“Students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn.”
~ Ambrose (How Learning Works. 2010)
Why are login passwords so hard to remember? Because eight-character strings of digits, symbols, and letters do not carry inherent meaning. Our minds cannot hold on to meaningless or arbitrary information. We remember what we can understand. The better we connect our previous experiences and knowledge of the world, the easier it is to learn new information.
Learning Grows More Learning
Research has shown that the more knowledge a student has, the easier it is to learn (Brown, 2014). Why? Because learning is the process of connecting new information to previous knowledge. Our previous knowledge is organized into mental models- summaries of knowledge about various topics. If new learning does not relate to anything we already know, we struggle to interpret it and give it meaning. We struggle to connect with it.
This has enormous implications for educators. Students with less background knowledge of a topic have a harder time making sense of new information. They have no mental model to structure their thinking. In various studies in the early 1990s, researchers determined that readers without background knowledge read much more literally because they assume that all information comes from the text (Cromley 2000). Essential critical thinking skills –such as inferring and concluding – are not available to a reader who cannot “read between the lines.” If we educators are going to help students grow their knowledge, we need to first prepare them by making explicit connections to their life experience and knowledge, before we delve into the new material.
Activating the Neural Network
There are many ways to prime students’ mind to new learning. In 2009, a study determined that taking a pre-test before learning information increases learning by a dramatic 33%, even when students’ initial answers are wrong. The theory is that by getting students to consider a question before providing the answer activates their learning schema (neural network). When students finally do learn the information, they experience that “aha” moment of understanding. (Richland, Kornell and Kao).
In order to strengthen students’ learning, educators need to underscore the connection of classroom learning to life experience. In one study, researchers divided students into two groups. One group wrote a summary of the days’ learning; the second group identified just one way the day’s learning related to their lives. The students in the second group outperformed the students in the first. (Zadina 2014). Relevance matters.
As language teachers we have the great advantage of teaching content that is immediately relevant to our students’ lives, but sometimes we need to underscore the connections between classroom learning and life experience.
KWL: Know–Want to Know—Learned
- As you introduce a new topic, ask students what they already know about this topic. Have students write all the words they associate with the topic.
- Then ask students what more they want to know about the topic. As you move through your lessons, make sure students are returning to those initial questions and trying to answer them with their new information.
- At the end of the lesson, ask students to summarize what they learned.
Test: Before and After
- At the beginning of class, ask students a few questions they will be able to answer by the end of class.
- Have students write the questions and their first answers in their notebook. Then have students fold the page so they don’t return to the question immediately.
- At the end of class, tell students to go back to the questions and answer them again. They can then discuss their answers in pairs.
Connect Inside and Out: Why, When, and Where
Make sure students understand how the learning inside the classroom connects to their lives outside of the classroom.. You can make this connection explicit by brainstorming with students what situations they will use the learning in their daily lives. Ask:
- Why are we learning this?
- When and where will you use this outside of class?