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By Toni DiMella

Over the past three years, we have spent a lot of time in education talking about how online and face-to-face classes are different. The tools we use to engage students, how we facilitate active learning, and the overall course structure often vary based on the delivery method. However, some things don’t change – best practices that are effective for all courses and delivery methods – because they are based on what we know about how people learn.

Broadly speaking, the learning process has three steps: encoding, storing, and retrieval (you can find more resources at the end of this post to learn more)

Encoding is the “entry event”; it’s the initial learning of information. The next step, storing, refers to maintaining information over time (McDermott & Roediger, 2022). The storage process involves the transfer of the encoded event from sensory memory to long-term memory via short-term memory. Short-term memory is really short (a mere 20 seconds!) and it can’t hold a lot of information, so the “move” process occurs quickly and has the potential to drop a lot of information (“How memory works”, 2022). Unlike short-term memory which takes in everything, long-term memory does not assume that all information will be kept for a long period of time, or at all. If there is too much information flooding the short-term memory, some information will be missed, possibly creating gaps in the storage process.

The ability to retrieve items that are stored in long-term memory is the last step of the learning process. Retrieval is the ability to access information when you need it and is completed via association (McLeod, 2013).

Here’s an example of the process adapted from McDermott and Roediger (2022):

You meet someone for the first time at a party. They introduce themselves; you encode their name. You then associate the name with their face to help store the information (the name). If you see them a week later, you need to recognize their face and have it serve as a cue to retrieve the name. To successfully remember the name, all three stages must be intact. Two types of retrieval errors can occur: forgetting and misremembering. Forgetting is when you see the person you met at the party and you cannot recall the name. The other error is misremembering—calling the person you remember by the wrong name or thinking someone else is the person you met.

What does this mean for your courses? It matters how you present content and how you make connections between and reinforce the information. The good news is you can use these three approaches in any course to help prime students for learning.

Module and Course Introductions

As the title implies, module and course introductions serve as an encoding event since you’re “meeting” the information for the first time. Course introductions most commonly consist of welcome letters/emails sent to provide some preliminary information about what to expect in the course and could possibly provide a syllabus for students to review. Module introductions are essentially the same thing. They are short narratives about what students will be learning in that section, why it’s important, and what types of activities they will need to complete. The key is that both are clear and concise to help set the stage for the next phase of the learning process.

Connected Activities

Now that students have “met” the content, they need to make associations to store it. In educational settings, we often refer to this as activating prior knowledge. If we can make a connection between new information and old information that will help keep an organized storage system. These can involve graded activities, like pre-quizzes and discussion forums, but they don’t have to be. It could be a poll at the beginning of class, a word cloud via a tech tool, or a group activity where students share what they remember or know about a topic. Once that prior knowledge has been retrieved, students can add new information to it. Ideally, students will stitch the new information using the introduction narratives to their prior knowledge to create a strong association. This will make retrieving the information easier.

Opportunities to Practice

We all know what happens when you don’t use information—you forget it. And that happens fast (How memory works, 2022; What is the Forgetting Curve?, 2022). The way you create and keep a strong memory of a piece of information is by periodically retrieving it. This helps to strengthen and grow the number of associations. In our courses, we can do this by creating low-stakes quizzes with question pools to allow multiple attempts, weaving content from module to module, and requiring comprehensive assessments and projects.

Here’s an example of a module that uses all three:

A module introduction uses a scenario about driving times on different routes to describe the content being presented in the upcoming module. Throughout the module, the scenario is used when initially presenting information and demonstrating processes over a series of lectures. Similar questions are provided in each lecture for students to attempt on their own to assess their learning. A quiz with unlimited attempts and a question pool presents questions that require that each piece process is practiced. Students can take the quiz as many times as they want, but the questions will vary between attempts. Finally, a comprehensive module application activity requires students to complete all steps of the process presented in the module in a single scenario.

Once you start creating modules that follow this type of module, you will be pleased with the results. Students will retain more information over the course of the semester due to the purposeful module design. It both chunks the content and supports each phase of the learning process. In the event students do forget something, they (most likely) will be able to use the encoding event and the course’s clear learning path to find that information again in your course.

If you want to read more about memory and the learning process, check out these resources:

If you’re ready to create transparent learning modules for your students, contact CAIFS and join us on Blackboard day to learn more!