Brain Dump #1

My world history class (500-1500 C.E.) is a semester-long course. Don’t get me started on how, why, or the injustice around that as that’s a story for another time. One of the benefits of teaching a semester course is the ability to course-correct half-way through the school year. I don’t have to wait until August to start anew. I can do that in January (at the half-way point in the school year).

Having implemented brain dumping with my GATE/PreAP students, and reading their reflections on the benefits of that on their ability to retain information, I decided to institute regular brain dumps across all of my six world history courses this semester. I don’t have the GATE/PreAP class this semester, so all of my world history classes contain a heterogeneous mix of high-achievers, English language learners, and special education students. I see this as a positive because these students were randomly assigned to my classes so I should be able to get a good idea of the impact of brain dumping on the ability of my student to retain information over the long-haul.

Friday marked the introduction of brain dumping to my students. This was a timed exercise in which students were given three minutes to dump the contents of their brains onto a blank piece of white paper using only pencil.

The second part was another three-minute timed exercise in which students shared their brain dumps with their group. Anything they did not have on their mindmap, they could add in pen. The point being, what was written in pencil are things they remember and the items written in pen are those they need to spend a bit more time on since they did not remember it without prompting.

I collected their first brain dumps because when we do another one on this same topic, I will pass out their first attempt so that they can (hopefully) see growth over time.

What I loved hearing from the conversations of students is the fact that many remembered the details of the various themes of geography after being reminded by their group. This realization served to lend value to this process as believe students gained confidence in the knowledge that they had the information in their brain, they just had to activate it.

One may ask why use valuable class time for this exercise if you only have 20 weeks to teach 1000 years of history. And I would ask: How can we afford not to? Isn’t the whole point of education to help students learn the content so they can apply it to their lives?

This is a valuable strategy to employ with your students. If you consistently apply it, I believe you will soon find yourself in agreement with me: Brain dumps are worth it.

Making Retrieval Practice a Force of Habit

As I mentioned in a previous post, students need guidance on how to study. So I instruct them on the various strategies that they can use to help them remember the information as well as make connections across concepts. To that end, I use checks for understanding as well as various types of activities that require students to recall information (aka retrieval practice).

And we practice them. Over and over and over again.

The students know what’s in store if the following words appear in the agenda for the day:

  • Brain Dump
  • Retrieval Practice

Before I go any further, I have to admit that I didn’t come up with the term of a brain dump on my own. I actually came across this term in my Twitter feed and it stuck. The term brain dump accurately sums up the purpose of retrieval practice: dump all of the knowledge that one can remember on a blank piece of paper.

When asking students to do a brain dump, however, I think it is important to give them a structure. Students work better with parameters. The type of structure will depend on how you want students to make connections across concepts. Now, I’m a fan of Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping strategy as I am a visual learner and I like to doodle. In fact, mind mapping is what helped me prepare for my oral comprehensive exams. I used a combination of mind mapping and retrieval practice for the six months preceding my examination date.

One of a bi-jillion mind-maps I created while studying for my comprehension exam as part of my dissertation study.

To be clear, I define mind mapping as a specific strategy that uses colors and visuals to make connections across concepts. Thus, mind maps can be quite complex or refreshingly simple.

I have taught my students the basics of mind mapping, but we haven’t explored the extent of this practice using color coded branches (yet). There’s only so many instructional minutes in a day, so believe me when I say that this is on my list of things to do with my students.

Onto the point of this post…

Our current unit is China (during the Middle Ages). Students are required to identify the cause and effect of the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I began the study of this standard by giving students an envelop with little slips of paper inside. Students were instructed to organize the strips of paper however they best saw fit. During this time, I walked around asking students to explain their reasoning for the format and order of the slips. When all tables were finished, I projected a multi-flow map on the board and then told the students to reorganize the slips so that they aligned to that format…essentially asking them to identify cause and effect.

Once again, I walked around asking the students to explain their thinking to me. If you’re wondering if the students had any background knowledge of the Tang Dynasty prior to this activity, the answer is no. Students reviewed information from 6th grade (about the fall of the Han and Sui Dynasties), but the information for the Tang was presented cold turkey.

Throughout our three-week unit, students were periodically asked to recall the information for the multi-flow map. They used pencil when writing down their recollections. The initial recall was done independently. I gave them about five minutes to literally dump their brain onto the paper in a multi-flow map format.

Students use pencil to write what they recall on their own.

