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The Science of Learning: Making It Stick

By Debra Bell | February 28, 2017 | The Science of Learning
The Science of Learning: Making It Stick

In the past week have you forgotten anything important? I have a baby and a two year old so my list of forgotten things is quite long. I forgot to put size three diapers in the diaper bag, I forgot my son needed to go potty before his nap, and I forgot where I put my phone (23 times!).

My forgetfulness often makes me frustrated and even more so when I am trying to learn something new. My online math students voice similar frustrations, especially on tests. But forgetfulness actually makes our brains more effective.  Our short term memory allows us to process things in the moment, but that memory is limited. Our brains only convert some of that information—the details it believes to be most important—into our long term memory storage. That is why I can remember what the weather was like on August 14th, 2010 (my wedding day), but not what the weather was like every day for the past 6 years.  Filling my brain with unimportant details would just slow down the processing and storing of new information.

The key to long term learning is to help our brains convert the right information from short term memory to long term. Once it is there,  we also need to ensure that we can recall that information when we need it.

There are many methods to help us remember information for the long haul but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to only mention two: spaced repetition and retrieval practice.

  1. Spaced Repetition. Researchers have found that the best way to absorb new information is to learn it in small chunks over a long period of time. If you want to memorize a poem it is better to recite it 5 minutes a day for 10 days than to work on it in one 50 minute session trying to cram it into your brain. This is probably something we all know, but are we putting it into practice? One of my main pushes with my students is that they work on their math a little bit every day—we just aren’t designed to master 5 math lessons in one sitting. Students must learn it, then forget some of it, and relearn it. This process makes our neural pathways (which we use for retrieval) stronger and faster.


  1. Retrieval Practice. We’ve all had the experience of being quizzed on a topic only to realize we didn’t know the material as well as we thought. But did you know that just the process of trying to recall something helps us learn it? Low stakes quizzing like this, where the grade doesn’t count, is actually a smart teaching strategy. Asking your kids to recount the main points in the chapter they’ve just read will help them move some of the information into long term storage.  Reviewing what they can’t remember will then help them learn that information too.  [That’s why the correct answer to the question we posted on Facebook is B]


Try incorporating some of these ideas into how you plan out your kids learning. And stay tune for our next post on how to increase learning: chunking.

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