It is one thing to learn a concept, but it is another thing to remember it.
A couple things can aid our memories. For example, try this pop quiz by filling in the blank: “Two all-beef patties, _______ ______, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun.”
Chances are if you are more than forty years old, you know the answer: the missing words are “special sauce.”
What?! Did you say special sauce?
In 1974, McDonald’s launched a media campaign to promote its signature product, the Big Mac. It did so with a jingle that was catchy and that was on television a lot—so often, in fact, that forty years later, some of us can still recite it as easily as we recite the “ABC” song we learned in grade school.
This silly special sauce example illustrates two important points that we can apply in our teaching strategies. First, there is repetition — a lot of repetition. The ads ran over and over . . . and over . . . again. Advertisers understand the principle “repeat the message often.”
In academics, “repeat the message often” is especially appropriate for the big-picture concepts. We call these concepts “power standards” — knowledge that students must be able to remember long after finishing a chapter, ending a semester, or completing a course.
For instance, as a former math teacher, I would consider one of the power standards of algebra to be solving quadratic equations. Following the special sauce example, students would need to solve quadratics repeatedly — perhaps once a week or in keeping with some other systematic plan. “Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process,” writes Robert F. Bruner of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
The second important point is the jingle itself. Music is a great way to remember things. Think of the alphabet song: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G [pause], H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P [pause]. . . .” It seems corny, but a jingle is a great memory aid: it mixes the multiple modalities of rhythm, pitch, and colorful language.
We have other, similar aids. For instance, what we “hear” and “say” helps us remember.
I used this technique when I studied for a cumulative examination — my “written comps” — while attending Michigan State University. I had a three-hour commute to campus (each way) that I traveled once a week in the fall of 1993. To prepare for the exam, I wrote concepts in large lettering on oversized note cards, and I read these aloud in the car. Hearing my voice speak the words helped me retain the information.
“Our aim should be to move away from the traditional practices of teaching with one modality (typically linguistic) for all students in a lesson,” states Phil Wilder. Wilder advocates the use of such cooperative learning strategies as “think–pair-share” to provide students a chance to summarize their learning. Other strategies use other modalities, and we are only limited by our own imagination as we apply this second “special sauce” insight.
Good teaching means using repetition and multiple modalities to help students remember information. Remembering the information spells success when students come to apply that information as their course work advances.
Who knows? Maybe in forty years, the power standards we’re teaching today will be remembered as easily as the Big Mac’s special sauce is remembered now.