Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters
There is good news for excellent teachers: In the end, it turns out that the classic drill-and-kill strategy is not only tedious but also, neurologically speaking, rather ineffective. Neural connections and long-term memory storage are strengthened by relevant, meaningful activities that engage students emotionally while also connecting with what they already know, according to the research (not to mention compelling classrooms).
In the words of Judy Willis, a neurologist and former classroom teacher, “long lists of vocabulary items that do not have a personal connection or do not resonate with a topic about which the student has been engaged are likely to be blocked by the brain’s affective (or emotional) filters.”
Additionally, according to Willis, learners need to associate a new piece of knowledge with an existing piece of information, otherwise, the information will not stick. Networks of neural pathways, often known as neural networks, serve to store information in the brain. If a student learns new knowledge that is unrelated to anything already stored in his or her brain, it will be difficult for the new information to integrate into those networks since it will have no scaffolding to cling to in the absence of existing information. When teachers are effective, pupils learn to spot patterns and put new knowledge into context with previous information. This is a critical element of the process of transferring new working memories to the brain’s long-term storage locations.
Give It Context, and Make It Count
This hypothesis is supported by studies published in the journals Nature, Science, and Mind, Brain, and Education, and a substantial body of research has also demonstrated a link between personal relevance and emotional engagement and memory storage.
Whether it is through engaging them emotionally or linking the new information with previously learned knowledge, students need to feel a personal connection to the topic (often the same). Students may not only disconnect and forget what they have learned if they do not have this, but they may also lose the incentive to continue.
This may be due to brain processes occurring in the reticular activating system (RAS), which serves as the brain’s first filter for incoming sensory information, according to Willis’s hypothesis (sights, sounds, and so on). It has the effect of a virtual editor of sensory information, allowing certain items to pass through while filtering out others. If information is to be recognized, recognized, coded into patterns, and finally retained in long-term memory, it must first pass through the RAS and into the appropriate areas of the brain, writes Willis. What information is most likely to get through? To put it another way, possible threats and things that are new, arouse curiosity, or have the potential to deliver pleasure are prioritized by the RAS, according to Willis — whereas dry, emotionless facts and figures aren’t.
In Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom, cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Harvard doctoral candidate Matthias Faeth write that “the learner’s emotional reaction to the outcome of his efforts… shapes his subsequent behavior.” In other words, if Johnny does not believe that a specific activity is interesting, relevant, or within the scope of his talents, it is unlikely that he will engage in it or learn anything. Scientists warn, however, that too much emotion can be just as destructive to learning as too little: distractions and stress can both impair the ability to be receptive to new ideas.
Personal Relevance in Practice
According to Willis, Faeth, and Immordino-Yang, the following are some suggestions for making learning more engaging and personally relevant:
Make use of suspense and keep it interesting. Allowing students to guess what the new learning unit will be before revealing what it will be, leaving gaping pauses in your speech, rearranging seating arrangements, or displaying new and relevant posters or displays, all of these can help to activate emotional signals and keep student interest piqued.
Make it a student-directed activity. Provide students with a selection of tasks on a specific topic, or invite them to create a new assignment entirely. According to Immordino-Yang and Faeth, “when students are involved in the design of the lesson,” they “better understand the aim of the lesson and become more emotionally invested in and linked to the learning outcomes.”
Make a connection between it and their own lives and what they already know. By devoting some time to brainstorming what students already understand and what they would like to learn about a topic, students may better define their learning objectives, while teachers can identify the most effective places to start when generating new ideas. Making cross-curricular connections also contributes to the consolidation of neuronal loops.
When there is no reference point and no intrigue, as in the case of Willis, Immordino-Yang, and Faeth, information is more likely to flow in one ear and straight out the other, according to them.