One of the biggest problems in the classroom, especially as students get older and the work gets harder, is remembering. Some lessons can span weeks or months, and by the end of the semester, the student has forgotten almost everything. This reality makes it hard to test pupils on their knowledge. As such, teachers need to do what they can in the classroom to help students increase memory retention. That way, you can make sure they’re not just memorizing information but gaining knowledge that they can recall throughout their life.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
If you’ve ever seen the classic 80s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll remember the teacher droning on. “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” He calls out when taking attendance. A later scene has him asking for an answer from students: “Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?” The voice, the energy, the body language — all of it screams boredom. If you want students to learn and remember what you’re teaching, you’ll have to be a bit more engaging. That starts with showing, rather than telling them.
Engage all the senses by bringing in visual aids, music, and physical products that relate to your subject. If you’re teaching history, you could show students arts from the era and have them research and bring food from the time period. For a computer class, you could play AI-generated music and bring in an early circuit board or floppy disk. For any class with an online component, use a screen recorder to create videos, so students can follow exactly what you’re trying to teach them. Get creative, and those lessons will be hard to forget.
2. Make the Material Matter
A common question from students of almost all ages is, “Why do I have to learn about this?” And it’s a fair question. After all, much of what’s taught in school isn’t obviously connected to real life. If someone doesn’t understand why the material matters, they are way less likely to remember it. It’s up to you as a teacher to make them care about the subject matter. Who better to do that than the person who studied the material long enough to teach it?
This approach to memory retention is not always easy; you can’t simply tell your pupils, “Someday you’ll need this.” Give them real-world examples of where each subject is essential even to everyday people. Take math as an example. Talk about how different skills are important for people who don’t become mathematicians. For instance, if you want to play games in class, show them even simple tasks like having fun with friends while playing Yahtzee requires addition. Dig deep to get kids to see the value of each subject.
3. Have Students Teach
Albert Einstein said you know you’ve mastered a subject when you can teach it. He said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” From the beginning of a lesson plan, you can let your students know that they’ll be expected to teach something. You can engage them in the process by allowing them to choose a specific area. Then, open yourself up to questions, and offer help, so you essentially become a co-teacher for them.
Instead of, or in addition to, a test, you can grade them on how well they teach assigned material. And be sure you’re clear about all of your expectations from the start. Have students create visual aids and short exams for their lesson, and include a Q&A as part of their presentation. When people know they must perform in front of their peers, they are more likely to prepare well. Ideally, they’ll study, prepare, and discuss areas of concern with you before they teach, all of which will increase memory retention.
4. Provide Supplemental Material
No one wants to learn from a long, boring textbook; they can be dry and feel impossible to get through. While that reality cannot usually be helped — sometimes they need all that material — you can mix it up a bit. Sure, you may have to teach from the textbook and assign reading, but you can build on it. Provide a fun fictional novel to support the material, or show a movie in class.
Supplemental materials can often make the subject matter more interesting and inspiring. People notoriously do poorly in history class, and as of 2019, only 1.2% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in history. At the same time, history films tend to be some of the most popular to come out of Hollywood. People don’t hate history — they might just hate history class. This rule can easily be applied to any subject. Bring in the films, the books, the stories, the music, and the drama, and students will more likely engage with, and remember, the material.
5. Test Student’s Knowledge More Frequently
Finally, on a practical level, you can provide more tests to help students remember better. When you have to prepare for a test, you tend to beef up your knowledge of the subject. As a teacher, instead of having a test every few weeks or months, offer more frequent tests. Break the lesson up into bite-size chunks of information that are easier to digest. Then, quiz your students on those smaller segments.
You can even let kids take their smaller quizzes together. Collaboration on exams helps the ones who know more remember the information and the ones struggling to learn from their peers. Often, you remember things differently, and better, when you learn it from a different source. When the time for the big test comes, allow students to study from past quizzes and meet in groups to study together. In short, make testing about learning, communicating, and collaborating rather than stress and anxiety.
In the end, many approaches to increased memory retention exist, and you can integrate each item here in the classroom. Make them your own, for your specific subject, in a way that works for you. The end goal, always, is to help your students learn and to make learning meaningful and fun. Each of the options listed here is ultimately about creating a joyful learning experience. That’s something students will remember well beyond a semester or a school year.