Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Why Do Students Remember Everything That's on Television and Forget Everything I Say?

By Daniel T. Willingham

American Educator, Summer 2021

How does the mind work—and especially how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind. In this regular American Educator column, we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit classroom application.

Question: Memory is mysterious. You may lose a memory created 15 seconds earlier, such as when you find yourself standing in your kitchen trying to remember what you came there to fetch. Other seemingly trivial memories (for example, advertisements) may last a lifetime. What makes something stick in memory, and what is likely to slip away?
Answer: We can’t store everything we experience in memory. Too much happens. So what should the memory system tuck away? How can the memory system know what you’ll need to remember later? Your memory system lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.

A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for enslaved people seeking escape. He asked what I thought about the assignment. I pointed out that his students probably thought for 40 seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for 40 minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on. Whatever students think about is what they will remember.

The cognitive principle that guides this article is memory is the residue of thought. To teach well, consider what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember.

 

We all know that students won’t learn if they aren’t paying attention. What’s more mysterious is why, when they are paying attention, they sometimes learn and sometimes don’t. What else is needed besides attention?

A reasonable guess is that we remember things that bring about some emotional reaction. Aren’t you likely to remember really happy moments, such as a wedding, or really sad ones, such as hearing that a beloved relative has passed away? You are, and in fact if you ask people to name their most vivid memories, they often relate events that probably had some emotional content, such as a first date or a birthday celebration.

If memory depended on emotion, we would remember little of what we encounter in school. So the answer Things go into long-term memory if they create an emotional reaction is not quite right. It’s more accurate to say, Things that create an emotional reaction will be better remembered, but emotion is not necessary for learning.

Repetition is another obvious candidate for what makes learning work. Repetition is very important, but not just any repetition will do. Material may be repeated almost indefinitely and still not stick in your memory. For example, if you’re like most people, you don’t know much about what a penny looks like. When shown a real penny among 14 counterfeits, people are terrible at picking out the real one even though they have seen a penny thousands of times.1

So repetition alone won’t do it. It’s equally clear that wanting to remember something is not the magic ingredient. How marvelous it would be if memory did work that way. Students would sit down with a book, say to themselves, “I want to remember this,” and they would! You’d remember the names of people you’ve met, and you’d always know where your car keys are. Sadly, memory doesn’t work that way.2

How Does Memory Work?

American Educator, Summer 2021Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose you are walking the halls of your school and you see a student muttering to himself in front of his open locker. You can’t hear what he’s saying, but you can tell from his tone that he’s angry. There are several things you could focus on. You could think about the sound of the student’s voice, you could focus on how he looks, or you could think about the meaning of the incident (why the student might be angry, whether you should speak to him, and so on). These thoughts will lead to different memories of the event the next day. If you thought only about the sound of the student’s voice, the next day you’d probably remember that sound quite well but not his appearance. If you focused on visual details, then that’s what you’d remember the next day, not what the student’s voice sounded like. In the same way, if you think about the meaning of a penny but never about the visual details, you won’t remember the visual details, even if they have been in front of your eyes 10,000 times.

Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. Once stated, this conclusion seems impossibly obvious. Indeed, it’s a very sensible way to set up a memory system. Given that you can’t store everything away, how should you pick what to store and what to drop? Your brain lays its bets this way: If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be stored. If you do think about something, then it’s likely that you’ll want to think about it in the same way in the future. If I think about what the student looks like when I see him, then his appearance is probably what I’ll want to know about when I think about that student later.

There are a couple of subtleties to this obvious conclusion that we need to draw out. First, when we’re talking about school, we usually want students to remember what things mean. Sometimes what things look like is important—for example, the beautiful facade of the Parthenon, or the shape of Benin—but much more often we want students to think about meaning.

