Do Students Remember Anything They Learn in Class? Probably Not, So….

In preparing for another semester, I am struck yet again by how very little I remembered from my undergraduate classes and, correspondingly, how little my students will probably remember too. In fact, once I give a test on a subject, it’s not uncommon for them to forget much of the material almost immediately.

The comedian Father Guido Sarducci makes this point when he proposes a “Five-Minute University” in which students are only taught what they will remember years later, and that only takes five minutes.

Perhaps in response, I have over time put less emphasis on students remembering details of what we’re studying and more emphasis on learning how to think certain ways. I try to spend about half my class periods reviewing theories of topic under discussion. In large classes, I have students watch documentaries and analyze them using the theories. In small classes, I have student collect their own data–usually by observing social situations outside of the classroom–in light of the theories.

Either way, it is my hope that by giving students practice in how to think like a sociologist, beyond remembering the details of sociological studies, that they will have something with them in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll increase what they remember up to 10 minutes!


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  • Dylan

    Why do you think they’ll remember how to think like a sociologist better than they remember facts?

    Arum and Roksa’s data in Academically Adrift shows that students also don’t learn critical thinking in college right? Doesn’t that suggest that they might not be any better at remembering how to think?

    Fwiw, I’m a prof too, and I also worry about all this. And I do focus on “learning how to think” over “learning facts”. But then I wonder . . .

  • Richard T

    It’s known that amnesics can forget when, where, and how they learned a skill, but not lose the skill itself. So you’re onto something. Remembering details is anyway a job for our silicon servants.

    Patterns help: poems, with rhyme and rhythm, are easier to retain than prose. Also, connections between facts help me: I have no trouble at all with Newton’s laws, precisely because there are three of them.

  • There is a five-minute university – Prager University. I’ve learned a lot from their five-minute courses