Learning for the long term: actual content retention versus cramming for the test

Your brain is a web. Cramming is just a strand. Learning is the entire web.

Cramming is compartmentalized memorization, while learning is a series of connected memories.

Here’s an extreme example:

Recently a highly conscientious student joined the A+ Club, troubled over her difficulties in math and science. Turns out the student was memorizing solutions to practice problems before tests, and when those questions didn’t show up on the test, she failed them. (Talk about teacher dysfunction: how could you not notice this??)

I blogged recently that students who claim, “I Don’t Test Well” actually don’t learn well. So I thought to follow up on that post with some thoughts about how to go about actually learning while studying, rather than just cramming for a test.

Memorization v. Learning

What our student achieved is remarkable: literally memorized math and science problems. Didn’t learn anything, but that power of memory is admirable.

Our brains are prepared for both direct memorization and learning, as each has a different purpose. Memorization (cramming) connects new ideas to themselves and the direct experience of that memorization (late night at the library). Learning connects new ideas to multiple prior knowledge and experience. You might think of “learning” as a series of cramming sessions that connect and reinforce one another.

Your Memory Web

Our brains work through connected memories, and the more connections your brain has to an idea, the more likely you are to recall it immediately.

I was working the other day with another A+ Club student on preparing for a history test on the Civil War. As we reviewed his vocabulary words on battles and events, I realized that he was trying to memorize the words without context.  Vicksburg was a battle, and so was Gettysburg. He knew a few things about each, but he could not connect them. So I had him review maps and create a time line. Now having added place and time to the words, his comparisons were empowered by the additional connections. Suddenly the Anaconda Plan, the Trent Affair, the Emancipation Proclamation and all those battles and names of generals began to fit in with each other. Suddenly he was learning and not just memorizing.

So it’s all about CONTEXT and CONNECTIONS.

Think of CON-TEXT, Latin for “with the word,” as the place our memory is located. The more CONNECTIONS we have to that memory, the more readily we recall it, the more we know it, and the better able we are able to apply it. Now there’s learning.

And here’s an easy way to test it:

If you can’t teach it to someone else, you don’t know it

Test your learning by trying to explain it to someone else who has no CONTEXT for your lesson. That means that you have to build all those  connections and the prior knowledge needed to truly understand it. Even if you are studying straight definitions, such as vocabulary words, test your own understanding by not just defining the word but by explaining it and giving additional examples regarding it. That requires deeper knowledge than straight memorization, and it will now last longer.

This is about the most powerful thing a parent can do to help a child study.

“Explain it to me.”
“Give me an example.”

If your child can’t, then more learning needs to happen. Additionally, if you speak with your child about the topic, you are creating a new context with new connections for easier, more effective recall on the test.

The more kids interact with their subject matter outside of studying and class, the more meaningful their studies and the more they will connect to it in class.

– Michael

Featured Image Credit: “Rush hour at Ueno 02” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rush_hour_at_Ueno_02.JPG#/media/File:Rush_hour_at_Ueno_02.JPG