Is there a way we can assist our students in remembering what we teach them in the classroom? More broadly, can we help students become stronger, more effective, and therefore more satisfied learners, particularly in terms of retention (de rigeur now for hyper-tested students), by showing them how memory actually functions? The answer, or part of the answer at least, thanks to Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is yes. Professor Willingham writes a column called “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” for The American Educator, which is an excellent quarterly journal of research into pedagogical practice and educational policy issues published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I’m amazed at the consistently cogent and useful scholarly research the AFT presents in this first-rate publication.
Anyway, in the winter 2008-2009 issue, Professor Willingham published his column under the title What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? This is a cognitive science experiment in three parts that demonstrates the role of thought and memory in the learning process. These materials, which I developed for use in teaching a lesson adapted from Professor Willingham’s first demonstration of memory, will help you and your students conduct the first of these three experiments, then sort out its immediate results. Through this clever and concrete demonstration, students will learn that thinking is the parent of memory–as Professor Willingham emphasizes. I like to start the year with this lesson; in fact, I teach it on the first day of school, before discussing classroom norms and expectations, as a way of setting the tone (i.e. your learning comes first) for the year.
To get to the instructional material: you’ll need click through to the article link above, then scroll down through the PDF to page 26, “Demonstration of the Three Principles.” You’ll use Demonstration 1: once you’ve read through the procedure for the demonstration, you’ll see how you can use the attached learning support, linked above as well, with the lesson plan loosely aligned with Common Core Standards (they don’t provide much for an exercise of this kind), to make this comprehensible to students.
I find this lesson, taught to a well-focused class, as most are on the first day of school, generally takes less than the 44 minutes my school has deemed adequate for conveying new information and providing students with an opportunity to use it. After finishing the procedural work, and sorting out the results of that work to assess its meaning (it’s part of the procedure in the article), I like to ask students a few questions. The big question is, of course, Why did you remember the words you rated for pleasantness? Another query I use is What can students and teachers do to work together to study words in a way helps students remember their meaning and use them in their future discourses? (Do your students understand the concept of discourse? It seems to me it’s a word and concept high school students really ought to know.) I also ask questions that prepare students for some of the work we’ll do that is animated by Professor Willingham’s first demonstration: Is there something common to words that can help us understand them as families? which helps to rationalize the use of word root worksheets. Is there a way to learn words by thinking about what they might mean? justifies the use of do now focus on one word worksheets.
Most of the vocabulary building work I’ll publish on Mark’s Text Terminal derives directly from my understanding of the cognitive mechanisms Professor Willingham’s first demonstration exposes. This lesson, if nothing else, may help you persuade resistant students that this is a useful way to learn new words and the concepts or things they define. I hope you find this useful. I would, as always, be interested in hearing about how you used it.