From the chaotic, paper-strewn classrooms of high school to the prestigious halls of college campuses, there's typically one ambition that drives a teacher: to see their class graduate with high marks.
That's why your focus is rightfully on improving knowledge retention. The problem is that we’ve already heard most of the advice out there. “Manage your students’ attention spans!”, “Improve your students’ concentration and focus!”, “Start exam preparation early!”, the advice blogs shout at you from their lofty positions of self-appointed authority.
Blah, blah, blah ... tell us something we don’t know and haven’t already tried.
The good news is that Brainscape's cognitive scientists have some invaluable insights that really help teachers!
Over the past several years of managing our adaptive flashcard learning platform, our team has collected valuable feedback from tens of thousands of educators—ranging from primary school teachers to college professors—about what really works to help students retain new knowledge.
Having combined this primary research with decades of studies from various academic journals and learning sciences publications, we are now proud to offer you our in-depth guide on how to optimize your own students’ performance.
This advice will not only set them up for success in life beyond school or college, but will also make you look pretty darn good as an educator. Let’s get started!
- Improving knowledge retention with consistent student motivation
- Improving focus and concentration with consistent student engagement
- Improve engagement by making and using flashcards
- A new teaching approach for better learning
- Thank you to our educators
1. Improving knowledge retention with consistent student motivation
Students, particularly the younger ones, can struggle to see the long-term outcomes of learning. To them, school is something they have to do because their parents said so. So, right from the start, teachers’ jobs become complicated by the fact that most of the students in their class simply don’t want to be there.
This lack of motivation can translate into a poor concentration and focus, and difficulty remembering what they are being taught.
However, if you motivate your students from the very outset of the lesson, you nurture an environment that actively engages them and improves their knowledge retention and willingness to learn.
An anecdote for your reading pleasure:
In high school, I had a history teacher whose voice could put a chronic insomniac to sleep. Even though he was walking us through the 20th Centuries’ greatest conflicts—the subject of a hundred Oscar-winning films—he showed less enthusiasm than a comatose cat. And because of my boredom and lack of motivation, I barely managed to squeeze out a pass mark of 60%.
In all other subjects, however, I was a straight A student.
My savior came the following year in the form of a new history teacher, who flounced right into that classroom, lighting it up with his enthusiasm. At the beginning of every class, he would pepper us with questions to wake us up and at the end, he would mentally prepare us for the next day’s lesson. He also never spoke for more than a few minutes before handing over the floor to his class for questions and insights. No question was too daft and no opinion too political.
Come year end, I won the History prize for having the highest marks in the entire grade. The difference between 50% and 95%, it turned out, was 100% motivation.
Here’s how you can keep your students motivated:
1.1. Kick off the day with a little motivation
Motivation is a core prerequisite to improve student engagement, attention span and, therefore, knowledge retention. So starting your lesson with some motivation will capture your students’ attention.
Get them excited, pump them up, wax lyrical on their future prospects, and ask them questions. Look at where you’ve come from, the progress you’ve made, and what you’ve got to look forward to on the curriculum and calendar.
Also, reminding your students why they’re studying what they’re studying and how it will one day benefit them can stoke the fires of their passion for a subject. This brings us to the next point...
1.2. Context is everything
It can be incredibly hard to remain motivated to study when you have no idea how you might apply the knowledge you’re being taught in the real world. I can’t tell you how many times high school math drove me to the brink of an existential crisis: why am I learning this? What does it mean? Who am I?
Remind your students why the knowledge you’re teaching them is important or, at the very least, applicable to their lives. Cook up some real world examples of where they might see the knowledge in motion or at work. Make it personal: e.g. why a working knowledge of vectors will improve your billiards game. Or how evolution explains why your little brother is such a neanderthal.
1.3. Keep students focused on their future
Good grades get students noticed by better schools, colleges, and, eventually, employers. Heck, getting good grades can get students scholarships, grants, and all kinds of financial incentives, too! But it can be impossible for students to remember this when they’re up to their eyeballs in facts they need to memorize, equations they don’t understand, and homework that robs them of precious Minecraft time.
This is especially true of subjects they view to be outside of their intended career path. So it’s up to you to remind your students of the impact good grades can have on their future prospects.
1.4. Target the cool kids
As much as it may be appealing to take the popular kids down a notch in the classroom, you can actually leverage their “street cred” to motivate the rest of your class. Social pressure works wonders for student motivation and if you can subtly target the cool kids and get them on board with participating enthusiastically in class, their peers will be likely to follow.
For example, if you’re using Brainscape's flashcard platform, you might nominate one of the cool kids to make the first deck of flashcards, which they can then share with all the other students in your collaborative class sandbox. And since they have social status, the other kids will probably follow suit with enthusiasm.
Even if you and/or your TA make all the flashcards for your students, you can leverage one of Brainscape’s other cool features, the competitive leaderboard, to create some gentle social pressure. These optional lists display, in order of performance, the students who are the most dedicated to learning, as measured by the number of flashcards they’ve studied and their percentage mastery of a subject.
Simply ensure that at least one of the more influential students in the class gets some serious studying done, so they'll be near the top of the leaderboard, and that should improve the motivation of all the other students in the class, per the laws of tribal social behavior.
1.5. Motivate your students through incentives
Human beings are hardwired to find smaller, more immediate rewards more tempting than larger, later rewards. And while dedicating the time and effort to studying has long-term rewards (good grades, college, career, etc.), you as an educator can manipulate your students’ atavistic need for instant gratification by offering “right now” rewards.
- Throw frequent, random spot tests with a reward for whoever gets the highest mark in the class: this will encourage students to stay on top of their course material.
- Offer up a weekly prize for the best performer on Brainscape’s leaderboard and establish a ritual by hosting an “award ceremony” every week.
- Similarly, introduce a group work/team building prize for the group who made the best collaboration—this might be evident in the amount of time, effort, and enthusiasm each student (equally) channeled into their assignment.
- Cook up a bunch of reward categories, which you allocate to the winning students during your class’s weekly “award ceremony”. Think: curious student of the week, diligent student of the week, most insightful question asked, best project award, best test result, etc.
Need some ideas for suitable student rewards? Check out this article on 100 Ways to reward students!
1.6 Give credit where credit is due
This tip may seem pretty intuitive but praising the efforts of students who have done well is a powerful way to improve student engagement. Students who have received positive reinforcement are more likely to be enthusiastic about learning and participating.
For tips on how to select and deliver appropriate and effective reinforcers, check out the University of Minnesota’s article Positive reinforcement in the classroom.
1.7 Avoid the gimmicks and games
"Students use Quizlet for playing word games, but for better learning we're now using Brainscape." – Sandra P., History Teacher
Sure, flashy gimmicks, colorful study games, and tricks like mnemonics can make learning a little more fun than tucking into your textbook. But they can also be distracting and frivolous.
They also don’t exactly encourage your students to get serious about learning. And, believe it or not, but there are many students who—even in a class full of rambunctious, hormonal teenagers—are serious about learning.
What about those who are less focused on the long-term gains of hard work?
Try rather to focus your efforts on intrinsically motivating them and helping them overcome any confidence or self-esteem issues they might have. You just never know what’s going on behind the scenes: some students don’t get any real support at home.
You could be the first person to convince them of their worth and abilities—and this could significantly change their outlook on life.
2. Improve focus and concentration with consistent student engagement
Typically, teachers have relied on two drivers to improve children's focus and concentration: (1) their students’ natural interest in the subject (which you can try to stoke) and (2) being a likeable, even funny teacher. Both of these variables, however, can’t always be controlled and certainly won’t guarantee the engagement of all your students.
Yet, students who are engaged do concentrate and focus better in class. They also tend to apply themselves better to their assignments and exams, which translates into higher grades. So encouraging student engagement is important.
Here are four ways you can do that …
2.1. Prime your students’ brains for learning
Introducing students to concepts for the first time in the classroom or lecture hall is an ineffective use of valuable teaching time. It’s like starting an engine and trying to get it to run smoothly when it’s cold.
Rather, send students home with a bit of reading to do in order to prepare for the next class so that:
- They have the opportunity to develop a basic surface understanding of the material.
- Their brains will be primed for learning.
- You can focus class time on advancing and solidifying their understanding, rather than teaching it to them from scratch.
They’ll also probably have questions for you, which encourages engagement and, therefore, knowledge retention. A student is far more likely to remember cell division, for example, if they ask about it in class than if they sit idly staring at you while you drone on.
So, get your students into the habit of priming their brains for class. It will soon become the way things are done and won’t require any enforcement. This is particularly true if, through improved engagement, your students find themselves enjoying your class and wanting to participate!
2.2. Improve student retention with consistent testing
Rather than staging a handful of major tests every semester—which students usually cram for the night before—it's better to test far more often, even weekly. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that educators should (1) test often, (2) test cumulatively, (3) test in small doses, and (4) test randomly.
This way, students are compelled to review their course material far more frequently.
This repeated exposure to the same information (called spaced repetition) is one of the most effective methods for learning and remembering. Spaced repetition is so effective, in fact, that Brainscape has built it into the algorithm that powers our web and mobile learning platform.
"The learning algorithm may be even smarter than Anki's—and it's much more fun and easy to use." – Alexis R., Biology Professor
Here’s how it works and how you as an educator can use Brainscape in your classroom to improve knowledge retention:
When studying a deck of Brainscape’s flashcards, students are required to self-assess how well they knew the answer to each card on a confidence scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (perfectly). The algorithm then shuffles the deck of flashcards so that the cards they were least confident in come up more frequently.
This repeats students’ exposure to the same information, helping them learn it quickly and retain the information better. It also saves time by not showing them the flashcards they already know well.
If you’re going to be quizzing students frequently as a way to keep them engaged and on top of their studies, you can keep them perpetually ready by introducing Brainscape as a study tool. You could do this by assigning weekly goals for the number of flashcards made, studied, or reviewed and/or the percentage mastery of a topic.
To keep track of everyone’s participation and progress, simply log in to Brainscape’s teacher dashboard where you can enjoy the God-like sensation of omniscience.
2.3. Encourage students to ask more questions
One of the hallmarks of a successful career is the ability to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions leads doctors to the right diagnoses and it can help interior designers curate award-winning spaces. In fact, asking the right questions can get you noticed, respected, trusted, and promoted in any and every career path and industry. They are a surefire way to improve student engagement.
And yet, students are sculpted in environments in which they are exclusively taught to answer questions. Some teachers even shame students for asking what they perceive to be “obvious” or “stupid questions”. Moreover, smart questions can make students the object of ridicule by their peers, who resent their intelligence. Kids can be such a**holes.
Considering how important it is as a life skill to ask the right questions—and the deep, critical thinking it inspires—educators should really encourage it more. So here are some tips on how you can curate a more inquisitive classroom:
Tip 1: A zero tolerance environment for shame
No shaming of students’ questions will be tolerated (that goes for teachers too). The only stupid question is the unasked question.
Tip 2: Acknowledge, value, and praise students’ efforts
Acknowledge smart questions and praise students for being insightful, diligent, and brave enough to ask them. If you’re especially impressed, call them over after class and tell them so. A little validation goes a long way.
Tip 3: Make asking questions an actual assignment
The day before each lesson, show students a high-level outline of the upcoming chapter and ask them what questions they would ask in order to flesh it out with more detail. You could also ask that they read the chapter ahead of your lesson and jot down a few of their own questions, which they can ask in class the following day.
Tip 4: Invite an imaginary guest speaker to your classroom
Here’s a fun game you can play: pretend that you will be hosting a famous guest speaker (real or imaginary, alive or dead...doesn’t matter). Your students’ assignment is to come up with an insightful question they’d like to ask that person. This will require them to do a little research into the subject, thereby priming them for participation and learning.
2.4. Allow your students to give a lecture
Okay, so this one is ambitious. But if you pull it off you can pretty much guarantee that the students delivering the lecture—and the ones listening—are going to remember the course material far better than if it were coming from you. No offense ... it just shakes things up a bit.
