Fighting the Forgetting Process

By Cheryl Lowry, Training & Education Specialist

Many students start forgetting what we’re teaching about 10 minutes after we start.  And by 15 minutes in, there’s a good chance we’ve lost about half of them, no matter how attentive they look. It’s just too hard for their (and our) brains to concentrate on anything for long while being passive (Middendorf and Kalish, 1996; Fedder and Brent, 2016).

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In my view, fighting the forgetting process is an integral part of teaching.  What we have do is use active learning activities–anything except a lecture or demonstration during which students are supposed to just watch and listen.

Active learning activities interrupt the forgetting process by engaging our students’ brains at the moment and also strengthen the paths in students’ brains through which they can later recall what we’ve taught them.

I’m making a list of such activities—what I’ve read research about and then had luck with myself–and thought I’d share some with you in exchange for some of yours.  I hope you’ll post descriptions of ones you’ve used to this blog and help us all.

I’ve grouped the activities below by the terms psychologists associate with them. As you’ll see, many of the examples provide students the opportunity to recall and organize what they’ve learned.

Generation: Students learn more if they are answering questions, solving problems, and testing theories on their own, rather than being given the information. Being on their own seems to introduce “desirable difficulties” that help students generate their own grasp of the material.  Remember to let students know we expect mistakes and that making mistakes is important and okay.

Example: If we’re going to teach how to use a particular database in someone else’s class, we can ask him or her to assign students to locate that database the night before.  Even students who are unsuccessful will learn more.  Once there, we can use a handout to help those who were unsuccessful quickly find the database.

Example: Are there places where students can predict what will happen?  If we ask them to, they’ll have to recall what they’ve learned so far. We can ask, for example, after showing them the limiters or filters for a search in a database, “Now in the next search, will we have found more or fewer sources?”  And “How many fewer sources are we likely to turn up?”

Example: Getting blank looks when you ask, “Do you have any questions?” or even the better “What are your questions?”?  In our A+ Research presentations we instead ask them to quickly pair up and give them 3 minutes to come up with two questions. Then my student assistant answers them.  It works every time.  Next year we’ll have each student e-mail me with one of their questions. Research indicates that once they do it, it will be easier for them to email me for help later on.

Example: When teaching face-to-face with a class, I casually tell students there will be a quiz, even when all I plan is a review at the end during which I’ll ask them questions orally.  Research shows that thinking there will be a quiz increases their motivation to pay attention.  It also helps students remember what they learned, perhaps by as much as 30 percent.  It’s even better to ask students to write down their answers before I take any oral answers so everybody gets a chance to mentally answer. But I don’t always remember to do that.

Example: It’s better to use handouts that give directions in both text and graphics because students learn better when the explanation is in both channels.


Elaboration: Student learning is strengthened by their making a mental map, or schema, of what they’re learning, including how it relates to their lives.  Anything we can do to help students put layers of meaning on their mental map is helpful.

Example: At the beginning of presentations, I ask them questions such as “We’re going to be talking about XYZ today.  How do you think that could be helpful to you?”

Example:  Because digital skills are psychomotor skills, I show or tell students the “executive routine” for the largest task before I teach details of any individual steps or tasks (Gagne, 1985). Having seen the executive routine even briefly, students will be better able to learn the individual steps or tasks. Let’s say one of your learning objectives (or all of them together) amounted to “Students will be able to find appropriate sources in the XYZ database.”  You would think about all the steps they have to do in order to find those sources. Then you would show those steps to students as a numbered list before you’d teach the individual steps and their details.

Example:  In an effort to try to connect what I’m teaching to what students already know, I show students the executive routine and then give them one minute to note which steps they have done before.  Then I ask for volunteers to tell the group.

Example:  I try to use their prior knowledge any way I can.  For instance, I once had to teach students at 12 community colleges which nine states, all east of the Mississippi,   had reciprocal agreements with Ohio for handing child support cases. Giving them a list to memorize seemed boring. To take advantage of the fact students already knew where the nine states are located, I imagined that my handout paper was the eastern half of the U.S. and typed the names where the states would be on such a map. For instance, North Carolina was toward the lower right, close to the edge of the paper.  They all learned the nine state names in just a few moments.

Example: If possible, teach a mnemonic for something you’re teaching.  In our A+ Research presentations, we always start by showing our mnemonic F-I-R-S-T to explain the steps to a research project and then tell students which steps we’ll talk about in that particular presentation. Students regularly tell us that learning F-I-R-S-T is a valuable thing they learned.  Mnemonics can be graphic images, instead of words.  So ask students to help themselves remember a difficult concept by thinking of a graphic image for it. Next year, we’ll ask FYSS and STEP students to think of a graphic image for “iteration.”

Example: I use verbal markers such as “This is important” or “This is a crucial step” or “The tricky thing about this is….” to help students pay attention right then and to also contribute to their mental maps.


So that’s my list that fits here. But you must have activities that have worked for you, too, which I hope you’ll post.  Thank you in advance!   And let me know if I can be of any help when you’re designing instruction.




Felder, Richard, and Rebecca Brent. Teaching and Learning STEM.  San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2016.

Gagne, Robert M. The Conditions of Learning. Fourth edition.  San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Middendorf, Joan, and Alan Kalish. “The Change-Up in Lectures.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5 (2), 1-5.