Do Students Learn What We Teach?

Teaching vs Learning.PNG

How do we know that what we teach is what our students are learning?

If they’re doing what we ask, practicing what we want them to, isn’t it inevitable that they’ll learn what we’ve planned for them?


In his book, ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham makes the point that what we think about is what we remember. That sounds obvious, but activities often encourage students to think about things other than our target topic.

“Memory is the residue of thought” – Daniel Willingham

Here’s an example from his blog:

“A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits because this was a staple food for runaway slaves…I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on.”

I hear this a lot from my daughter. She’s five, and when I ask, ‘So what did you do at school today?’ she might say ‘colouring in’ or ‘making something’. I ask why, and she rarely remembers the reason they did an activity like that.

I’ve also been guilty of this in my own lessons. I can remember doing;

  • A warmer where the students got too excited and couldn’t settle down for thirty minutes.

  • An activity that was unrelated to the context and so confused the learners with a quick change of topics.

  • Answering a student question that pulled the class’ interest in a different direction, and found it really hard to get back on track.

  • A freer practice activity that was so fun that learners used the simplest language possible to complete it as fast as they could, rather than use the target language I was hoping for.

All of these, with hindsight, pulled the students thinking and usage away from the target topic and language, and so they didn’t get the full benefit from my classes.

What are Your Learners Thinking?

My single biggest take-away from the book is to review every lesson plan in terms of what my students are likely to think about.

Think about what your learners will be most likely think about when you:

  • Set a context

  • Present information

  • Setup and run and activity

Adapting for Language Teaching

As language teachers, we need to go one step further than remembering – we want our learners to use what they’re learning.

So to Willingham’s quotation, “Memory is the residue of thought”, I would add, ‘and fluency is the residue of usage’.

A bit cheesy, perhaps, but I hope it makes a point.

When we setup an activity (especially a freer practice acvitiy) consider the language that learners will use to complete it. Put yourself in your students’ shoes. How would you complete the activity? Are they likely to use simpler language than you want them to, to complete the task?

What do your activities encourage students to think about and use, and therefore remember?