The second subtlety (again, obvious once it’s made explicit) is that there can be different aspects of meaning for the same material. For example, the word piano has lots of meaning-based characteristics. You could think about the fact that it makes music, or about the fact that it’s expensive, or that it’s really heavy, or that it’s made from fine-quality wood, and so on. In one of my all-time favorite experiments, the researchers led subjects to think of one or another characteristic of words by placing them in sentences—for example, “The moving men lugged the PIANO up the flight of stairs” or “The professional played the PIANO with a lush, rich sound.”3 The subjects knew that they needed to remember only the word in capitals. Later, experimenters administered a memory test for the words, with some hints. For piano, the hint was either “something heavy” or “something that makes music.” The results showed that the subjects’ memories were really good if the hint matched the way they had thought about piano, but poor if it didn’t. That is, if the subjects read the moving men version of the sentence, hearing the cue “something that makes music” didn’t help them remember piano. So it’s not even enough to say, “You should think about meaning.” You have to think about the right aspect of meaning.

The obvious implication for teachers is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material. A striking example of an assignment that didn’t work for this reason came from my nephew’s sixth-grade teacher. He was to draw a plot diagram of a book he had recently finished. The point of the plot diagram was to get him to think about the story elements and how they related to one another. The teacher’s goal, I believe, was to encourage her students to think of novels as having structure, but the teacher thought that it would be useful to integrate art into this project, so she asked her students to draw pictures to represent the plot elements. That meant that my nephew thought very little about the relation between different plot elements and a great deal about how to draw a good castle. My daughter had completed a similar assignment some years earlier, but her teacher had asked students to use words or phrases rather than pictures. I think that assignment more effectively fulfilled the intended goal because my daughter thought more about how ideas in the book were related.

Now you may be thinking, “OK, so cognitive psychologists can explain why students have to think about what material means—but I really already knew they should think about that. Can you tell me how to make sure that students think about meaning?” Glad you asked.

When we think of good teachers, we tend to focus on personality and on the way the teachers present themselves. But that’s only half of good teaching. The jokes, the stories, and the warm manner all generate goodwill and get students to pay attention. But then how do we make sure they think about meaning? That is where the second property of being a good teacher comes in—organizing the ideas in a lesson plan in a coherent way so that students will understand and remember. Cognitive psychology cannot tell us how to be personable and likable to our students, but I can tell you about one set of principles that cognitive psychologists know about to help students think about the meaning of a lesson.

The Power of Stories

The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories—so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. I’m going to suggest that organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember.

Before we can talk about how a story structure could apply to a classroom, we must go over what a story structure is. There is not universal agreement over what makes a story, but most sources point to the following four principles, often summarized as the four Cs. The first C is causality, which means that events are causally related to one another. For example, “I saw Jane; I left the house” is just a chronological telling of events. But if you read, “I saw Jane, my hopeless old love; I left the house,” you would understand that the two events are linked causally. The second C is conflict. A story has a main character who is pursuing a goal but is unable to reach that goal. In Star Wars, the main character is Luke Skywalker, and his goal is to deliver the stolen plans and help destroy the Death Star. Conflict occurs because there is an obstacle to the goal. If Luke didn’t have a worthy adversary—Darth Vader—it would make for a rather short movie. The third C is complications. If Luke simply hammered away for 90 minutes at his goal of delivering the plans, that would be rather dull. Complications are subproblems that arise from the main goal. Thus, if Luke wants to deliver the plans, he must first get off his home planet, Tatooine—but he has no transportation. That’s a complication that leads to his meeting another major character, Han Solo, and leaving the planet amid a hail of gunfire—always a movie bonus. The final C is character. A good story is built around strong, interesting characters, and the key to those qualities is action. A skillful storyteller shows rather than tells the audience what a character is like. For example, the first time the Star Wars audience sees Princess Leia, she is shooting at stormtroopers. Hence, we don’t need to be told that she is brave and ready to take action.

If we’re trying to communicate with others, using a story structure brings three important advantages. First, stories are easy to comprehend, because the audience knows the structure, which helps to interpret the action. For example, the audience knows that events don’t happen randomly in stories. There must be a causal connection, so if the cause is not immediately apparent, the audience will think carefully about the previous action to try to connect it to present events.

Second, stories are interesting. Reading researchers have conducted experiments in which people read lots of different types of material and rate each for how interesting it is. Stories are consistently rated as more interesting than other formats (for example, expository prose), even if the same information is presented.

