Remembering Key Learnings

As teachers, I think we all hope that students remember most of what they learned in our course years later. But, is that realistic? Isn’t it more likely that they remember just a few things? Here is an example of things that you would not want a student to remember:

  • I didn’t like the topic
  • I didn’t like the teacher
  • I didn’t do well in the course

Here is an example that any teacher would find more appealing:

  • I liked the topic
  • I liked the teacher
  • I did well in the course

The first example represents failure with respect to that student. The second example, however, also reflects failure because the learning remembered, years later, was non-specific and not actionable by the student. Nothing was remembered that could be used to avoid common mistakes or achieve any sort of improved condition.

For many years now, I have set a goal of teaching courses in ways that students should be able to recall a few significant teachings from the course, and that these things should have an impact on their lives or work – to help them avoid mistakes or make an improvement. I used to think this was a modest goal. But now I see it as an outrageous goal. Why?

Students are confronted each day with many things to remember that may be important to their work or life. If I can break through the competition to find a home in the part of their brain that stores long-term memories (temporal cortex or basal ganglia), then I will have achieved something truly remarkable.

I do two things to improve the chances that students will remember a few significant teachings from my courses:

  • Repeatedly demonstrate the relevancy of the course material to the real world and to students’ lives and careers.
  • Give to each student at the end of the course a “visual control” that identifies the key things they learned in the course.

These help ensure that key learnings from the course are stored in long-term memory and can be put to use by the student when needed.

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