Unfortunately, it probably won’t take much to imagine this scene:
You’ve just returned test results, and the sad student voices begin to whine.
“I knew everything when I was studying! When it came time to take the test, my mind went totally blank.”
Whether it’s caused by test anxiety or short-term memory “leakage,” we don’t have time for this. Forgetting essential content hurts students’ long-term flourishing and—not to forget—it wrecks teachers’ sanity and instructional timelines.
In my last post, where I wrote about How Both Students and Teachers Can Use Anchor Charts, I discussed how print-outs of these charts can work as an annotation tool to prompt students’ recall. Specifically, I mentioned how, in doing so, students can practice a study habit called either a “Download” or “Brain Dump.”
Personally, my high schoolers like the more vulgar title because, as they say, we’re crackin’ open our skulls and dumping out everything we’ve learned.
In it’s simplest definition, a Brain Dump is the transfer of information to one’s long-term memory storage where it can easily be retrieved when necessary.
I first learned about this strategy from Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel’s book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. While they don’t refer to a Brain Dump by this name, the researchers explain the process as they discuss “other research-based strategies” within the four larger tips for increasing content retention.
Here’s how I break down the process:
1. Commit to a time frame.
I generally give my students ten minutes to do this in class. You can use more time as your content warrants, but really students should be able to write for at least ten minutes about the essential elements of your unit.
If you are Downloading for your own teacher sanity (i.e. trying to work out your thoughts and hold on to what you know), by God, use as much time as necessary!
We do a Brain Dump when we’re deep into a unit. Students have already learned the majority of the vocabulary or skills, and I’m trying to help them dig their claws in and create some permanence with their learning.
So, quiet all other distractions, and honor this sacred think time.
2. Put pencil to paper.
Once the light turns green, that pencil should be locked in drive.
Students need to be free-flow writing for the entire time frame. Pencil to paper.
At first, this is like opening up the flood gates. All the information they’re holding in short-term memory comes spilling out onto the page. They scramble to write as much as they can before the content escapes them. Most kids start by jotting down big ideas and categories. They toss out all of the vocabulary terms that they know are important.
As time ticks on and the well seems to dry up a little, keep encouraging them to fill their paper. Students will start to refine and clarify what was at-first very messy thinking. These later minutes are where higher level thinking starts to occur, especially if students push to keep writing. At this point, kids aren’t just recalling right-there facts; now they’re starting to apply and analyze their understanding.
3. Push through difficulty.
My goodness! This is painful for some kids! And—my gosh—I want to go over and help some of them out. But don’t do it, friends. If we have anchor charts or word walls, these are all the visual cues your students need to practice this kind of retrieval. Like Brown, et. al state:
“Some difficulties that require more effort and slow down apparent gains…will feel less productive at the time but will more than compensate for that by making the learning stronger, precise, and enduring.”
If I swoop in to “save” a kid from this difficult task, I’m robbing them of the short-term to long-term memory transfer.
Because of our work around character, my students are starting to grasp this concept. When one kid complains that his “brain hurts,” I hear others retort, “That’s your brain growing!”
Character Lab says that encouraging “deliberate practice” is one way to introduce grit into the classroom and help students’ brains grow. They suggest, “Practicing a skill should be hard! Productive practice should focus on weaknesses, feel difficult, be repetitive, and include immediate and informative feedback.”
4. Practice generation, elaboration, and reflection.
To narrow in on some of the specific, research from Make It Stick, the authors suggest having students write to learn using the following strategies:
Generation: expressing the main ideas, rephrasing key ideas in your own words, and creating questions
Like I mentioned, kids do this by pulling out the main concepts of the unit. Here’s a clean-up and typed example of how a kid might start Downloading the causes of the Great Depression. You can see the student begins by dumping big concepts and smaller details out right from the start. What are basics? What can I dig up right now? This student might use the word wall or memory from our economics roleplay to just get the juices flowing before defining the vocabulary in their own words.
Note: Students do not have to brain dump in a webbing format. They can make lists, charts, or any format that helps the individual student sort through their learning.
Elaboration: stretching a concept by embellishing details, connecting facts, showing causation, etc.
Next, the student amps it up by categorizing ideas and grouping together concepts. She might add more details and reasons for certain concepts.
Towards the end of the time frame, the student will fill in specific details. She might list some examples or ask questions that she can’t answer at that time.
Reflection: writing about what and how you’ve learned
After the ten minutes are up, give them time to write or talk what they notice. I ask students to discuss where most of their confidence resides, what gaps they notice in their learning, and where they might access fix-it-up resources.
5. Check your work.
This step is key to make sure that we are doing “deliberate practice” and actually deepening correct learning. I can do this in a couple ways. 1) Students can revisit their notes individually, 2) Students can “play musical chairs” and review a couple classmates’ Brain Dumps, or 3) Students can work in groups to revise their thinking.
6. Make corrections.
Sometimes, kids like to make their corrections in other colors. I like this strategy because it helps to highlight the changes that they made.
This reminds me of when I was training for a half marathon and went to a Good Form Running clinic. I watched side-by-side video of my form before and after the clinic. I could see just how energy inefficient it is to run with “raptor arms” (it looks ridiculous, too!). This visual cue reminded me, even when I was fatigued on a long run, not fall back to my previous mistakes.
The same reminder should work for students. When it comes to the big performance task/assessment day, they should have a keen awareness of what they know and what adjustments they’ve made to their learning.
Correct content information is secure in long-term memory and able to be retrieved when necessary.
Big thanks to Dave Theune for allowing me to use the above photo of him from our Lake Michigan Writing Project “writing marathon.” Be sure to check out his blog Educational Transformer, book Elevate Empathy: The Power of Kindness and podcast Share Chair. He’s doing incredible things in education, and I’m so fortunate to be his friend and tag along for the ride.
But wait–there’s more!
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