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Rob Boone

Poll Everywhere

Communications Consultant

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Memory Trick: Improve Your Students’ Learning


Quick: tell me where your keys are right now. (I’ll give you a minute).


How long did it take to recall that information? Was it readily available, like a Google search? Or did it take a second to reach into the recesses of your mind?

Your memory, and mine, is an amazingly complex and fickle thing.

Learners are no different.

But we often fail to take the nature of memory into account when we teach. A simple rule of thumb can help incorporate the fallibility of human memory into your lectures or training seminars, drastically improving learning outcomes.


A Breakthrough in Teaching Methods

So begins a seminal work in teaching theory written by Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish in 1996, which opened our eyes to the shortcomings of memory as it applied to classroom settings.

The paper highlighted the profound disconnect between the way we were teaching and the way we learn.

“Research tells us that the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science tells us of how humans learn. Research tells us that the brain does not record information like a videocassette recorder. Instead, it handles the volume of information by reducing it into meaningful chunks, that we call categories.”

Whether you’re giving a traditional 90-minute lecture in academia or a 4-hour compliance training session, categorization—breaking the material up into chunks—is crucial to absorption.

Brevity is the soul of wit. Turns out, it’s also the key to more effective learning.

But brevity is only a single piece of the learning puzzle.

“Once a concept has been introduced, students need an opportunity to practice thinking in terms of that concept. Right in a lecture class, you can ask students to generate their own example of the concept, summarize it, write an exam question for it, or explain it to someone else. This approach works with the mind’s natural processes, and thus improves learning compared to traditional lecture.”

So these are the basics, the rules of thumb:

  1. Break lessons up into bite-sized chunks.
  2. Create ways for learners to implement what they’ve just learned.

But just how short should the chunks be? And how do you effectively allow students to soak in what they’ve learned?

Timing + Interactivity

Research varies on the exact time to break up your lesson, but the general consensus falls somewhere in the 15- to 20-minute mark.

In their paper, Middendorf and Kalish referenced a 1985 study that showed that students zoned out around the 15-minute mark. The study was fairly air-tight, and the findings were never seriously refuted. Hence the prevalence of the 15-minute rule of thumb.

So we have our timeline: break your lessons up into 15-minute (or smaller) chunks.

Now, about the implementation.

As a foundation, let’s go back to Middendorf and Kalish:

“A large body of literature tells us that when the goal is to foster higher levels of cognitive or affective learning, teaching methods which encourage student activity and involvement are preferable to more passive methods.”

The Holy Grail of learning, then, is bite-sized chunks of learning combined with interactivity.

Learning Doesn’t Have to be Boring

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Dr. Yan Tang uses these techniques to help tough engineering concepts sink in. A big believer in interactivity, Dr. Tang challenges the notion that discussion-as-lesson is more suited to liberal arts learning.

Using live polling, she embeds polls at carefully planned intervals (you guessed it: every 15 minutes) both to break up the lesson and to assess her students’ understanding of the concepts being taught.

“I’m a big fan of Socratic teaching. I want to engage students with questions, rather than just giving them answers.”

According to Dr. Tang, “many students don’t know what they know, and what they don’t know.”

Nor, of course, does Dr. Tang know what the students know, so the polls help everyone get on the same page.

Once the poll results are in, a discussion often organically arises, helping the students to see things from perspectives that may have been lost on them before the discussion.

If it’s clear that the students have grasped what was taught, the ensuing discussion reinforces that learning. If understanding is lacking, Dr. Tang can revisit the concept, this time from a different perspective.

Student Participation

It’s adaptive learning at its best: 95 percent of Dr. Tang’s students say they understand the concepts more clearly because of the polling technique.  

That’s Geico customer service satisfaction levels of success. Impressive.

“In Dr. Tang’s class, periodically, we’ll stop and she’ll ask questions of the class, and I know a lot of other classes, there’s that weird, awkward pause and no one wants to raise their hand.

It just comes up on the screen. It takes a lot of the pressure off.” ~ Jameson Pietrowski, one of Dr. Tang’s Mechanical Engineering students

Interactivity is clearly the gold standard in classroom-based learning, and nothing promotes interactivity quite like real-time polling and the discussions that follow.

“I love it,” Dr. Tang told Poll Everywhere. We would like to use more technology in the classroom, not just to use the technology, but to use technology to facilitate learning.”

Author Profile Picture
Rob Boone

Communications Consultant

Read more from Rob Boone

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