Improving Learner Recall: Six Interlinked Elements

While memory has been a topic of research and speculation for centuries, good educators have long known — from experience — how to improve recall. It is relatively easy to think about the material being presented, to analyse it, and to comprehend it. It is more difficult to recall it, and it is even more difficult to make the recall last months or years.

Essentially, this is the difference between short-term, “medium-term,” and long-term memory. In this writer’s experience as an instructor, there are six elements that enable a learner to get to a “fully internalised” stage — where it is difficult for him/her to actually forget a chunk of self-contained material:

  • Interest
  • Importance/Relevance
  • Connections with material presented earlier
  • Connection with what the learner knows
  • Context within the presented material
  • Context in the real world 

Interest: Along with Importance, this is probably the most important factor. If there is no inherent interest in the topic from the learner’s side, and if the material must be imbibed for some reason, interest needs to be artificially generated.

This could perhaps be achieved by means of humour, or an infographic. More easily, Interest and Importance (or Relevance) are tightly interlinked. If I am interested in the latest technology, then technology is more likely to be important to me. Conversely, if the health of my pet is important to me, I am more likely to be interested in it. In life, we tend to separate the two — but to the brain, interest and importance translate equally to engagement. 

As an example, suppose the presented topic is “How the liver works,” and that your learner has no particular reason to be interested in it. (This might be the case in a physiotherapy course, where a section on “internal organs” must be completed before material directly relating to physiotherapy is presented.) Interest can be generated by stressing the role that the liver plays within the body, and, by giving a real-life context (here, a physiotherapeutic context) to the role of the liver.

As an instructor, I have addressed blank stares from students by frankly asking, “Are you wondering why this is important?” This has usually been answered by “Yes, why are we looking at this topic/lesson/concept?” The task then is to make the connection between the current topic and a topic of interest

Importance / Relevance: We’re increasingly seeing — in PowerPoint slides and white papers — sections that start with “Why Is This Important?” Traditionally, it is assumed that the reader/learner knows (or can infer) the importance of any chunk of material. From experience, most of us know that this is not the case:

As we read a commentary on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the author branches off into an account of Whitman’s visit to his brother. All the while, we are thinking at the back of our heads: “Why is this important here?” 

As another real-life example, why do we remember the names of rivers of the world? Because we needed to remember them in school. It was important.

Importance, or relevance, establishes context at a deep level. Recall is greatly increased if it is made clear to the learner why he/she is learning something. 

At the lesson or module level, this is partially achieved by Learning Objectives. The idea applies, however, down to the page or even paragraph level.

Connections with material presented earlier: Whether in a classroom, in an e-learning course, or in a one-to-one interaction, recall and comprehension increase when the instructor makes an explicit logical connection to some element that appeared earlier in the course or discussion. This is perhaps best illustrated by a negative example — that of disconnected paragraphs. Paragraphs from chapter 23 of Louisiana Purchase, at usgennet.org, illustrate this:

“The military history opened by Lewis and Clark … that formerly dotted the entire West. 

The English soldier has received … opened a wagon road to California.

The Utah expedition of 1857 … the mettle of the American soldier. 

The Indian wars … effect of breech-loading rifles.

In 1868 General G. A. Forsyth … active service of the soldier in the West.” 

No paragraph is connected to the one preceding it. What results is a difficult read — only for the reason that the reader must constantly attempt to provide his own context. When paragraphs, concepts, and lessons, are linked logically, each provides a base which the next builds upon.

Essentially, it is easier to recall a structure than to recall many individual elements. 

Connections to what the learner knows: This might not always be possible to provide. If a chunk of material can be linked to something else the learner knows, what results is a structure — quite like what results when the material is linked internally (as in #3 above). For example, in explaining the physics concepts of work, power and energy, you would use examples relating to...

  • A workout session, if your learners are sportspeople
  • A lawn mower, for a general audience
  • Cash flow, if your learners are employed at a bank 

Context within the presented material: This is different from giving a real-world context to the material. For example, when presenting material on the role of the liver, one could begin with: “This section is about the role that the liver plays in the body. In section 3, we discussed the hollow organs (stomach and colon). The liver is a solid organ; the other solid organs (heart and kidney) will be discussed in the next two sections.” This bit of an introduction, which adds no significant information, creates a foundation for recall.

This is the premise of introductory paragraphs in textbook chapters, section introductions, and so forth. 

Context in the real world: A real-world context is loosely related to the idea of Relevance. When your learner knows how a topic relates to what he/she has seen, learnt, or experienced — or how the topic relates to his/her life — it is much more likely to be recalled. A discussion of the liver and its workings could be peppered with examples of where the liver “kicks in” during a typical day. A presentation on car tyres can be enlivened by stating how a car would work differently if the tyre’s tread, diameter, etc. were different.

The sheer importance of real-world context can be seen from puzzle-type multiple-choice questions: “Ten people are sitting at a table: Asha, Bianca, Carl, …” A question like this is rarely worded as “Ten people are sitting at a table: A, B, C... through J.” Simply giving real-life names aids in recall.