But they learned that last week!

Interrupting the Forgetting

I often hear fellow teachers complain with surprise and dismay when students don’t seem to remember something they should know, even though “they learned it last week!”

I recently had a personal experience – standing in the shoes of a student – which reminded me that what students learn isn’t necessarily what we teach them, and when students learn isn’t necessarily during class.  And that English ought to have multiple words for “learn,” each with a different definition, depending on when the learning is assessed.

One week ago, I was a “student” in a 15-minute Georgian lesson taught by a colleague to demonstrate teaching methodology at a recent TESOL information session.  We students “learned” seven Georgian words for plate, cup, knife, fork, spoon, touch and pick up.  At the end of the 15 minute lesson, each of us was able to give and respond to instructions to touch or pick up the objects, with 100% accuracy.  In fifteen minutes, we had “learned” those seven words.

Something made me think about that lesson today, and I tried to remember my new Georgian vocabulary.  I could only remember two words:  chika (cup) and dana (knife).  I remember them because they both reminded me of words I knew in other languages: chica is small or girl in Spanish, and dana is a Sanskrit word meaning charity or giving.  I can’t remember anything at all about the other five words that I used fluently a week ago.  Today I might not even have been able to remember chika or dana if the teacher hadn’t asked us, right after the lesson, whether any of the words reminded us of words we know in other languages?  His causing me to notice the connections I made between the new vocabulary and my pre-existing knowledge was the essential factor that moved those two words from my short-term memory (15 mins) to longer-term memory (one week, so far).  And because I’m reviewing them by writing this right now, I’m reinforcing my brain’s pathways to chika and dana, so I’ll probably still “know” those two words six months from now.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the class doesn’t seem to remember what they “learned” last week.  It’s up to us as teachers to create the noticing and connecting experiences that help students move new knowledge from short to long term memory.  And then to constantly review prior learning, so that what students still remember this week is made permanent through multiple reinforcing experiences in the near future. Only then will students have “learned.”  And the corollary is: only then will there have been actual “teaching.”

In Peter Brown’s outstanding book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, this is called “interrupting the forgetting.”

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