start with the big picture followed by the small and supporting pieces.

When presenting new information or reviewing existing material, initially present the big idea, the key concept or idea, and wrap the details around the big idea.

Quoting Medina, “If you want to get the particular correct, don’t start with the details. Start with the key idea and, in hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.”

5. More pictures & less talk & text

More pictures & less talk & text: Use pictures as much as possible in your presentations and instruction

Why? As Medina explains in Brain Rules, "Recall doubles when a picture is added as compared to when information is presented using just text. Three days after instruction, the average a person will remember 10% of the oral presented information,35% if the material was presented only visually, and 65% if information was presented both orally and visually.

The more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. In regards to memory, vision and text follow very different rules. This fact has a special name, namely, pictorial superiority effect or PSE.

In comparisons with other forms of communication, a picture demolishes both text and oral presentation. Adults can remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy several days post-exposure; even through subjects saw each picture for about 10 seconds. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63%. In one study, picture recognition was reliably retrieved several decades later."

For a more complete discussion of the role our eyes plays in education, refer to the vision section of this site.

6. Activate prior knowledge with the use of schemas.

A schema is a cognitive framework that guide memory, aide in the interpretation of events, and influence how we retrieve stored memories. The following video illustrates the usefulness of schemas.


Take away thought

Most of the knowledge we get from disconnected facts that are never applied leaves us very quickly. The great cognitive scientist - Guido Sarducci - reminds us of this fact when he invented the 5-minute university (total tuition is $20 and includes cap and gown rental and a Polaroid of your graduation). Obviously, much of what we learn in an inert way leaves us very quickly.

Enjoy the video




“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.