When the "hook" needs the "loop"
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
“Put both hands together, palm to palm, up next to your brain. Go ahead…physically do it,” my professor stated. So, I look around the room at my 11 other professional colleagues and slowly begin migrating my hands up to my head…reluctantly I might add, because I kind of felt silly.
“Now let’s pretend there is some new information just floating out there in the air, take your top hand and grab it. Now pull it back to your bottom hand,” my professor continued.
My professor was explaining the process and importance of making the transition from working memory to long-term memory in regard to learning and retention. Our hands represented both sides of Velcro, the bottom hand was the hook and the top hand was the loop. Learning can occur in one of two ways:
1. The content you are learning that relates to prior knowledge is the ‘loop’ side of Velcro and sticks nicely to your ‘hook’ side.
2. The content you are learning can be entirely new and actually be a ‘hook’ side which doesn’t often stick to another ‘hook’ side. Other pathways have to be utilized to implant this new ‘hook’, kind of like a building a new home, it takes several contractors and several worker bees to get it done.
Which do you think is better for retention and recall?
You guessed it…door number 1! Prior knowledge can provide the context, or the ‘hook’, for the new content. Neuroscience researchers have identified that while new information is in our working memory our brain actually searches our long-term memory for any previously stored information that correlate or relate to this new information. Once the brain establishes a connection, the Velcro connection is made, and new neural connections are built that allow us to easily access the information at a later date when necessary. This isn’t to say that when a ‘hook’ of related information can’t be found that the brain just purges the information, but it does make it much more difficult to transition the knowledge to long-term memory. Just like building a new house takes a whole lot more people and resources than does remodeling a bathroom of an existing house. It can be done but costs more time and energy and requires more effort expenditure. (Full disclosure – my husband may argue with this analogy because some remodel jobs would be better off tearing it all down and starting fresh which requires considerable effort…but you all get the point).
As educators (as clinicians, entrepreneurs, etc) understanding this feature of our brain can be key for learning. Activating this prior knowledge system can act as a direct pathway to help our learners make the connections to in order to build their knowledge. It can be a tricky to balance the art of activating prior knowledge and spending too much time reviewing though, so I wanted to share a few tips/tricks that you can use wherever your classroom (clinic, boardroom, or classroom) is:
You can set up this up in various ways. First you could give a pre-test on the first day of class to get an idea about how much prior knowledge your students currently possess. This will allow you to ebb and flow your lecture schedule to increase time where it is needed and decrease time where it is not. A second way you can use pre-quizzes is to give a short quiz before content is delivered that day. This quiz gets the juices flowing so to speak in regard to activating prior knowledge, previously stored information becomes at the forefront of their thinking which allows that particular Velcro to be extra sticky. The delivery of these can be pen and paper or online, the timing is the most important part. They need to be given close to the content deliver in order to maximize the prior knowledge.
2. Use analogies
Explaining abstract ideas like how the brain learns through converting memories in the working memory area to long term memory can be quite difficult, but with an analogy (Two sides of Velcro) abstract ideas can become more concrete. Now many of you may be reading this blog with a various amount of prior knowledge when it comes to learning, but all of you have an understanding of what Velcro is. Utilizing an analogy that your learners can relate to still allows you to activate prior knowledge which facilitates the process of moving the information to long term memory. The analogy helps the learner make the connection between new material and old material.
3. Explicitly Link and Encourage Questions
Sometimes you just need to come out and help the learner make the link. Other times you need the student to form the link. In fact, if the student has to expend the effort to make the link they will retain it even more. But, you have to be careful with students making their own connections as they may end up forming an incorrect link which is nearly impossible to break (think about Velcro being super glued together…really really hard to pull apart). If you are able to foster a discussion by encouraging students to ask questions you will be able to help them answer their own questions with the knowledge they have. A properly structured discussion activity like think – pair – share could work great. This is an activity where you give the students two minutes to write down everything they know about a specific topic, then they open their notes and fill in any gaps they made, then they pair up and share with their partner. This covers a lot of evidence-based learning processes – retrieval and activation of prior knowledge, accountability with the correct information, and a moment to teach someone else.
Can I just give some mad props to my professor for her brilliant analogy?!? Not only did she activate my prior knowledge, but she did it in a way that created a multi-modal learning environment. First she broke the script, so she had my attention, then she activated the auditory system while she was speaking, the kinesthetic system asking us to physically put our hands in position, and the visual system as we pictured Velcro doing its job in our heads. All A’s from my critique and something to strive for in my interactions with students.
What have been the best analogies you have heard or used in the classroom, clinic or boardroom?