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If You Want to Remember Something, Think Hard and Dig Deep

How effortful thinking impacts student learning

March 22, 2022
Child digging

René Descartes once famously mused, “I think, therefore I am,” but when it comes to effective teaching and learning informed by cognitive science — the science of the mind — it’s perhaps more appropriate to say: “I think deeply, therefore I learn.”

Getting students to think deeply often depends on the questions we ask of them and, specifically, whether students are invited to think effortfully in support of their answers. But what does effortful thinking look like, and why does it matter for student learning?

These are the kinds of questions Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit working with educator preparation programs around the United States to apply cognitive science principles to practice, asks. Here, we explore two modes of effortful thinking — or digging deep — and their impact on student learning:

1. If you want learning to be durable, try digging a well.

If you were building a well, would you spend five minutes digging a shallow hole and then call it a day, or would you spend time and effort digging a substantial trench until you struck water?

I think we can all agree that digging deeper for longer would be best — and it turns out the same is true for how we remember things. We know from cognitive science that the longer and more effortfully we think about something, the more durable its “memory trace” will be and the more retrievable that information will become.

So, the longer we spend digging the initial hole, the more chance we will have of finding water and of returning to that particular “well” of information in the future.

To illustrate, let’s look at two questions — only one of which prompts durable learning:

  • In what year did Zora Neale Hurston write Their Eyes Were Watching God? Whether a student knows the correct answer or not, the cognitive digging required to determine a response to this question will be brief and shallow at best — meaning the information won’t get durably stored in their memory.
  • Why were the central themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God controversial, given the time in which it was written? This question calls for the same knowledge as the first one (the date of the novel) but in this case, students are also required to think longer and harder to address the significance of the date — all of which makes the pathway to this information more durable.

2. If you want learning to be connected, try digging like an archaeologist.

Imagine you are on an archeological dig, carefully unearthing the remains of an ancient city. Since there are so many artifacts to account for, you set up a system of tagging each item according to its key features.

For instance, rather than simply labeling an item “spoon,” you would instead tag it as, “an iron spoon, engraved with a floral design, probably made for a child.” You know that organizing items in this way is crucial if you want other archeologists and researchers to identify and make sense of the artifact by its constituent parts (child, iron, engraved) and connect it to their own work.

Our brains operate in similar ways whenever we are committing things to long-term memory. Just like in our archeological example, the more tags a piece of information has attached to it, the more opportunities we have to make sense of it and access it at a later date.

To illustrate, let’s look at two questions — only one of which prompts connected learning:

  • How many legs does a spider have? This question only provides one informational tag: spiders have eight legs. This means the student answering it has fewer opportunities to connect that informational item to similar ones in the future.
  • How is a spider not an insect? This question prompts more informational tags that provide more potential points of connection, such as spiders have eight legs while insects have six or spiders have two main body parts while insects have three. This means that the next time a similar topic comes up, like classifying invertebrates, the student will now have multiple ways to access the information (number of legs and body parts), thus achieving a deeper understanding of spiders, insects, and the categorical differences between the two.

Conclusion

The longer and deeper we think about something, the more likely we are to commit it to memory; the more aspects of an idea we uncover, the more easily we can connect it to other parts of knowledge and retrieve it in the future.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for foundational questions attending to facts and figures, but if we only ask such questions and never push for effortful thinking then students will only get so far in their engagement with key concepts and ideas.

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Strategies for promoting deep, effortful thinking in your students
  • Use “how/why” questions that invite connections between things and push for the rationale behind an idea. “What are the three things a plant needs to make its own food?” is not as effective as, “How does a plant use carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make its own food?”
  • Consider “what if…” questions that break the surface features of an idea and invite a consideration of its underlying characteristics. “Draw a picture to show 3x4” is not as effective as, “Draw a picture to show 3x4. Great. Now, how would this picture be different if I asked you to instead show 3+4?"
  • Don’t move on too quickly. Prolong the duration of effortful thinking by keeping students at the site of thought for longer. “What else did you notice?” is not as effective as, “Tell me more about that. Why do you think that was the case?”

About the Author

Photo of Jim Heal
Jim Heal
Jim Heal is director of New Initiatives at Deans for Impact and author of How Teaching Happens. He received his master's in school leadership and a doctorate in education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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Photo of Rebekah Berlin
Rebekah Berlin
Rebekah Berlin is senior director of program at Deans for Impact. She received her Ph.D. in teaching quality and teacher education from the University of Virginia.
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Early Childhood K-12 Learning and Teaching