Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Jan 17 Scaffolding

Happy New Year and what better way to start the new year than out with the old and in with the new. This well-meaning idea may be good for your personal life but maybe not so much for your students’ memory. Much of the educational research from over a century ago still applies to today’s classrooms.

In this month’s Ed Tip I will investigate a 138-year old educational theory that explains memory loss and how to lessen its effects, followed by a somewhat newer although still older (a little less than a century old) classroom practice to improve students’ memory.

To set the tone and to establishing a point for this month’s topic, take a few minutes to view Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University You Tube clip. Even if you have seen it, indulge yourself again.

You Tube: Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University

Hilarious, right? At least for me, I smile when I think back to my college days and how true the video reflects my recall of four years of education and social interaction. Although a little extreme, the video does make a point: people rapidly forget information.

In fact, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 was a little ahead of Father Guido in discovering this fact. Ebbinghaus performed the first real science-based inquiry into human learning in which he described an experiment he conducted on himself to describe the process of learning and forgetting.

Ebbinghaus is most famous for discovering the most depressing fact in education: students/people usually forget 90% of what they learn in class within 30 days. Also, the majority of forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class. This is referred to as the “forgetting curve” and his finding has been confirmed many times since.

Forgetting Curve


Ebbinghaus discovered that some memories are only for a few minutes, and then vanish. Other memories persist for days/months, even over a lifetime. Most importantly, he established that to remember a memory one must do something with the memory and the more times and robust the repetition the better. For instance, he wrote that one could increase the life span of a memory simply by repeating the information in timed intervals and that the more repetition cycles a given memory, the more likely it would persist.

Additionally, he demonstrated that spaced learning is greatly superior to cramming or rote learning and the space between repetitions is the critical component for transforming temporary memories to persistent forms.

According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, an excellent book I recommend for all educators, this is the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. Medina posits that “the electrical representations of information are built up slowly over many repetitions and the neural networks recruited for storage gradually remodel the overall representation and do not interfere with networks previously recruited to store similarly learned information thereby adding to the knowledge base, rather than interfering with the resident knowledge.”

Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve findings and spacing effect are still relevant and supported to this day, and are especially true in today’s high schools where subject matter content is often delivered in unstoppable, and unrepeated informational waves throughout the school day.

In psychology today, Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve is referred to as the spacing effect. The spacing effect states that animals and humans more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span (“spaced presentation”) rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time (“massed presentation”). This theory suggests what all college students grow to understand: that cramming the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective as studying at intervals in a longer time frame.

What are some pedagogy tools available to teachers to combat the effects of the forgetting curve and utilize spaced learning to increase memory?

As noted above, robust and frequent rehearsal is the most effective method for memory retention and may be implemented in many ways. For instance, something as simple as telling another student in one’s own words the information recently presented will improve memory. Law enforcement is well aware of this effect. They attempt to have a witness recall information as soon as possible after a crime given the belief that talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event.

Another concept developed by Lev Vygotsky, the famed Soviet psychologist, in the 1920s has repeatedly proven to be effective in improving retention of information Vygotsky developed the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a term for the range of tasks that are too difficult for the child to master alone but can be learned with guidance and assistance of adults or more-skilled children.

ZPD is based on the premise of providing the minimal amount of support to insure success, and the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. Initially, the maximum amount of support is necessary but as the learning process continues, support is gradually removed towards a point where, hopefully, any support is unnecessary. At the end of the process, the child has demonstrated mastery of the material at which time the child’s academic needs are met and self-confidence and self-reliance quickly build. But moving too far or too quickly from the child’s zone of proximal development, a sense of failure and frustration will develop and behavior problems might develop.

In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that it’s best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80% of the time; more than that, kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated.



As the chart above illustrates, the lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently and the upper limit is the level of additional responsibility the child can accept with the assistance of an able instructor.

The ZPD has become synonymous in the literature with the term scaffolding. Scaffolding is changing the level of support over the course of a teaching session as a more-skilled person adjusts the amount of guidance to fit the child’s current performance. Once the student, with the benefit of scaffolding, masters the task, the scaffolding can then be removed and the student will then be able to complete the task again on his own.

Noteworthy, Vygotsky never used scaffolding in his writing, and the term was introduced by Wood et al. (1976), and cooperative learning, scaffolding and guided learning all have the same meaning within the literature.

In our quest to improve memory, let’s fast forward to the 21st century and try to understand the motivation behind video games that many of our youth play constantly and begin by asking some questions. What is the pull of video games? Why do kids keep playing them despite a very high failure rate? Is there a model that keeps them persevering through their mistakes and love what they are doing?

Two experts in this field, Judy Willis and James Paul Gee, provide insights into answering these questions. Judy Willis is a neurologist, a former middle school teacher, and an author of numerous books about applying neuroscience research to classroom teaching strategies. She presents nationwide and on TED Talks. James Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, and is known for his involvement in literacy research and New Literacy Studies and his work with video games and learning.

The compelling nature of computer games is an excellent example of the success of differentiating instruction to the students’ ZPD. The most popular computer games take players through increasingly challenging levels. As skill improves, the next challenge motivates practice and persistence because the player feels the challenge is “achievable.”

According to research conducted by Gee, video gamers spend an average of 80% of their time failing in computer games. Imagine the motivational level of a student who fails 80% of the time!

Willis attributes the incorporating of “achievable challenge and incremental progress” by video game designers as the addicting aspect of the games. Willis argues “gamers persevere because they believe the challenges are achievable and instead of giving up when they encounter problems or failure, they stick with the difficult challenge by using the feedback of the game to get better.” Achievable challenge with incremental progress is motivating to the child since it releases dopamine, a chemical in the nervous system associated with pleasure. Therefore, the euphoria and the satisfaction of achievable challenge and incremental progress are motivating to the child.”

In computer games, the degree of challenge for each level is such that players are neither bored nor overwhelmed and frustrated. Players practice to improve and thus experience the neurochemical response of pleasure. Players succeed at the short-term goals provided by multiple levels of incremental challenge, while moving toward the long-term goal of completing the game. This is the power of achievable challenge: opportunities for students to see their effort-related improvement along the way to an ultimate goal.

Willis believes that the lessons learned by studying video games can be applied to the classroom. She writes that just as in video games, “similar incremental, achievable challenges in the classroom, at the appropriate level for students’ abilities, are motivating & build mastery by lowering the barriers, not the bar.” This method insures teachers are “communicating high expectations while insuring that students have the appropriate tools to reach these goals. The tools and scaffolding are differentiated, but the goals remain high,” and “ongoing feedback serves as a guide, not a director.”

This article has spanned the decades from 1895 to the 1920s to present day computer games, primarily examining memory loss and pedagogy tools of how to alleviate the effects of “forgetting curve.” Educational-wise, discarding the old is not always the smartest thing to do and we should recall and implement the research of the old masters to improve student learning and hopefully make Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University unwarranted and pointless.


“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.