25 Ways to Create A Sticky Lesson

June 21st, 2014 No Comments Features

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How do we create learning that lasts? It’s a hard question to answer, and in some cases an even harder reality to achieve, particularly with the pressure of exams and performance scores hanging over our heads.

But it’s an issue that needs serious attention. In general, students capture only 20-40 percent of a lecture’s main ideas in their notes. Without reviewing the lecture material, students remember less than 10 percent after three weeks.

So how can we guarantee that students learn and remember what we teach? How do we create and deliver lectures that stay with students long past the last few minutes of class? Fortunately, we have a wealth of research to point us in the right direction.

The Way Learning Works

Cognitive science describes three phases of the learning process.

First, we decide what to attend to. We cannot notice everything that is going on in our environment, so we orient our attention selectively. Second, we organize what we observe into a coherent mental pattern or structure. These first two phases of learning create a short-term memory for new information. To fully “own” new information in long-term memory, we need to rehearse the new information and connect it to existing frameworks of knowledge. This gives new information meaning beyond the particular learning occasion, and makes it easier to retrieve.

This final phase of learning begins in the classroom, with review and application, and continues out of the classroom through well-crafted assignments.

How can you use this information in your lecture? James R. Davis, professor of higher education and adult learning at the University of Denver, describes a simple approach to maximizing the first two stages of learning: “Get the students’ attention, tell the students what to pay attention to, and don’t overload the system.” These three strategies can help us all communicate material more effectively. [Learn more about learning strategies here.]

Capturing Students’ Attention


Research from the Center of Teaching and Learning at Stanford has identified instructor expressiveness as one of the most basic and direct ways to attract and keep students’ interest. This includes the use of vocal variation, facial expression, movement, and gesture.

“Students are more likely to pay attention to instructors who exhibit expressive behaviors, because expressive instructors are more interesting to attend to and easier to understand,” the researchers write. “For this reason, expressiveness enhances communication and facilitates student comprehension.”

Students also tend to interpret an instructor’s expressiveness as enthusiasm for the subject, and enthusiasm in the classroom is contagious. Expressive behaviors intrigue students and encourage them to actively consider the lecture material. For these reasons, expressive behaviors lead to higher levels of student achievement and satisfaction.

The famous “Dr. Fox” experiments, first conducted by Ware and Williams in the mid-seventies, illustrate the effects of instructor expressiveness. The experiments used six videotaped lectures, all given by a professional actor assuming the persona of “Dr. Fox.” The topic of each lecture was biochemistry, but the amount of information in each lecture varied (low, medium, or high). In addition, lectures were presented with either a low or high level of “seductiveness.” “High seductiveness” was defined in terms of expressive behavior: the use of movement, gesture, vocal emphasis, humor, and charisma. “Low seductiveness” was characterized by a flat, matter-of-fact style.

Students who watched the highly expressive lectures performed better on a multiple-choice recall test than students who watched the less expressive lectures. This suggests that expressiveness enhances students’ memory for lecture content.

Expressiveness can be learned through training and practice. It can also be enhanced by the instructor’s own engagement with the material. Even though the material is familiar to you, you can rediscover its importance and appeal each time you share it with new students.

Creating a Framework

Even when students pay attention, they may fail to attend to the most important material in a lecture. Think of how much new content you share with students in just one lecture. Students need to absorb, record, and understand the steady flow of auditory and visual information. To do so, students must listen, view, think, and write, all at once.

University of New South Wales Professor Eric R. Sowey says there are two main things that make material stick: structure and worthwhileness.

“From conversations on education I have had over the past 20 years with former students,” he says, “two points have crystallised. What remains with them, when the facts they have learned have largely been forgotten, is a sense of the structure of the subject and a sense of the worthwhileness of the subject.”

Structural coherence in a lesson can make the difference between engagement and detachedness. You want all the parts of your lesson to inform each other and come together into a unified concept. Part of this requires “unifying seemingly diverse topics by showing underlying similarities.”

Worthwhileness includes intellectual stimulation caused by passion for the subject or interesting presentation. Demonstrating the practical usefulness of the subject can also make it worthwhile.

In addition, the Stanford research team recommends providing students with a framework for each lecture, so that they can quickly and accurately identify and understand the core ideas in your lecture. One way to do this is to prepare a study guide for your course that describes each lecture’s objectives, key concepts, and questions to consider.

Making It Stick


Once we have students’ attention, we need to consider how quickly students can process information. Short-term memory requires time to process the sensory input we receive; students are not sponges and cannot immediately “absorb” new information.