Assign a group of students a chapter to teach and leave it up to them to put together the presentation, whether it’s a slideshow, lecture notes, or even a deck of Brainscape flashcards. You can always fill in the gaps or assist with questions by chiming in.
This is something you can do in the weeks before an exam as a way to review each chapter. So it’s not like you’re assigning your students material they’ve never seen before.
Remember, it is often said that the best way to solidify your learning is to teach it, so give students the opportunity to do this!
3. Improve student engagement by making and using flashcards
Flashcards are an incredibly effective technique for learning new material, particularly for knowledge-intensive subjects like biology, history, medicine, science, and even language vocab. This is as true for Grade 1 children as it is for law graduates preparing for the bar exam (so, no, flashcards are not a trivial learning method for kids). If anything, the benefits of studying flashcards tend to show up most potently in high-stakes subjects for more mature learners.
Making and using flashcards in your class is a great way to:
- Get learners actively involved in breaking course material down into its atomic constituent parts.
- Keep students current with the material rather than falling behind, only to cram and catch up the days before a test or exam.
- Engage students through collaboration with classmates (making flashcards can be a fun, team activity).
You can achieve all of this most conveniently and efficiently with Brainscape, which also allows you to monitor each student’s progress and their strengths and weaknesses.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Before we show you how you and your students can make flashcards on Brainscape, let’s tell you a little bit about why our platform is such a useful learning tool for educators.
3.1 How Brainscape works to double knowledge retention
"Without much effort, my colleague introduced Brainscape during this Bio lesson, and before long the students were deeply engaged in learning." – Ryan de Roo, Life Sciences Teacher
Brainscape leverages decades of cognitive science research in the design and delivery of its engaging flashcard learning platform. We’ve already discussed how it uses spaced repetition to help students learn new information in half the time. Another two fundamental concepts we have integrated into our learning platform are active recall and metacognition.
The first, active recall, is the ability to remember a concept from scratch without assistance or prompting. We do this by showing students flashcards with only a question on them. They are then compelled to remember the answer without any hints or multiple choice questions guiding them towards an answer. This deepens the cognitive pathways to that information.
The second, metacognition, is essentially the self-reflection one does upon one’s knowledge; in other words, "thinking about your thinking". Metacognition is engaged when students self-assess their confidence in their answers to a flashcard, asking themselves not only “what is the answer?” but also: “how well did I know the answer?”. Using metacognition builds additional neural pathways connecting to the new information, which enhances learning and remembering.
Together, spaced repetition, active recall, and metacognition deepen a student’s learning experience, double their knowledge retention and make learning more efficient. This is why they comprise the foundational principles of Brainscape’s flashcard learning platform.
If you want to steep in the unbridled nerdiness of our research, you can read more about the how Brainscape is built with brain science that helps you learn faster.
3.2 How educators can use Brainscape for their students
Now that you’re a little familiar with why Brainscape works so effectively, let’s look at how teachers can actually use it in their classrooms.
There are three main ways that teachers use Brainscape with their students:
- Finding ready-made flashcards created by other users.
- Making flashcards for your students.
- Having your students collaborate to create the flashcards.
All of this is packed into a web and mobile learning app so students can use any device to do their work anywhere: in class, at home, on the bus, at the library ... you name it.
Setting up a class on Brainscape is super easy:
- Simply create a class and name it, e.g. Chemistry 101.
- Within that class, create decks of flashcards, with each deck focusing on a particular topic, e.g. Atomic structure, organic chemistry, and acids, bases, and PH.
- Once your card decks are set up, populate them with question-and-answer flashcards. These you can create yourself or assign to your students to make, which is a fun, interactive, and collaborative assignment for them.
- You can also find decks created by other users, on Brainscape's flashcards marketplace, and copy/paste them into your own class.
Assignment ideas using Brainscape
Remember how we said that it’s important for your students to develop a surface-level understanding of the course material before you teach it? Brainscape is the perfect way to do that!