Then students were given three minutes to chat with their tablemates about the gaps in their recollections. Using a pen, students added the information gleaned from their peers onto their multi-flow map.

Students use pen to add additional notes after talking with their peers.

This practice always ended with the students dumping out the contents of the envelop and organizing the slips of paper accordingly. After that was finished, students added any further missing details (in pen) onto their multi-flow maps.

The last step is to organize the details and add any other missing information to their multi-flow map (in pen).

We repeated this exercise several times throughout our unit. The last time my students did this particular retrieval practice activity, I passed back their original multi-flow maps that they did three weeks prior. I had the students compare their progress over time, paying particular attention to the amount of detail written in pencil from the first to the last multi-flow map. I can attest that students were amazed at the amount of information that they could now remember.

The whole point of this practice was to ensure that students were able to make the connections between cause and effect as well as remember key facts related to the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I always stress to the students that they don’t need to study what they’ve written in pencil as they already know that information. But rather, whatever is written in pen is something that they should focus their attention on because they did not know it first-hand. Middle schoolers struggle with time management, so I feel that it’s important to help them figure how what should be a priority. Pencil versus pen is an easy visual reminder.

Students have two opportunities to demonstrate their ability to recall or retrieve key details about the rise of the Tang Dynasty: a quiz and unit test.

Almost all of them rocked the quiz. Now we just have to wait and see how well they do on the unit test in two weeks. #fingerscrossed

Teaching How to Study

It is no secret that testing is part of the learning process, and it doesn’t matter whether you call it a check for understanding, quiz, formative assessment, pencil game…whatever. Teachers know what they want their students to learn. And students (ideally) should know what they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of, too.

So if teachers know what students need to learn, and if students know what they are expected to learn, why aren’t test scores high across the board? Why do some students perform poorly on tests? And why do others stay up late studying for a test…for hours on end?

When I ask myself these questions, if I dig real deep into the root cause of why students struggle with tests, what I’ve come to realize is that students don’t know how to properly study for tests.

Many students engage in massed or blocked practices (i.e., cramming) which may help in the short-run, but will not persist over time (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Another study method that students often use is rereading the material…over and over and over again. This type of effort also does not result in long-term retention, but rather a false sense of confidence in remembering the material because each successive reading is easier and seems more familiar than the last (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

I guarantee if you ask students how they study, they will tell you that they do both of the aforementioned.

And that’s why many of them struggle.

The learning sciences are clear that massed practicing does not lead to long-term retention of information (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Roediger & Pyc, 2012). But rather engaging in spacing (learning over time or spiral learning) and retrieval practice (deliberately recalling what has been previously learned) are two study methods that have been shown to have positive effects on long-term retention of information (Roediger & Pyc, 2012).

Retrieval practice can occur in a variety of ways (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014). I have used manipulatives, quickwrites, and mind-mapping. I don’t know that the manner of retrieval is as important as the act in and of itself. What I mean by that is that students need to engage in some serious thinking (recalling) of the information in order to make it stick. In fact, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) in their book Make it Stick wrote “while any kind of retrieval practice generally benefits learning, the implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results” (p. 40).

So what does that mean for my students?

Well, today, that meant that I gave my students a blank piece of paper. Together we drew a basic concept map of the main topics or content that they need to know. Then I gave them eight minutes to engage in what I call a brain dump: writing anything and everything they recall about the topics listed on the concept map in pencil. No talking to peers, and no looking on each other’s papers either. Then after eight minutes, I gave verbal prompts in the hope that it would further jog their memory. Still no talking to peers or looking on each other’s papers. I wanted them to focus solely on what they remembered. After two minutes of verbal prompts, students were instructed to grab a pen, share their findings with their peers, ask questions, and fill in the gaps on their concept maps in pen. For the most part, students were fully engaged for the entire 20 minutes. Their concept maps were growing outward like a spider web with details upon details from their peers whether they copied from another person’s concept map or jotted down a thought that came to mind. The best part of this practice was that students were actively engaged in the learning process. Better yet, when they were done, they had a great study tool which told them what they already knew (in pencil) and what they needed to further study (in pen).

It is my hope that my students learn and practice good study skills. I know it won’t come simply by me telling them that a test is coming. I need to pro-actively teach them ways to help with long-term retention of information. And just like anything that I do in my classroom, this is something that will need to be revisited time and time again until it becomes ingrained…a habit for them.


Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849–858. doi:10.1037/a0035934

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003

Roediger, H. L., III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012b). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242–248. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002