Third, stories are easy to remember. There are at least two contributing factors here. Because comprehending stories requires lots of medium-difficulty inferences, you must think about the story’s meaning throughout. Your memory for stories is also aided by their causal structure. If you remember one part of the plot, it’s a good guess that the next thing that happened was caused by what you remember.

My intention here is not to suggest that you simply tell stories, although there’s nothing wrong with doing so. Rather, I’m suggesting something one step removed from that. Structure your lessons the way stories are structured, using the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character. This doesn’t mean you must do most of the talking. Small-group work or projects or any other method may be used. The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.

For my teaching, I think of it this way: the material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own, the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting. That’s why making the question clear is so important. I sometimes feel that we, as teachers, are so focused on getting to the answer, we spend insufficient time making sure that students understand the question and appreciate its significance. To us, the question and its importance are obvious. To them, they aren’t.

Implications for the Classroom

American Educator, Summer 2021Thinking about meaning helps memory. How can teachers ensure that students think about meaning in the classroom? Here are some practical suggestions.

Review Each Lesson Plan in Terms of What the Student Is Likely to Think About

This may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers. The most important thing about schooling is what students will remember after the school day is over, and there is a direct relationship between what they think about during the day and their later memory. So it’s a useful double-check for every lesson plan to try to anticipate what the lesson will actually make students think about (rather than what you hope it will make them think about). Doing so may make it clear that students are unlikely to get what the teacher intended out of the lesson.

For example, I once observed a high school social studies class work in groups of three on projects about the Spanish Civil War. Each group was to examine a different aspect of the conflict (for example, compare it to the US Civil War, or consider its impact on today’s Spain) and then teach the remainder of the class what they had learned, using the method of their choice. Students in one group noticed that PowerPoint was loaded on the computers, and they were very enthusiastic about using it to teach their bit to the other groups. (This was a while ago, when PowerPoint was not in common use in high schools.) The teacher was impressed by their initiative and gave his permission. Soon all of the groups were using PowerPoint. Many students had some familiarity with the basics of the program, so it could have been used effectively. The problem was that the students changed the assignment from “learn about the Spanish Civil War” to “learn esoteric features of PowerPoint.” There was still a lot of enthusiasm in the room, but it was directed toward using animations, integrating videos, finding unusual fonts, and so on. At that point, the teacher felt it was far too late to ask all of the groups to switch, so he spent much of the rest of the week badgering students to be sure their presentations had content, not just flash.

This story illustrates one of the reasons that experienced teachers are so good. This teacher clearly didn’t let students use PowerPoint the next year, or he thought of a way to keep them on task. Before you have accumulated these experiences, the next best thing is to think carefully about how your students will react to an assignment, and what it will make them think about.

Think Carefully About Attention Grabbers

Almost every teacher I have met likes, at least on occasion, to start class with an attention grabber. If you hook students early in the lesson, they should be curious to know what is behind whatever surprised or awed them. But attention grabbers may not always work. Here’s a conversation I had with my oldest daughter when she was in sixth grade.

Dad: What did you do in school today?
Rebecca: We had a guest in science. He taught us about chemicals.
Dad: Oh yeah? What did you learn about chemicals?
Rebecca: He had this glass? That looked like water? But when he put this little metal thingy in it, it boiled. It was so cool. We all screamed.
Dad: Uh-huh. Why did he show you that?
Rebecca: I don’t know.

The guest surely planned this demonstration to pique the class’s interest, and that goal was met. I’m willing to bet that the guest followed the demonstration with an age-appropriate explanation of the phenomenon, but that information was not retained. Rebecca didn’t remember it because she was still thinking about how cool the demonstration was. You remember what you think about.

Here’s one more example. A guest in a biology class asked the students to think of the very first thing they had ever seen. The students mulled that question over and generated such guesses as “the doctor who pulled me out,” “Mom,” and so forth. The guest then said, “Actually, the first thing each of you saw was the same. It was pinkish, diffuse light coming through your mother’s belly. Today we’re going to talk about how that first experience affected how your visual system developed, and how it continues to influence the way you see today.” I love that example because it grabbed the students’ attention and left them eager to hear more about the subject of the lesson.

