Why do students struggle to remember something we’ve taught? Or why do they remember fragments of it but don’t see how the pieces fit together? Cognitive psychologist of the University of Virginia, Daniel Willingham calls this shallow knowledge. He says,

When students parrot back a teacher’s or the textbook’s words, they are, of course, drawing on memory. Thus, the question of why students end up with shallow knowledge is really a question about the workings of memory. Needless to say, determining what ends up in memory and in what form is a complex question, but there is one factor that trumps most others in determining what is remembered: what you think about when you encounter the material. The fact that the material you are dealing with has meaning does not guarantee that the meaning will be remembered. If you think about that meaning, the meaning will reside in memory. If you don’t, it won’t…Constructing meaning is a matter of being mentally engaged.

What does this means for teachers? Here are a few of his suggestions.

1. Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Ask yourself, “Is it possible for students to simply go through the motions of this assignment without thinking about meaning?”  

2. Design lessons so that students can’t avoid thinking about the lesson’s goal. Ask yourself, “Am I asking them to focus on extraneous details or the essential ideas of what I want them to understand?”

3. Design tests that lead students to think about and integrate the most important material. (See our posts on authentic assessments). 

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