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Increasing Student Conceptual Retention

How do we learn?

Not just memorize, but how do we conceptually retain information efficiently and still be prepared for testing?

We believe that the more focused we can be on problem-solving, the more impactful education will become.

Of course, everyone learns differently (with at least 7 different learning styles), and there is research assessing the most effective pedagogical structures for information retention, such as the National Training Laboratorie’s famous Learning Pyramid.

After working with thousands of educators and students across the globe, we have learned three main actionable takeaways to increase engagement and retention, which can be applied across all teaching methods.

3 Simple Principles to Apply Starting Tomorrow to Classroom Instruction


Emotion is one of the biggest factors influencing memory. That’s why many of us can remember exactly where we were when the World Trade Centers tragically fell 18 years ago, but we can’t remember what we had for breakfast two days ago.

In researching this concept, individuals were shown a series of words and asked to recall them later. Words considered as culturally taboo - which elicit more of an emotional response - were more highly recalled than non-controversial words. You can read more about this research, and more like it, HERE.   

Knowing this begs the question - what emotions does the current standard of education evoke in students?

Action Step: Emotion + Problem Solving

Add in a story to your next lesson that invites the students into the emotions of the situation, then challenges them to solve a problem to resolve the emotional unrest.


Related to the importance of emotion, experiences which are unique - that break our guessing patterns - are much more memorable than routines. The same example of a national tragedy vs a daily event applies.

If you are trained your whole life that school is where you go into class, sit down and listen to a lecture, complete homework and take tests, how predictable - and, hence - how unmemorable, are our lectures which we put so much work into? This applies to staff meetings, PD days, and any other routine.

In an effort to preserve mental capacity the brain automates as much of life as possible, this is called your executive function, and it’s how you can drive home from work while thinking about your day and all of a sudden end of up in your driveway with no recollection of making the turns and stopping at the lights on your way home (there’s an interesting TED Talk on executive function HERE).

Action Step: Unexpected + Problem Solving

You don’t have to change your entire teaching style to remain unexpected. Simply changing the environment, such as having students sit in new seats or changing the order of regular class activities, can help break the mental routine of school. To add in problem-solving, challenge students to come up with different classroom layouts.

Building on environment changes, you can begin integrating different teaching methods from The Learning Pyramid shown above.


Studies have found that students conceptually understand concepts better when they aren’t given a lecture before being asked to solve problems relating to those concepts (you can learn more about this research HERE).

In other words, it’s more impactful to give students problems to solve and let them figure out the solution than it is to give students a solution and then let them find a problem to apply it to on their own time.

This ties together the previous two principles discussed, creating experiences that are unexpected and emotional. When students have to problem solve without a clear process there is initial frustration (or excitement, depending on your school’s culture), then excitement as discoveries are made in the process of solving the problem, and fulfillment when the answer is achieved. The brain is engaged in an unexpected activity because there is no foundation of knowledge to recall and apply automatically, and retention is increased as a result.

Action Step: Uncertainty + Problem Solving

For your next lesson plan, provide the homework and let students work through it together in class, with only 3 lifelines available as a class to ask for help. Let them use online resources and collaborate with their peers, as they will in the real world, and set the context of the assignment in an emotional story with a problem worth solving as the goal.


To make education memorable - we must engage students’ emotions, break their guessing patterns, and let them work through uncertainty to solve problems.

Galileo encapsulated this whole concept best when he said,

You can’t teach a man anything, you can only help him learn something for himself.


To learn more about how we can help build your school’s culture into a place where students are engaged and excited to solve problems, reach out HERE.


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