Deirdre Moore | January 2014

Learning SmARTer: Using the Arts to Strengthen Memory and Learning

Thanks to neuroscience, educators are constantly gaining new ways to improve their teaching and deepen students’ learning.  Frequently in education we spend time on a unit of study, assess student learning and then move onto another unit.  The problem is that even if the students express significant understanding at the end of the unit, they may not be able to recall that learning a few weeks or months from now.  Neuroscience tells us that information needs to be retrieved at increasingly longer intervals, known as spaced repetition, in order to ensure that information is retained and is not distorted.  The arts can be an effective tool to help students with retrieval practice to solidify and maintain the integrity of their learning.

When I think back to my days as a fifth grade teacher I can think of so many ways I could have used student work to improve the chances that my students retained what they learned so it would be available to inform their future learning.  For example, the students worked in small groups with each group studying a different tribe of Native Americans.  Each group created a “beliefs ritual” –  a series of movements to express some basic beliefs of the tribe the group had studied.

Rather than ending the unit with a day of performances and sharing of work, it would have been so much more effective to have each group teach the other students the movements and what each movement represented.  Then the students could have periodically performed the movements and recalled what the movements represented.  In that way, all of the groups could have learned something about each tribe and the movements could have served as a wonderful quick physical break as well!

After studying the planets of our solar system, the students created travel brochures to entice visitors to come explore their planet.  As a quick refocus activity in class or as a homework assignment I could have given the students an excerpt from one brochure and had the students guess the planet being promoted.  (Love the Earth’s moon?  Wish there were more?  Come visit this planet and see all 67 of our moons!)  In order to guess the planet, the students would have to revisit or recall what they knew about the individual planets.  And who doesn’t love a good riddle?

Another instance of my use of that “divide and conquer” technique was with the Explorers Unit.  Students studied different explorers and wrote songs to share what they learned.  While it was great fun to sing those songs at the conclusion of the unit, we could have continued to sing them throughout the year to practice retrieving that information when the students needed an energy boost, a focusing activity or were transitioning from one activity to another.

As an assessment for a science unit on magnets my students wrote superhero stories about “Magnet Man”.  What fun it would have been to have the children retell their stories to a partner with the partner listening for the science principles revealed in the story!  I could also have had the students take home the story of another student for homework and write what science vocabulary and concepts were utilized to create the tale.  I think that would have been a motivating homework assignment and an easy way to continue to revisit that information throughout the year.

Naturally, as an educator, you need to ascertain the most important concepts for students to retain.  Once you have determined that, the arts can be a fun and effective way to have students revisit and accurately recall information.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.