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Why Your Students Aren’t Really Learning—And How You Can Help

We’ve all been there.

Our students complete a new task with no problems in the classroom. But, once they get home, their newfound skills fly out the window. The next day, our inquiries about their homework are met with downcast eyes and blank stares.

What’s going on here?

Put simply, we’re seeing what happens when knowledge doesn’t stick. The key to truly learning something—as opposed to going through the motions, only to lose the information before it’s retained—is understanding how knowledge makes it into our long-term memory.

As we learn, we’re activating two crucial parts of our brain: active working memory, which holds fewer things for shorter periods of time than we expect; and long-term memory, which is effectively limitless. Any thinking task we take on begins in our active working memory. From there, we combine information from our environment with knowledge that’s already in our long-term memory. Once we begin working those elements together, we’re able to write or revise the schema in our long-term memory, integrating our newfound understanding of the task at hand. That’s basically how we build knowledge.

Unfortunately, teachers (who are often under constant pressure to push more learning on their students in shorter periods of time) often fail to help students shepherd new knowledge into their long-term memory. That means that students can often hold onto it just long enough to grasp it in the immediate term, but fail to store it successfully for later recall. In short, their active working memory doesn’t have the capacity to write or revise the knowledge schema in their long-term memory.

That’s caused by a confluence of three factors: the cognitive load of the task itself; the extraneous cognitive load of the environment (which can include passive aspects of the student’s setting as well as the specific parameters set for the task’s completion, such as time pressure); and the inherent “germane load” needed to transfer the task into long-term memory.

There’s not much we can do about the germane load, so the levers we can pull as teachers show up in the first two factors. If the cognitive load of the task itself or the factors surrounding it are too great, we’ll create the conditions for our students to do the task, but not actually learn it.

Here’s how teachers can address these issues and help students retain their newfound knowledge.

  • First, help students manage the cognitive load of the tasks before them. As adults, we sometimes forget how taxing it was to learn various concepts as young people. A helpful analogy is driving: after having our license for many years, we can handle some kinds of multitasking (handing our children something in the backseat, changing the radio station) without breaking our concentration. But when we first learned, we likely felt completely stressed out when we had to do anything besides focus on the road! Be aware of when you might be asking your students to take on more than they can handle at a given time, and watch for signs of overwhelm.

  • Secondly, craft your curricula to help build knowledge—step by careful step. Make sure that key facts and skills are learned in a sequence that sets the stage for what comes next, and use formative assessment to check that current concepts are locked in before moving on. By creating a learning pathway that helps students store each lesson robustly in long-term memory, you’ll help them avoid having to juggle too many new things at once. With fewer demands on their active working memory, students are more likely to learn.

  • Thirdly, help create the best environmental and process-based conditions for learning. This includes the physical learning environment: minimizing distractions and eliminating any nonessential elements help to lighten the cognitive load. It also involves using efficient learning strategies that maximize the learning-to-load ratio. Under stress, out of habit, or simply because they don’t know another way, students will often gravitate to learning methods that might be instantly gratifying, but don’t serve their ability to retain and recall information in the long term. Luckily, you can offer alternatives that will help them truly understand what you’re trying to teach! (We’ll dive into that in just a moment.)

In order to help identify action-based strategies for you, we reviewed education researcher Barak Rosenshine’s “Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know.” Here are some of our favorite ideas for making sure that students retain what they’re learning:

  • Understand the idea of threshold concepts, and put them to use. Threshold concepts are gateways to new ways of thinking. They might be challenging to get your head around—but, once you understand them, new areas of knowing and doing open up. Some are large milestones that apply across subjects: for instance, understanding the need to use evidence to support your ideas. But many smaller examples show up in most lessons. We might call these hinges—because knowing, understanding, or being able to perform one key nugget within the lesson opens the door for all that comes next. For example, understanding a key passage in a book might help you reinterpret a character’s motives; understanding where the variables in a physics equation come from may help you solve a variety of different problems. In order to make learning easier with threshold concepts, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the threshold concepts of all sizes in your class.

  2. Figure out ways to walk your students through them.

  3. Watch out for common misconceptions and challenges.

  4. Keep some scaffoldings (teaching techniques that help students take progressive steps toward self-sufficiency when they’re having trouble) ready in your back pocket for students who need help.

  5. Use short formative assessments to check whether students have truly understood each threshold concept. (Read on for more ideas about this.)

  • Incorporate spaced practice into your classroom methods. In the face of a stressor like a test, it’s tempting for students to resort to terrible learning strategies like cramming and frantically rereading. Help them experience the usefulness of spaced practice—in other words, encourage them to let themselves forget a bit, so that remembering a given piece of knowledge is a process of retrieving, not just rereading until they find it. The mini-struggle that their brains experience is good for them! (The key here, of course, is allowing enough time in your lesson planning for that bit of forgetfulness to happen.) You can practice this with something as simple as flashcards: don’t let your students flip to the back immediately! Encourage them to embrace the struggle and let their brains work before they check their knowledge.

  • Plan your lessons to incorporate learning in small steps, with practice after each step. This helps build knowledge and store it in long-term memory, freeing up active working memory for higher-order thinking and learning.

  • Check in on your students’ understanding with formative assessment. Don’t assume that they’re getting it just because they’re not telling you otherwise! It’s easy to think that since you’ve taught it, they’ve learned it; however, that’s often not the case. You can use formative assessments to check in; that includes multiple strategies that involve finding out what students actually know and using those insights to chart next steps. You can verbally ask questions to the class, introduce a no-stakes pop quiz, or run a short reflection session for the last five minutes of class (“What’s one thing that sticks in your mind from our class today? What’s one thing that’s still puzzling you?”). From there, you’ll know what you need to review, help your students practice—or even totally reteach.

  • Connect new information to prior learning. Linking new learning to old helps create more durable knowledge, and can lessen the cognitive load burden in working memory. But, as expert learners ourselves, teachers can overestimate students’ ability to place new knowledge in context with what they already know. We can’t assume that students will make connections on their own, though they certainly might; developmentally, they’re still figuring out how to do it! Make sure to prompt those connections through questions and other formative assessments, deliberately crafting moments that help students activate and use their prior knowledge and skills.

The bottom line: truly understanding a new concept, rather than remembering it long enough to spit it back out for a test, is hard work. The good news is that you, as a teacher, can help students make the leap with research-informed strategies for successful learning! As our own Dr. Ian Kelleher puts it: “The most successful educators lean on research knowledge and classroom experience. It’s not that one is more important than the other, it’s that the magic happens at that intersection! Greatness will happen when there are more people playing in that interstitial space.” We invite you to join us there—and to see what magic can result.

Unsurprisingly, the knowledge-building methods we share in this article aren’t just for young learners! They’re great for adults, too—which is why we use them all in our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global. Using spaced learning, formative assessment, threshold concepts, and more, we help teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices. In other words, we use the science of learning to teach the science of learning. Join us!