Teach for Retention

One thing I’ve learned as both a professor and student is that there is a trade off between amount of material you expect students to learn and later retention. The principle is explained in comic exaggeration in Father Guido Sarducci’s 5-Minute University. At the 5-Minute University students learn in 5 minutes everything the average student will remember 5 years after graduation. The point is that if you attempt to cram too much content into a course, students might memorize it for the exam, but retention might not make it until the end of the semester, let alone graduation and beyond. If you want to teach for retention, there are a few things to consider.

Limits to Memory

Human memory is not like a computer where once something is learned it is retained. A better metaphor is a bucket with a hole in it. You can keep filling the bucket, but the water is constantly draining out the bottom. To really stick, something learned has to be linked to other concepts and ideas. The more connections, the longer it is likely to be retained. One of my USF colleagues, Doug Rohrer has shown with his research on learning that short-term cramming is not going to result in long-term retention. To accomplish that, the same material has to be refreshed, with the longer the time interval between learning trials, the better the retention.

Balancing Rigor and Retention

As a professor, there is a temptation to load up the content in a course to be sure to cover the topic as rigorously as possible. When you know a lot about a topic, you want to share that knowledge to the benefit of students. It is far too easy to overestimate how long it might take for students new to a topic to understand concepts. Whereas students might be able to memorize material and spit it back for the exam, it doesn’t mean they really understood it and will retain it. One day in an undergraduate IO Psychology class I went over the concept of personal characteristics needed to do a job (KSAOs), and the tasks required for a job. From prior experience I knew that if I gave the students an exam, most could spit back the definitions of each. However, I decided to try an exercise in which I asked everyone to write down an example of each. As we went around the room it became painfully obvious that the students could memorize the definitions, but they did not understand what the definitions meant. The exercise gave them a more complete understanding of the concepts, but it consumed quite a bit of class time that I could have spent cramming in more concepts and more material. Which should I have done?

Some Tips for Balancing Retention and Rigor

There is no correct answer about how much content is needed in a course. In large part the answer depends on the course objectives, topic, and backgrounds of students. A graduate student taking an advanced course on a familiar topic can absorb more than an undergraduate in an introductory course. Keep in mind the Father Guido Principle–it is impossible for students to retain everything from your class. Some suggestions:

  • Decide on 3-4 important takeaway concepts for your course. In an IO psychology course I focus on KSAOs and the idea of a criterion–if someone claims one thing is better than another, what is their criterion for making that claim?
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition. Important concepts should be discussed more than once during the course. Rohrer’s research shows that retention is enhanced if someone goes over the same concept after a delay, and the longer the delay, the longer the retention.
  • Show students concepts in different contexts. In an IO psychology course, I will cover the concept of KSAOs several times as we discuss different topics.
  • Use active learning exercises. They take time, but they can deepen student understanding and help them connect the new concept to other things they already know.
  • Feel free to sample content. You cannot cover everything about a topic in a course, so prioritize content and do not overdo it.
  • Don’t equate amount of material with rigor. A course might be rigorous, not because there was a large amount of material, but because students gained a deep understanding of what was covered.

The Art of Teaching for Retention

It can be difficult to balance the amount of content with subsequent student learning. If you overdo the amount you expect students to learn, retention can suffer. If you ask too little, the course would fail to provide an adequate overview of the topic. One thing I’ve learned in my decades as a professor is that if you want to teach for retention, often times less can be more.

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