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Classroom based: Activating learning and engaging memory

There are many ways to start a lesson and it is important to remember not one style fits all and there should be variation on classroom "starters" but having a "good" start to a lesson is crucial to the whole lesson. I am going to describe one possible way to start your classroom-based lessons, the reasons behind this method and suggest one way you can use chanting for your pupils to remember key content.

From your own teaching experiences, observing others and reading advice from experienced teachers on social media you will have many great ideas how to start of a lesson and learning in your classroom. Think back to your last 3 classroom based lessons. Did they all start in the same way? Did the beginning of the lesson activate learning or did it allow for coasting?

Creating a "stress" free learning environment for your student is very important. Stress in the classroom has many triggers, for example, stress can be caused by asking a student a question they do not know the answer to, by talking about exam dates along with how much of the course still needs covering or by showing recent quiz scores on the board. Now I am not suggesting you do not cold call, talk about the course specification and exams or share test scores with the class but to consider not starting the lesson in this way. We probably all experienced a moment when there is an important date coming up and you naturally bring this up first or start by cold calling the class about a previous lesson as you arrange your notes/resources/powerpoint/register for the day. All acceptable things to do but is this causing unwanted stress in your pupils with hinders learning and memory. So why not start a lesson like this? What does this stress cause?

Studies indicate (link at the bottom of blog) when a student becomes "stressed" by one of these factors chemicals are released that directly appose the brains ability to both critically think and recall information. "Catecholamines" (a type of hormone) are released into a learners brain and prepare the body for "flight-or-fight" responses and rapidly affect neural functioning in several brain regions critical for learning and memory. Further experiments have found that during stress a person's ability to remember pieces of information is compromised and the ability of storing information in the short-term memory decreases. This effect on the brain can be lasting and it can take up to 30 minutes for normal brain function to resume. This is why starting the lesson in a "stressful" way can really can have a detrimental impact on the whole lesson and learning experience. So how do we avoid all this? Great question.

Activating learning through slowly "warming up" the brain - just like you would do in a practical-based lesson does have its benefits. One method is trying not to assess knowledge (which can cause "stress) but activate it - do not test students to see if they already know the new content before you have even taught it.

For example, when introducing a lesson on the positive effects of exercise, don't start by having the students write down all different types of exercise they know/think have positive impacts. This can be too direct and won't activate learning. That is testing knowledge and for students who do not know any/many will begin to feel "stressed". Instead ask students to take out their whiteboards and write down something about exercise in general. This will "warm up" the brain and after a minute students will be writing down all their own examples hopefully different ways to exercise, different training methods, different diets attached to exercise, dangers to exercise and they will be creating mental images in their minds which prepares their brains for the information you are going to give them (new content) and allows pupils to make connections with knowledge/memories of knowledge they already have. Asking students to think about their own experience of exercising would be very powerful too with studies suggesting emotional memories are easier remembered and recalled so creating links and associations between a student's emotional experience and your lesson content would be brilliant and very powerful. This is described as a stress-free start to a lesson as students can work independently from their own start point (general thought about exercise) to create links to get to the objective of today's lesson (positive effects of exercise). This is just one example in PE but with careful planning you will discover lots of generic "stress" free pathways into your chosen topic of the day.

I hope this has made you consider the importance of a stress-free start to the lesson and the possible negative implications of starting the lesson with cold calling/exam talk. Like I addressed at the start of this blog this is just one possible method and occasionally starting the lesson with a pop quiz or cold calling does too have many positive impacts. Variation in lesson starter is key but all must be purposeful. I would advise to read the article found below at the end of this blog as it really helped me understand the relationship between stress and memory.

Unrelated to "stress free" but this is a recent memory exercise I learnt in a CPD session which I have since trailed and had success with. Since then I have spoken to other teachers who have also seen success from this method. It is important to remember not all content can be taught/learnt/remembered this way and only small pieces of information should/could be.
Take Movement analysis from AQA PE. Student must remember that movement popularly takes place in the sagittal place and the transverse axis, the transverse plane and the longitudinal axis & the frontal plane and sagittal axis. You can chunk this information together to make it easier to remember using this acronym below.
"SquaT, TwirL, FROm Side to Side"
Now for students to be able to remember and recall this acronym you should have them chant this phrase altogether whilst seeing the phrase on the board in front of them. After a few times remove a word, after a few more rounds remove another word and again. Like below:

"SquaT, TwirL, FROm Side to Side"
"SquaT, TwirL, FROm Side to Side"
"SquaT, TwirL, FROm Side to Side"
"SquaT, TwirL, FROm ???? to Side"
"SquaT, TwirL, FROm ???? to Side"
"SquaT, ?????, FROm ???? to Side"
"SquaT, ?????, FROm ???? to Side"
"SquaT, ?????, FROm ???? to ????"
"SquaT, ?????, FROm ???? to ????"
"?????, ?????, FROm ???? to ????"
Until complete blank
"????, ?????, ???? ???? to ????"
Students will have a better chance now when they are been tested in an exam to recall that chant/acronym and recall their knowledge on planes and axis. If you do not think it will work just give it a go yourself now or make a partner try it.

Thanks again for reading and I hope this was helpful in some way. Please be in contact if you have any questions about the above.

Written by Oliver Parkinson

Article related: https://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611

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