Repetition Over Time is Key

Repetition Over Time is Key.

My mechanic recently fired his twenty-something son/apprentice for his indolent ways. “I can tell him how to do something eight times, and he still can’t remember how to do it!” he said.  Recalling the notion that until the frontal lobe is mature (at about age 25), a learner needs at least a dozen exposures to a piece of information to retain it, I felt he should give his son at least “four more tries” at what he wanted him to learn.

Is 12 a magic number for memory retention? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that repetition is often cited as a counter measure for something the brain does to dendritic pathways called neural pruning. Apparently, if the brain identifies specific dendrites as unimportant or rarely used, they will eventually be put down the cerebral disposal, so to speak, never to be remembered again. On the other hand, repeated use of the pathways over time will allow them to remain intact, and flourish even, through a process known as myelination.

I believe, however, that I see neural pruning happen all the time. An all too familiar example: I will have just yesterday imparted some great truth to a high school student who, now, not only does not remember what it was but does not remember that we even spoke yesterday.

The compounding problem with this developmental phenomenon is not only that what we teach our students might not be retained, but what their teachers before us taught them might not have been retained either. I think we cannot assume differently. It never ceases to amaze me, for example, how there are otherwise good Algebra students who struggle because they do not know their multiplication facts. It is as though once they learned the table they didn’t foresee ever needing the information again. Then “snip, snip” and it was gone!

If repetition over time combats the pruning process, what then are some simple exercises that will reinforce this physiological aspect of learning? Perhaps, an ongoing/daily warm up with math facts would be a good way for students to start Algebra class. When it comes to second language, I know from experience that regular study with flashcards will help counter the “I had two years of it but don’t remember any of it” syndrome. In fact, there is research that says flashcards are a highly effective way to learn most anything. But again, it is through repetition that we are able to strengthen neural pathways rather than lose them.

Retelling or restating can be an effective variation on repetition strategies. One might begin by announcing, “After I say what I am about to say, I’ll call on one/some of you to tell us what was said.” Next, when a manageable amount of information has been presented, elicit an accurate restatement of it from one or more students. Then, have all students retell the info to a partner. Finally, follow up by fielding questions from students who need more clarification, and/or correct any inaccuracies that might have emerged during partnered discussion.

At present, I have elementary ELL students who can talk about story sequences (setting, characters, plot, resolution/climax, conclusion), specifically because we frequently go through those elements. We also repeatedly use simple terminology (i.e., when, where, who, what, and how)–not to mention that we choose literature that is interesting and/or enjoyable. But, did I say that we go through the story sequence elements often? Repetition over time is key.

One final thought: While there are many strategies involving repetition, the amount of information that students are expected to retain during a given lesson should be reasonable. It is far better if they are able to recall and use three concepts, or seven points, or ten new vocabulary words than to forget the 150 things we wanted them to know all at once. Remember – repetition over time.


Postscript Humor: