Making Learning Meaningful and Lasting

how to make learning meaningful

Even though I have taught history for eight years, it still struggles to help my students retain their knowledge and make the most of it. A returning senior asked me several years ago if she could retake my September final exam for United States History. After achieving an A-minus just three months prior, she was eager to find out how much she had remembered.

It turned out that not much. My once shining star had become an average student and earned a “C” on the exam. She could not recall the historical details that were once on her tongue. Nor could she articulate the main arguments for American territory expansion between 1820 and 1860 and its impact on the Civil War. It had not been possible to establish any deep, lasting learning.

I spoke with Mark A. McDaniel, author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE), Washington University in St. Louis, to better understand how this happens.

Connect Content with Meaning

My student didn’t find any reason to recall facts that were not important to her. I failed to encourage my student to relate her personal experiences and interests to the content throughout the year. McDaniel says that techniques that encourage the learner bring in a lot of prior knowledge and personal experience to make learning more meaningful. I advocate the art of historical inquiry rather than breadth of coverage. I also strive to link what students are interested in in the news to the Civil Rights Movement of the United States Constitution.

Encourage Rote Memorization

My students were also encouraged to memorize facts by reading the text again and again. This was terrible advice in hindsight. McDaniel told me that fluency and familiarity with a text can often be misleading indicators of true learning. They are being given cues that lead them to believe they know more than what they do. This could explain why my student forgot so many things over the summer and why some learners still struggle to pass assessments, regardless of how diligently and hard they study.

Encourage self-testing

McDaniel recommends certain techniques for learning and memory. McDaniel suggests that teachers remind students to test themselves regularly. This, McDaniel states, “has direct effects on improving subsequent retrieval and helps the students better calibrate their knowledge and lack thereof.” This advice is followed by frequent questions from students asking them to explain to me (and sometimes to others) why certain terms and themes are connected. I provide detailed study guides for quizzes and tests, as well as ample time for students to evaluate their learning and seek additional help. McDaniel’s advice will be more heeded next year. I plan to give brief surveys to students, asking them to evaluate their learning after each lesson.

Let students solve the problem

McDaniel suggests that students should simply point out areas where they have difficulty learning or memory improvement. He does not recommend giving detailed feedback. McDaniel says that students will never be able to solve their problems if you tell them everything every time. This is an area where I have to improve, particularly with writing feedback. Students sometimes view excessive feedback (and red ink) from you as an insult. My classes have been able to identify and correct errors in anonymous student work, which has helped me achieve greater success.

Offer frequent, low-stakes assessments

My rookie teacher mistake was not realizing that assessments were meant to measure learning progress, and not just to determine how much information a student can fit into their brain. Each assessment was also significantly heavier because I used to give fewer assessments. My students were more concerned with seeing their final grades than reviewing their mistakes. McDaniel states that students who are worried about grades will see low-stakes assessments as a sign that they are not being tested, but helping them learn. This strategy strengthens learning and improves long-term memory, regardless of how redundant or familiar certain quiz material may be to students.

Don’t Penalize Errors Harshly

In most cases, I offer students the opportunity to retake a portion or all of an assignment, regardless of their grade. I don’t care as much about whether or not a student masters a concept. I only care that the individual has it mastered. McDaniel echoes my belief, saying that “I believe the culture of teaching and classroom must change so that mistakes can be seen as an opportunity to learn and improve.” Although this is more work for the teacher it is well worth it if one student feels confident in their ability to make mistakes and recover from them.