How can the findings of current brain research be applied in the classroom to help students perform best on standardized tests? Marilee Sprenger details seven steps to move information from sensory memory to long-term memory.
"In the United States, most schools prepare for standardized tests by spending a large amount of time a few months prior to testing on review," observes brain expert Marilee Sprenger. "Although that has been known to raise test scores in comparison to schools that do not follow that process, it does not put information into long-term memory. Because working memory can hold information for just days or weeks, most of the time, the information is forgotten after the test."
According to Sprenger, meaning and emotion are key to placing information into long-term memory. She follows a seven-step process for taking information from sensory memory to long-term memory. For example, if she were teaching a unit about supply and demand, she might begin with the following simple definitions:
The Law of Supply states that at higher prices, producers are willing to offer more products for sale than they would at lower prices, and that the supply increases as prices increase, and decreases as prices decrease. The Law of Demand states that people will buy more of a product at a lower price than at a higher price, and that at a lower price, more people can afford to buy more goods and more of an item more frequently, than they can at a higher price.
"Within those two laws are four central ideas; therefore, there are four bits of information. If this is brand new information for students, I have twenty seconds to try to make it meaningful or to get them working with it to begin to process it," observes Sprenger. "What I need to do is somehow relate the information to something they can understand and connect to. If I want to improve students' memories, I have to make my teaching memorable."
"REACH" TO "RETRIEVAL"
For Sprenger, step one in this process is to reach students. If she can't reach students, she can't teach them. Presenting the definitions as an opening to the lesson might leave many students disinterested. Instead, Sprenger starts the lesson with a discussion of the price of gasoline or a game console, which might hook many of them. Why have gasoline prices risen? Why did people stand in line all night to buy an Xbox?
Moving on to step two, Sprenger gives students the opportunity to reflect on the concept, allowing their brains to begin to make connections. She has assisted them in taking the information into immediate memory and then to working memory where they can call upon prior knowledge and make connections to new information. In this case, the reflection piece could be a journal entry, a reflective question (i.e. Have you ever stood in line to purchase something?), or even a short conversation with another student.
"Now it's time to see if they truly understand," says Sprenger. "Step three is recoding. The student must now put the ideas into his or her own words. This step is vital as the information is still in temporary storage. I don't want misinformation to make its way into long-term memory. I ask students to write a summary of what we have discussed."
As students work, Sprenger "cruises" the room and reads over their shoulders. Step four, reinforce, has begun. Without feedback, students' brains will either hang on to misconceptions or not have a frame for the learning.
"Feedback is known to increase student achievement. I offer students positive reinforcement if their recoding is accurate, or informational feedback if they need to rethink their understanding." Sprenger explains. "Recoding is best in words, but for young students or those who do better non-linguistically, they may draw or find another means of communicating what they know."
Sprenger now will continue to step five, the rehearsal stage, or choose to divide the students into groups and differentiate the lesson. Those who need more reinforcement might require a new "reach" or "reflect." Others might move on to more in-depth study and rehearsal. Additional rehearsal is required if the concept is totally new. Sprenger reports that research suggests new concepts might take up to 28 rehearsals occuring over several weeks, allowing students to sleep and encode the memories.
"During rehearsal, higher levels of thinking can be incorporated. Complexity would be a gradual process and multiple memory systems would be incorporated. That might include field trips to include the episodic memory system that remembers places, people, and events," advises Sprenger. "Perhaps some procedures can be introduced to address the procedural memory system. Songs or poems could be created using the new material and that would be stored in our conditioned-response memory system. Multiple memory systems, multiple intelligences, and learning styles might all work to make the rehearsals interesting and appealing to every learner."
The next step, reviews, are incorporated into the plan to assess long-term learning. They might include such brain-compatible strategies as games, drawing, writing, mind maps, or acting. Practice tests might also be given. If the learning addresses a standard or benchmark that will be addressed on the state assessment, Sprenger provides many rehearsals to put the learning into the semantic system. It is that system that relies on language.
When students have rehearsed sufficiently and reviews are going well, it might be time for a summative assessment. That is where step seven, retrieval, comes in. Can the student retrieve the newly-formed memories and apply them in different ways? Sprenger finds that the retrieval step can be stressful for some students, but the more rehearsals and reviews that have been done, the lower the stress should be.
"To assess my students, I want to access the memory systems I used in rehearsal and review," says Sprenger. "Since most of the learning was done in my classroom, I want to assess my students there. Researchers suggest that memory will be better triggered in the place where the learning took place. Assuming that I began with backward design -- that is, I created my assessment before my instruction -- I need to review my assessment to be sure that it accurately measures my students' knowledge. I also want to compare the vocabulary I use on the assessment with the vocabulary I used during instruction. That can easily affect performance."
If she is unsure as to whether her students have the information firmly planted in their semantic memory system, Sprenger might offer a practice test or have students work together to create an assessment they think is fair. Sprenger can match up students’ questions with those on her assessment, and that information will tell her if students truly understand the concepts she has been trying to convey. As an additional benefit, the process will serve as yet another review.
"I might even add some of their questions to the assessment," Sprenger adds. "Ideally, student involvement in assessment should be our ultimate goal. They take ownership in the material and often are motivated by the prospect of their input being considered valid."
There is more to a brain-friendly approach than teaching strategies, however. A teacher who greets students in the morning and looks like he or she is excited about the content, process, and outcome of the learning is an integral part of the brain-compatible classroom, observes Sprenger. She uses the following list in creating brain-compatible environments:
- No clear and present dangers. Keeping threat and stress low is imperative for the brain to function at high levels.
- Many procedures and rituals. Procedures and rituals calm the brain and free up working memory.
- Flexible grouping that encourages a sense of community.Brains work better when they are with other brains.
- Adequate wait time and time on task. Some students are slow processors and require more time to access information.
- Choice. Choice is the key to brain-compatible classrooms and to differentiation. The brain loves choice because it allows it to problem-solve.
- Curriculum is meaningful. Meaningful curriculum that relates to students’ lives will be memorable. That is not an easy task, but it’s well worth it.
- Formative assessment with timely feedback is used. Ongoing assessment and feedback let the brain know what is expected of it, and provide a framework for learning.
- Attractive and peaceful surroundings. An attractive environment might include plants, stuffed animals, colorful posters, student work, and natural lighting. It would also provide some climate control, because the brain works best in temperatures between 68 and 72 degrees.