By Janet Corral, PhD
Often students come to a learning session right off the
heels of a previous one. It’s important to use the early minutes of a learning
session to help learners both transition into and engage in the session ahead.
Doing so not only refocuses their attention, but helps you create an
environment to support learners’ retention of key content, while assimilating it
correctly into their conceptualization of the topic ahead.
Here are two quick ways that you can help learners
transition and recall prior learning experiences right at the start of a
learning session, setting them up for success within the session:
1. What did we
learn last time? Ask students to take 2-3 minutes to jot down key points
from the previous session(s) as they relate to your topic. For example:
- A lecture on mitosis might ask students to jot
down key points about cell membranes and organelles, or about DNA replication.
- A small group on acute renal failure might ask
students to quickly recall their knowledge of potassium and sodium regulation
in the kidneys.
This activity is at first about
memory retrieval – what do students remember? Ask them to share their points
with you, then write them on the board (or presentation screen), correcting any
factual inaccuracies. Doing so will reinforce correct factual knowledge. The
second part of this activity is to highlighting correct conceptualization
(i.e., how the factual pieces fit together). After the factual information is
noted, weave the facts together into the concept(s) for this topic. You might
draw a diagram, highlighting how the facts come together to build that diagram;
you might use a short video to illustrate the facts (e.g., about potassium and
sodium regulation in the kidneys).
2. Open with a
reflective question that highlights a key message you want students to learn.
The technique here is to stimulate learners to reflect on a “big message” – one
that they will need to retain, apply and transfer to new situations. Some
- In a microbiology session, asking “There are two
categories of bacteria: gram negative and gram positive. What are the
implications for selecting pharmaceutical agents in patient care?”
- In a respiratory physiology session, asking:
“Oxygen in and carbon dioxide out is a fundamental part of regulating the
acid-base balance in the body. How is this acid-base balance affected if a
patient can’t expire enough carbon dioxide from his lungs?”
- In a small group session on pneumonia: “Patients
with a lung infection and difficulty breathing will generally need what types
Given that the question is asked
at the start of the session, learners’ answers may not be complete or
comprehensive – but you have “primed the pump” in their minds to consider the overarching
principles they will need in future learning and professional practice.
There are several elements from cognitive psychology that
support the recommendations above:
- Primacy effect – whatever is covered first, will
be remembered most strongly. By priming students to recall facts related to a
core message of today’s session at the start, you are covering first what you
want them to remember most.
- Recency effect – whatever has been covered most
recently is easiest to recall. By asking learners to recall and assimilate
material from their recent past learning events, you are reinforcing the recall
of recent knowledge, which will also benefit long-term memory retention.
- Pattern recognition – Our ability to recognize
situations and apply past learning appropriately is based on recognizing key
cues and facts.1 By starting the session with
retrieval and review of key factual information and conceptualization, the
teacher is reinforcing cues and patterns, which supports the success of recall
in future learning situations.
1. Klein GA. Intuition at Work: Why
Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at what You Do: Currency/Doubleday;