As I alluded to earlier, I think it is very helpful to use the beginning of class to build student interest in the material by understanding the question that underlies the lesson for the day—or as the story framing puts it, to develop the conflict. You might consider, however, whether the beginning of the class is really when they need an attention grabber. In my experience, the transition from one subject to another (or for older students, from one classroom and teacher to another) is enough to buy at least a few minutes of attention from students. It’s usually the middle of the lesson that needs a little drama to draw students back from whatever reverie they might be in. But regardless of when it’s used, think hard about how you will draw a connection between the attention grabber and the point it’s designed to make. Will students understand the connection, and will they be able to set aside the excitement of the attention grabber and move on? If not, is there a way to change the attention grabber to help students make that transition? Perhaps the “metal thingy” demonstration would have been better after the basic principle was explained and students were prompted to predict what might happen.

Use Discovery Learning with Care

Discovery learning refers to students learning by exploring objects, discussing problems with classmates, designing experiments, or any of a number of other techniques that use student inquiry rather than the teacher telling students things. Indeed, the teacher ideally serves more as a resource than as the director of the class. Discovery learning has much to recommend it, when it comes to memory. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits. An important downside, however, is that what students will think about is less predictable. If students are left to explore ideas on their own, they may well explore mental paths that are not profitable. If memory is the residue of thought, then students will remember incorrect “discoveries” as much as they will remember the correct ones.

Now this doesn’t mean that discovery learning should never be used, but it does suggest a principle for when to use it. Discovery learning is probably most useful when the environment gives prompt feedback about whether the student is thinking about a problem in a useful way. One of the best examples of discovery learning is when kids learn to use a computer, whether they are learning an operating system, a complex game, or a web application. Students show wonderful ingenuity and daring under these circumstances. They are not afraid to try new things, and they shrug off failure. They learn by discovery! Note, however, that computer applications have an important property: when you make a mistake, it is immediately obvious. The computer does something other than what you intended. This immediate feedback makes for a great environment in which “messing around” can pay off. (Other environments aren’t like that. Imagine a student left to “mess around” with frog dissection in a biology class.)

Try Organizing a Lesson Plan Around the Conflict

There is a conflict in almost any lesson plan, if you look for it. This is another way of saying that the material we want students to know is the answer to a question—and the question is the conflict. The advantage of being very clear about the conflict is that it yields a natural progression for topics. In a movie, trying to resolve a conflict leads to new complications. That’s often true of school material too.

Start with the content you want your students to learn, and think backward to the intellectual question it poses. For example, the state may mandate that sixth-graders will learn the models of the atom that were competing at the turn of the 20th century. These are the answers. What is the question? In this story, the goal is to understand the nature of matter. The obstacle is that the results of different experiments appear to conflict with one another. Each new model that is proposed (Rutherford, cloud, Bohr) seems to resolve the conflict but then generates a new complication—that is, experiments to test the model seem to conflict with other experiments. If this organization seems useful to you, you might spend a good bit of time thinking about how to illustrate and explain to students the question, “What is the nature of matter?” How could that question intrigue sixth-graders?

As I’ve emphasized, structuring a lesson plan around conflict can be a real aid to student learning. Another feature I like is that, if you succeed, you are engaging students with the actual substance of the discipline. I’ve always been bothered by the advice “make it relevant to the students,” for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn’t apply. Is the “Epic of Gilgamesh” relevant to students in a way they can immediately understand? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students’ daily lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it’s phony. Second, if I can’t convince students that something is relevant to them, does that mean I shouldn’t teach it? If I’m continually trying to build bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me. I’m not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I’m suggesting is that student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas.

If the goal of a lesson plan is to get students to think about the meaning of some material, then it’s pretty clear that the best approach is one in which thinking about meaning is unavoidable. One of the things that has always amazed me as a memory researcher is the degree to which people do not know how their own memory system works. It doesn’t do any good to tell people, “Hey, I’m going to test your memory for this list of words later,” because people don’t know what to do to make the words memorable. But if you give people a simple task in which they must think of the meaning—for example, rating how much they like each word—they will remember the words quite well.*

Learning is influenced by many factors, but one factor trumps the others: students remember what they think about.


Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education and The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. This article is excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel T. Willingham. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and e-books are sold. Readers can pose questions to “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” by sending an email to ae@aft.org. Future columns will try to address readers’ questions.

*Sometimes memorizing less-meaningful information helps students move forward (e.g., foreign language vocabulary or the multiplication table). In those cases, don’t be afraid to use mnemonics, as explained in the sidebar to the right. (return to article)

Endnotes

1. R. S. Nickerson and M. J. Adams, “Long-Term Memory for a Common Object,” Cognitive Psychology 11 (1979): 287–307.
2. T. S. Hyde and J. J. Jenkins, “Recall for Words as a Function of Semantic, Graphic, and Syntactic Orienting Tasks,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 12 (1973): 471–80.
3. J. R. Barclay et al., “Comprehension and Semantic Flexibility,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13 (1974): 471–81.

[illustrations by Paul Zwolak]

American Educator, Summer 2021
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Don't Be Afraid to Use Mnemonics

Many teachers I have met shudder at the use of mnemonics. They conjure up images of 19th-century schoolrooms with children chanting rhymes of the state capitals. But as bad as a classroom would be if a teacher used only mnemonics, they do have their time and place, and I don’t think teachers should have this instructional technique taken away from them.

When is it appropriate to ask students to memorize something before it has much meaning? Probably not often, but there will be times when a teacher feels that some material—meaningless though it may be now—must be learned for the student to move forward. Typical examples would be learning letter-sound associations prior to reading and learning foreign language vocabulary.

Why do mnemonics work? Primarily by giving you cues. The acronym ROY G. BIV gives you the first letter of each color in the spectrum of visible light. The first letter is quite a good cue to memory. If you don’t know anything about a topic, or if the things you’re trying to remember are confusing because they are arbitrary (there’s nothing about red that makes it obvious that its wavelength is longer than green), mnemonics help because they impose some order on what you are trying to remember.

It might also be appropriate to memorize some material using mnemonics in parallel with other work that emphasizes meaning. When I was in elementary school, I was not required to memorize the multiplication table. Instead, I practiced using different materials and techniques that emphasized what multiplication actually means. These techniques were effective, and I readily grasped the concept. But by about fifth grade, not knowing the multiplication table by heart really slowed me down because the new things I was trying to learn had multiplication embedded in them. So every time I saw 8 × 7 within a problem, I had to stop and figure out the product. In sixth grade, I moved to a new school, where my teacher quickly figured out what was going on and made me memorize the multiplication table. It made math a lot easier for me, although it took a few weeks before I would admit it.

–D. T. W

American Educator, Summer 2021

We have learned more about how the mind works in the last 25 years than we did in the previous 2,500. Yet the teachers I know don’t believe they’ve seen much benefit from what psychologists call “the cognitive revolution.”

The gap between research and practice is understandable. Cognitive scientists intentionally isolate mental processes (for example, learning or attention) in the laboratory in order to make them easier to study. But mental processes are not isolated in the classroom. They all operate simultaneously, and they often interact in difficult-to-predict ways. To provide an obvious example, laboratory studies show that repetition helps learning, but any teacher knows that with too much repetition, motivation plummets, students stop paying attention, and no learning takes place. The classroom application would not duplicate the laboratory result.

The second edition of Why Don’t Students Like School?, from which this article is drawn, explores 10 principles that are so fundamental to the mind’s operation that they are as true in the classroom as they are in the laboratory and therefore can reliably be applied to classroom situations. Many of these principles likely won’t surprise you: factual knowledge is important, practice is necessary, and so on.

What may surprise you are the implications for teaching that follow. You’ll learn why it’s more useful to view the human species as bad at thinking rather than as cognitively gifted. You’ll discover that authors routinely write only a fraction of what they mean, which I’ll argue implies very little for reading instruction but a great deal for the factual knowledge your students must gain. And much more. Why Don’t Students Like School? ranges over a variety of subjects in pursuit of two goals that are straightforward but far from simple: to tell you how your students’ minds work and to clarify how to use that knowledge to be a better teacher.

–D. T. W.