Too often, faculty make content coverage the focus of lesson planning. They plan their courses around the topics they need to cover, which usually leads to them motoring through information that their students are supposed to write down and retain. When students do not retain the information, it must be that they were not paying attention.
But we teach students, not subjects, meaning that our job is not to cover content but rather to produce learning. Producing learning requires an understanding that our minds are not databases that can simply store whatever information gets thrown at them. Significance matters. Millions of years of evolution have molded our minds to retain only information that is meaningful to us. This means that students will have a hard time retaining content that is sent to them without significance attached to it.
Nick Shackleton-Jones (2019) provides a neurological explanation of this principle in his Affective Context Model of learning. He asserts that when people learn, they encode not their experiences but rather their reactions to those experiences, which are expressed as emotions. For instance, if you take a train to work every day, you will often have days when you arrive at work recalling nothing about the train ride. But if you witness a fight on the train, that experience creates an emotional reaction which makes it memorable.
Admittedly, Shackleton-Jones overstates his point in claiming that we encode only our reactions to experience. We need to retain some brute facts in our memory as well, whether multiplication tables or the layout of our neighborhood. But he is right that significance is the hook we hang information on. We need to tag information with significance to retain it, and much of a teacher’s job is to provide that significance. After all, almost everything we teach is available elsewhere for free in some format. What, then, do students need a teacher for? The teacher takes information and presents it to students in a format that allows for learning and retention. Instructors that simply lecture through content are not adding anything to information that students can get themselves. Much of a teacher’s job is to connect the information to their students by clothing it in significance. They build a bridge between information and their students by adding the significance that produces learning.
One outcome of this principle of significance is that instructors should open their lessons by “motivating” the topic for students. A common error is to start a lesson with an overview of the topic. Online faculty in particular often build a lesson by gathering resources and adding instructions on how to go through the content. But this adds nothing to the information. Faculty should instead think about how they can get students to care about a topic.
For instance, I might start a lesson on perception by showing my class this image (an example of the Cornsweet illusion) and asking whether the two squares are the same or different shades. Take a moment to ask yourself whether they are the same shade or different. Now cover one eye and place your finger over the border between the two squares. Everyone who sees this is taken aback by the result (i.e., that the squares are actually the same shade) and immediately wants to know what happened. Students are now invested in the lesson because they want to know why they got it wrong. The instructor has aroused students’ interest in the topic and can now use it to demonstrate that our perceptions are informed by preexisting mental constructs. That is the tag that students will use to retain and retrieve the information later.
This method has a secondary benefit of motivating students to investigate the subject further on their own. Shackleton-Jones points out that formal learning has a forgetting curve; over time, students steadily forget what they have learned. By contrast, informal learning, such as the person we learn to go to at work with our IT questions, is retained. We remember that forever (often to the chagrin of that IT expert) because it is driven by our own interests. We have ascribed our own significance to it, which locks it in our memory. If we can spark that interest in our students, then what they learn on their own will far outweigh what they learn from our course.
Shackleton-Jones also notes that stories improve learning by seven-fold. Once again, millions of years of evolution have molded our minds to learn from stories. Prior to the relatively recent development of formal education in human history, students learned important lessons not in classrooms, but from stories told by elders. As a result, our minds are wired to learn from stories, and we can use this fact to improve retention of information.
For instance, all competitors in memory competitions use the exact same method to remember random digits: they create a story out of the numbers (Carey, 2014). First, they ascribe significance to the numbers. If the first three digits are 226, I might remember them as the month and day of my birthday. I then build a story, such as “On my birthday I went to the theater, where I saw . . .” While the numbers themselves are nearly impossible to recall, the story is easy to remember because of how our brains are built. Interestingly, once I pull up the story, I can easily pull up the numbers attached to it because they have been ascribed significance by the story. Again, significance is the hook I use to retain the information.
This means that whenever possible it is helpful to initiate a lesson with a story. Even topics that do not appear to lend themselves to storytelling can often be cast in a story. For instance, few people would profess an interest in constitutional history, but when shown this clip from the wonderful high school history teacher Tom Richey, who tells the story of the history of the US Constitution as a love story between the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson, they become engrossed in the topic. Richey could have simply lectured through the parts of the Constitution, but by embedding the information into a story, he generates interest and far better retention.
People often think of experts as having a larger storehouse of information than others. But in reality, much of expertise is the ability to see the significance of information in terms of deep patterns. Whereas most of us just see 11 players when looking at the defense in a football game, a professional quarterback sees a specific coverage scheme, which tells him which plays are viable. The same is true of physicists who solve physics problems by identifying the energy principles that underly them. Experts see their world not as discrete facts but in terms of underlying patters that ascribe significance to those facts.
But often instructors fall back on merely going through processes or information in their field rather than teaching how to think like a professional in the field. An online instructor in particular can make their thinking visible by walking students through problems or examples and narrating their thought process, focusing on what they look for in order to cultivate the type of thinking that defines their profession. This is ultimately what they are teaching.
Instead of covering content, think about how you can clothe your topic in the significance that students need to retain the information. Start your lesson planning by finding the significance of the information and build around that, and you will greatly improve your students’ learning.
Carey, B. (2014, May 19). Remembering, as an extreme sport. The New York Times. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/remembering-as-an-extreme-sport
Shackleton-Jones, N. (2019). How people learn. Kogan Page Limited.
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