What Do Students Remember?

David Head asked the question in his classes -- and considers what he learned.
March 1, 2011

At the end of each semester, as I read the last papers and enter the final grades, I wonder: how much of this will students actually remember a year from now — or a week from now? They ought to remember something. In a typical semester we will have spent some 40 hours together. Something must stick. But what is it? Material from the course? Skills they’ve mastered? The time a kid in the back row had his desk collapse right before a test?

A year ago I decided to try to find out. On each of the final exams I have given over the past three semesters I included the following question, worth one point of extra credit: "What one thing from the course did you find most memorable? Explain why."

I received 359 responses altogether from the nine courses I taught, courses that included everything from Western Civ. and European History to the U.S. History Survey, the American Revolution, and the Age of Jackson. While some of the results were predictable, others were surprising, instructive, and, ultimately, encouraging.

Students named something visual as most memorable more often than anything else. Twenty-nine percent cited a specific video or picture. Another 8 percent mentioned material that we covered only or primarily through a documentary. Thus, for more than a third of the students, the class will be associated with an image.

I expected videos and pictures to be popular, and I use a lot of them in my teaching. I showed documentaries such as The Last Stand of the 300, about the Spartans; Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency; and The Nazi Officer’s Wife, about a young Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust in a very unconventional way. I also showed clips from TV shows and movies ranging from Johnny Tremain and HBO’s John Adams to Mad Men and Gladiator to examine how the past has been remembered.

I did worry, though, about the courses lapsing into mere edu-tainment, with the visual elements amusing the audience of students while providing little intellectual substance. My survey results confirm that entertainment explains much of the popularity of the videos and pictures I showed. At the same time, reading between the lines of my students’ responses suggests that they also learned something important. Many of the Western Civ. students who cited The Last Stand of the 300 were struck by how different the Spartans' values were. The brutal training regimen of Spartan boys, in which they were taken from their families at age seven, attracted particular interest. One student wrote, "I couldn’t imagine my son gone not knowing if he would even survive the training [let alone] become a soldier."

Spartan women wouldn’t have wanted the sympathy. It was Spartan mothers, after all, who said to their sons, "Come back with your shield or on it." Several students remarked on the surprising toughness of these women. One student recalled the "Spartan people, especially the women and how they treated their sons and how the happiest moment for them would be when their sons were going into battle." Spartan mothers were not like the students’ moms today. Dropping off their kids at college, no one shouts, "Come back with your diploma or on it" from the family minivan. It's a basic point of history that the past is a foreign country. Students got that message from the documentary. For a survey class full of students who don’t really want to be taking the course, that's a vital point for them to understand.

A surprising number of students did not choose something visual. Some students even said that a book — a book! — was what they remembered most. Twenty-three students, upper-level majors as well as survey students, designated a book as what they best recalled. Seven students in my 20th-Century Europe class named Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about a group of German police conscripts who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, as the most memorable part of the course. Ordinary Men is an extraordinary book, chilling, challenging, and compelling. It's gratifying to see that students responded to it.

As for topics, responses were diverse. In Western Civ. the Spartans were the champs, followed by gladiators and knights. Interestingly, religion was also popular, with 19 students picking a religious topic (one even said Zoroastrianism). In 20th-Century Europe, World War II and the Holocaust were far and away the most popular responses, and rightly so. In my U.S. history classes, Andrew Jackson was the winner. In particular, students were awestruck by his personality. "The guy was crazy but still led our country. I don’t know how he did it but it happened," a typical response read. I suppose I’ll be known as the guy who told wild stories about Jackson.

At the same time, a satisfying number of students mentioned the experience of slaves and how slavery changed over time as what they recalled best. This was a major course theme, with multiple classes devoted to it. Maybe, just maybe, some students will retain the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society.

About 17 percent of students brought up my teaching style, the classroom atmosphere, or some non-lecture activity as what they recollected best. They seemed to have liked me personally, which is always nice to hear. They enjoyed the discussions and debates we had in class. When I was adjuncting in Buffalo, New York, two classes took field trips: one to a local French and Indian War-era fort and another to an on-campus art museum for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad. Students appreciated the hands-on experience and seeing a piece of local history.

Several students wrote about the friendships they had made during the class. "I think the most memorable time I’ve had in this course is just getting to know everyone," wrote one student. Another offered that the class was memorable "for social reasons, the people that I met in the class. It was by far one of the more sociable classes that I’ve been a part of since community college." One student had a slightly different social priority. What did he remember most? "The three girls in the fourth row. Good eye candy." Well, at least he had some reason to come to class!

I would rather they had improved their writing skills, but if part of the reason for attending college is to have the "college experience," then, I suppose, mission accomplished.

Over all, I have taken three things away from my survey experiment. First, visuals work. As the education theorists point out, some people are visual learners and need some kind of image to make information stick in their minds. But visuals do more than help students retain information for the midterm. Some documentaries today are of such high quality, in both production values and scholarship, that they convey important concepts as well. Even popular movies and TV shows, whose quality may be doubtful, are vital in helping students understand how to be critical about the kinds of information they receive every day.

Second, variety makes for memorable experiences. Even as I was flattered by their praise I was struck by how often students named something I didn’t do: the discussions, the field trips, the visuals, their relationships with each other. Many classes are structured with the professor as the center of attention. Stepping out of the spotlight can be a good thing.

Third, students want to learn. Not all of them, of course, and especially not in surveys where student interest is low and disengagement high. It’s easy to become discouraged looking at blank stares and hearing the tap-tap-tap of fast-texting fingers. At the same time, there are interested minds out there — even in large surveys held in cavernous lecture halls. If you are feeling jaded, focus on those students.

The real test of what students remember will come later on. Did they acquire skills that will help them in their careers? Will they find their lives enriched by learning about the past? Thirty years from now, when those 19-year-olds from Western Civ. are attending their own children’s graduations, I hope they can say yes. And if they can remember some video, some book, some discussion — and recall why it mattered — then I’ll be very happy indeed.


David Head is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida.


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