Student Asks, “Where’s the Research on The Retention-Time Curve?”

Last month I presented to my School Culture class a Retention-Time curve chart from David Sousa’s How the Brain Learns. The chart indicates student retention in a classic learning episode peaks at the start and after maintaining peak retention for 10-20 minutes, falls to a low-level before rising to a second, though lesser peak to close out the time period. I explained to the students how they could use such information to structure their lessons, particularly for presenting new material via direct instruction while retention levels are high. When retention levels drop, they could shift to an activity, break, or some other event that would “recharge” students’ working memories. The lesson could end with additional direct instruction followed by closure. One student thoughtfully asked, “How do we know that’s really true? Is there research on the topic?” What a great question! I love it when students question the material, asking for evidence (sounds like Evidence Based Answers via Common Core Literacy Standards Instructional Shifts).

I promised to find specific research to support the retention-time curve for next class, and through Feinberg Library‘s search engines came across a good number of articles supporting Sousa’s Retention-Time curve. My favorite was a study by Young, Robinson and Alberts on the vigilance decrement in which the authors explored whether the same decrease in attentiveness over time exhibited in the field of ergonomics occurred in traditional college classroom lectures. In other words, would passive learning episodes find students losing focus (vigilance) in their task for learning over time? From their conclusion:

“The results of this study suggest that student concentration decays in the same way during a passive lecture as does that of a human operator monitoring automated equipment, with serious implications for learning and performance. The recommendations in terms of maintaining attention and concentration are also analogous – instead of interspersing periods of manual control (Parasuraman et al., 1996), short breaks or novel activities may temporarily restore attention to normal levels.”  (p. 52)

We discussed the work of Young, Robinson, and Alberts the following class, and I reiterated the value of questioning strategies, statements, etc. We live in a fast-paced, information overloaded world, and it’s too easy in our schools to comply with decisions and simply adopt what others are doing without much thought. I remember one school’s math program that was so heavily scripted the teachers said you could teach the series with your eyes closed. Well, that in my mind is a serious issue. How can you ensure instructional shifts are being implemented, or that content best reflects the needs of students when following a script created by someone who doesn’t know you, your students, your school, or your community? When we stop questioning what we’re doing and simply follow procedure, we’ve taken away our creativity, intelligence, and ability to teach for rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Back to my research, I was pleased to find good support for the time-retention curve I have been touting in my classes and work since I first came across the concept in David Sousa’s book ten years ago. For my students, I hope they found value in questioning others, particularly when it comes to the important work of student learning. After all, if we are going to grow the instructional leadership within our schools, we must be willing to ask hard questions and assess, analyze, and act. We can’t afford to do anything less for our students.
Young, M.S., Robinson, S., and Alberts, P. (2009). Students pay attention!:    Combating the vigilance decrement to improve learning during lectures. Active Learning in Higher Education, Volume 10 (1), pp. 41-55.



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