February 13th, 2009

What Students Remember


In several of my books, I’ve referenced a wonderful classroom assessment query I came across in Teaching of Psychology, some years ago now. At the end of the course, the authors asked students to reflect back across the whole semester and then report the first 10 things they remembered about the course. Students were told not to edit their thinking but to simply write down the memories as they came to mind.

I learned so much when I used that prompt. Before reviewing student responses, I wrote down my memories—in several different categories: what first came to mind as I remembered the course, what I thought students would remember, and what I would like students to remember. The differences between the students’ lists and my own prompted reflection and the re-design of some classroom activities and events.

In a nutshell what I found, what the authors of the Teaching of Psychology article found and what another researcher who used the same query discovered were all the same. Students remember what they do and what is vivid and real significantly more often than what they are told. The findings are not surprising. We already know from a solid empirical base that active learning positively impacts what students remember.

The most recent study (Cherney) asked the query in four different lower division courses and two upper division courses. Her conclusion: “active learning materials were better remembered across introductory level and upper level courses taught by the same instructor.”

Beyond what both studies affirm about the power of active learning experiences, I hope you won’t miss how this query can identify specific and concrete components of your course that have lodged themselves in students’ memories and how beneficial to subsequent course planning that knowledge might be.

References: VanderStoep, S. W., Fagerlin, A., and Feenstra, J. S. (2000). What do students remember from introductory psychology? Teaching of Pscyhology, 2000, 27 (2), 89-92.

Cherney, I.(2008). The effects of active learning on students’ memories for course content. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9 (2), 155-174.

—Maryellen Weimer