Information becomes solidified in long-term memory when we have opportunities to retrieve, review, and reflect on that information. As an instructor, you have two main opportunities to make sure this happens: 1) Give students time, during lecture, to review and apply ideas. 2) Give students assignments that encourage them to review their lecture notes and use the lecture content.

We can increase students’ learning by offering them the opportunity to review each lecture in a meaningful and timely way. It is not enough to hope that students will review their notes; create assignments that encourage or require it. For example, ask students to create a matrix, flow chart, table, or concept map based on the information presented in lecture. Give students a problem that can only be solved using lecture material. Have students prepare a debate, a student panel, or a position paper on a subject related to lecture content.

If an online discussion forum is part of the course, ask students to respond to questions related to the most recent lecture. By reviewing, interpreting, and applying lecture material, students are more likely to build lasting memories and develop higher-level thinking skills.

With these parameters in mind, here are 25 ways to make your lessons more memorable and help learning last:

1. Begin lectures with a high-level question that the upcoming information can answer.

This encourages students to interpret and organize lecture content according to an important and useful conceptual framework. In one study, students who took notes trying to answer conceptual questions performed better on a recall test than students who took traditional notes that simply recorded information.

2. Aim for coherence.

3. Illustrate the scope of the subject.

4. Demonstrate your own enthusiasm.

Read more about how your emotions affect your student’s learning.

5. Allow for independent discovery.

6. Emphasize the subject’s practical use.

7. Pause for perspective.

Stepping back and letting students absorb the bigger picture helps them chart their progress through the syllabus, promotes understanding of the coherence of the subject, and makes clear what parts of the area under study are not currently being treated in detail. In other words, it lets students know what it is that they don’t yet know.

8. Highlight the “unfinished” nature of each subject.

“Students [should] see the discipline as one of central importance, but one in which not everything is yet settled,” says Sowey. “Intriguing questions that are still largely unanswered should certainly be raised when the moment is apt, whether or not a solution is being offered.”

9. Use surprising but relevant examples.

10. Challenge students to resolve a paradox.

11. Lead students to make unexpected discoveries.

12. Prepare a handout of the lecture’s main points.

A handout with the lecture’s major points will prepare students to listen and look for the central elements of the lecture. Skeletal lecture handouts, with room for students’ notes, can also help students organize what they hear and see, and may be more effective than providing students with your full lecture notes.

13. Aim for three to five main points in each lecture.

As you prepare your lecture outlines, aim for three to five main points in each lecture, with clear links between each lecture topic and your main points.

14. During lecture, be explicit about what students should focus on.

During lecture, be as explicit as possible about what students should focus on. Clearly introduce key concepts and definitions. Identify important themes as a way for students to sort through the content of the lecture. Use verbal and visual cues to highlight major points, categories, and steps of an argument. You can also direct students’ attention to the most important points by asking them to review or explain those points during class.

15. Give students short breaks throughout lecture to review their notes and ask questions.

A short break that includes students’ questions can also give the lecturer an opportunity to assess student understanding and adjust the remaining part of the lecture if needed.

16. Don’t use too many different types of presentation materials at once.

Think of a scenario where students are presented with an illustration that also includes a written explanation. Students may be unable to process the information quickly, because looking at the illustration and reading the text both place demands on the same sensory channel (vision). Psychologists have found that replacing the written explanation with an auditory narrative, which uses another sensory channel, is more effective.

17. Don’t give students conflicting things to attend to.

Another common way to overload attention is to give students two conflicting things to attend to at the same time (say, a transparency on the overhead and a verbal narrative that does not directly relate to the overhead). Students must figure out which sensory channel provides the essential information, and they may not always guess correctly. You can avoid cognitive overload by maintaining a reasonable pace in your presentation and by carefully coordinating your verbal instruction with any other media.

18. Use examples from student life, current events, or popular culture.

Students are also more likely to remember information that relates to ideas or experiences they are already familiar with. You can capitalize on this phenomenon by using examples from student life, current events, or popular culture.

19. Discuss how new information relates to previous lectures in your course.

Whenever possible, tell students how new information relates to previous lectures in your course. Show students how specific skills can be applied to real-world problems. Create class activities or assignments that ask students to fit new information into the overall themes of the course. For example, have students compare two ideas, synthesize competing perspectives, or discuss the evolution of one theory to another. All of these techniques will make it more likely that students will remember the information from lecture, because students will integrate the material into already existing knowledge structures and experiences.

20. Show students how specific skills can be applied to real-world problems.

21. Create activities and assignments that ask students to fit new information into the overall themes of the course.

22. Ask students to lead the learning.

23. Change the learning environment.

24. Incorporate a game-based element.

25. Include “closure activities.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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