How we remember things...
…and how we learn.
Hello! Welcome to the 10th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.
The Simpsons is a popular animated show on TV. Lisa Simpson, the genius 8-year-old of the Simpsons family, believes in always doing the right thing, has many, many interests (like playing the saxophone and riding horses) and loves to study!
She also has many pearls of wisdom for us, like this one:
We love Lisa, and we have a lot to learn from her.
And there’s another character in the Simpson family who can teach us a lot, especially about teaching, learning and our best friend, our brain! She is none other than Lisa’s mother, Marge!
Marge tells us that learning is a whole-brain issue. It’s true! Efficient learning requires different regions of the brain to work together. Now, we all know how difficult it is to get students to stay engaged or sometimes even pay attention to what we are teaching – so how can we get them to not only do that but also use different regions of their brain at the same time? Marge has the solution for us – the MARGE approach!
The MARGE approach is a whole-brain approach to making student learning more efficient. It stands for the 5 principles of efficient learning: Motivate, Attend, Relate, Generate, Evaluate. Let’s explore each principle in detail.
It is not easy to motivate ourselves or others to learn. The reason for this is quite straightforward – the brain likes to conserve energy, and learning requires a lot of energy. Literally. Learning is the forming of connections between neurons in our brain, and this consumes a lot of energy! This means that if the brain has to be motivated to learn, we must convince it that this is worth spending energy on.
How can we do that?
When we do something pleasurable, like eat ice cream or watch our favourite show, our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine causes us to experience positive feelings. Studies have shown that when we feel curious about something, the same regions of the brain that release dopamine are activated, and we feel motivated to give the action our energy!
A great way to pique students’ curiosity is to ask big picture questions at the beginning of class – Why do we often see the moon during the day? How can we predict earthquakes if they begin under the earth’s surface? It is important to remember that it is the feeling of curiosity that leads to positive feelings and therefore motivation – and so, don’t give away the answer too quickly. As long as students are curious, they are engaged and motivated to learn.
Our everyday life is filled with information – new sights and sounds, conversations, text notifications, reels and stories, and our own emotions. In order to learn, the brain needs to decide which information to pay attention to. There is a particular region of our brain that helps us act with long-term goals in mind. In fact, this region of the brain is not fully developed till our early 20s, which is why children and teenagers tend to be poor decision makers and don’t have too much self control!
So, in order for a student’s brain to pay attention to information, we have to explicitly tell them how the information connects to the bigger picture or to long-term goals. The beginning of the class is the perfect time to do this – tell students the learning objectives of the lesson, how the new information connects to what they have already learnt, and real-world examples of the information! These easy-to-understand connections to them gets their brain to pay attention.
Information in our brain is stored in the form of a vast web, with many connections and interconnections between different pieces of information. For example, the word tide may make me think of the ocean and of the moon. However, the word cheese may also make me think of the moon (because as a child I read a story about how the moon is a big piece of cheese), which then makes me think about astronauts and space travel. This web of interconnected information is spread across different regions of the brain.
The brain has used precious energy to form these connections and store this information. The brain does not want to spend energy unnecessarily; it is interested in relating everything new to what it has already stored. What does this mean for teaching? Relate new information to existing knowledge by using the 3 Cs: categorise, compare, contrast. Ask questions about new information (tides) and relate it to known information (waves), such as:
Which water bodies do tides occur in? Which do they not occur in? categorise
How are tides similar to waves? compare
How are tides different from waves? contrast
Use of metaphors, analogies, graphic organisers and concept maps also helps the brain relate and organise information, quickly form connections and integrate the new information into its web.
Most teachers will agree that students struggle to remember what they have learnt – and if students are unable to remember previous information, how can we relate new information to it? The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple – the ‘generate’ principle of efficient learning. This principle has shown to improve memory by 30 – 50%!
Rote-memorising, re-reading or highlighting information in the textbook do not lead to remembering because when we do these things, what we are basically telling our brain is that this information is easily available to us in our environment (in this case, the textbook), and so there is no need to spend precious energy trying to find where it is stored in the brain and reactivate those connections. Relax.
On the other hand, when we generate information – that is, when we close the textbook and try to explain the information in our own words, what we’re telling our brain is that this information is not easily available in our environment, and it is important for it to be able to easily find it within its web and make its connections stronger. The more chances we give our brain to do this, the better we remember the information. So, give your students lots of opportunities to do this through student-teaching sessions, quizzes and projects where they work without their textbook!
(Have you heard this quotation before? The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This is true because it follows the generate principle!)
Have you ever heard a student say, “I know everything! I’ll get a 100/100 on this exam!”, only to find out that the student hasn’t done too well at all? This is because the student has confused familiarity with recollection. What’s the difference between the two?
We have all been in a situation where we meet a person while walking along the road or at a shop or restaurant – a person who is familiar, but we just can’t recollect who they are or where we know them from! (And we nod and smile politely…) Familiarity is not recollection. Students may be familiar with information before an exam, and they confuse this familiarity with recollection.
And so, asking students if they remember information or if they are prepared for an exam is not a useful exercise. Instead, we must give students several chances to generate information they have learnt in order to evaluate how much they have understood and remember. These regular evaluations will help you identify where students are struggling and where they need more generation practice!
Engage every student’s WHOLE BRAIN by applying the 5 efficient learning principles of MARGE, and see learning come alive in your classroom!
MARGE by Arthur Shimamura: Read the original book by Arthur Shimamura here, explaining the principles of MARGE. Our newsletter article is a summary of this book!
Powerful Teaching: Access free downloadable templates to use in the classroom for the Generate principle, commonly known as Retrieval Practice, at this link.
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