Break your class into groups and assign them a section of the work to make flashcards for. This creates a "crowdsourced" cumulative study guide throughout the semester, which will be ready to assist students in preparing for the final exam.
You can also task students with reviewing those slowly growing decks of flashcards for just 10 to 20 minutes per day, as a way to revise the work already covered. Remember, you can track students' study habits on Brainscape’s teacher dashboard so you’ll know who’s put in the time and who hasn’t.
Done this way, by the time the final exams roll around, hardly anyone has to study because the knowledge is so ingrained.
If you prefer a more hands-off approach, you can simply create a class in Brainscape, populate it with decks of flashcards and ask students to work through it in increments throughout the semester. This is a far more effective tool for refreshing and solidifying knowledge than time-consuming homework assignments and test prep.
"Brainscape helped my students learn the wines and wine regions of the world much quicker, and they loved the process of making their own flashcards, which became a part of the learning process." – Thea B., Wine Educator
4. A new teaching approach: Putting it all together
I doubt very much that my first high school history teacher would have liked to hear that he was boring the heck out of his class. Or that it was his approach to teaching that was dimming our interest in the subject, resulting in grades that were mediocre at best.
But it was and is totally fixable. Minor adjustments to one’s teaching approach can have dramatic, long-term results for students. And so, to sew together every point we’ve covered in this educator’s guide, here is a step-by-step to improving your students’ knowledge retention:
Step 1. Prime students’ attention
Prime your students’ brains for learning by having them review the material you intend to cover in the next lesson. You can do this by developing lesson outlines together, using Brainscape to create flashcards, or asking them to come to class with questions on the material.
Step 2. Have them devour new knowledge
Have your students devour new knowledge, not just by passively reading their textbooks or listening to you speak in class, but by deliberately asking questions fueled by the mental appetite they developed in step #1.
Step 3. Engage active recall
Get your students to use a web and mobile platform like Brainscape to transform their knowledge into flashcards. This requires deeper retrieval practice than just static recognition. They can even collaborate with each other to make flashcards, which is far more fun and engaging than listening to lectures.
Step 4. Study with spaced repetition
Brainscape’s application of active recall and self-assessment helps support a style of spaced repetition that will zone in on your students’ weaknesses, generating an automated, personalized study stream. You can assign learning goals to your students through our intelligent platform and monitor their progress from the teacher’s dashboard.
Step 5. Teach a daily habit
Incremental studying gives your students’ brains time to consolidate the information and can effectively slash their net study time in half. By exam time, the only work they’ll need to do is a few hours of review, which is so much better than cramming.
If you find this step-by-step useful, check out Brainscape’s "Make it Stick" poster below—you can even print it out and hang it up in your class as a daily reminder. (Maybe first right-click and open image in a new browser tab to get the big version.)
5. In conclusion—Thank you to our educators
To educators, it can be incredibly disappointing when students bomb their finals or return the following year remembering so little of what they were taught the previous year. Every failure feels personal—like it’s somehow our fault that the student wasn’t adequately prepared.
The bottom line is that learning is hard, particularly for younger students or students who come from homes without much support. As educators, however, there are ways we can work with the hardwiring of our students’ brains to:
- Deliver new knowledge in a way that is more memorable than traditional methods.
- Help them engage and collaborate in their education, and enjoy learning.
- Double knowledge retention, spending half the amount of time studying.
There are a spectrum of ways to achieve these noble goals, which we’ve discussed in this guide. But before we sign off, we would like to say one final thing...
Thank you for your indispensable (and tragically, at times, thankless) role in molding students into ambitious, creative, smart, and successful people. We here at Brainscape give you a standing ovation for your tireless efforts and extend our platform to you in the ardent hope that it can make your jobs easier, more efficient, and more impactful!
Brooks, A. W., & John, L. K. (2018). The surprising power of questions. Harvard Business Review, 96(3), 60-67.
Hattie, J. (2015) What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction. Pearson.
Odum, A. L. (2011). Delay discounting: I'm a k, you're a k. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 96(3), 427-439.