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Teaching Tips

Two Quick Ways to Start Off Lectures or Small Groups for Memory Retention and Conceptualization


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 examples:

  • 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 of interventions?”

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; 2003.