Amplify Student Learning with the “ANSWER”

Kevin Yee and Diane Boyd have distilled some cognitive science findings on learning to an easy-to-remember acronym: ANSWER.

Attention: Learning requires memory, and memory requires focused attention. Multitasking is a myth, with ramifications for syllabus policies on the use of electronic devices for note-taking. Writing by hand does more to stimulate attention and build neural networks than typing.

Novelty: The brain craves novelty. By building variety into lesson plans, activities, and opportunities for practice, instructors amplify potential learning for their students. The use of metaphors in teaching enhances transfer, hemispheric integration, and retention, so using picture prompts and images can help solidify student learning.

Spacing: Results are better after studying material ≥2 nights as well as studying old and new information together. Offer cumulative quizzes throughout the semester to help students with this practice.

Why: Because memory is associative, share context and meaning with students at the beginning of a new unit or project. Beginning a unit with open-ended questions allows students to connect with the material and “start with why.”

Emotions: Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, seat of emotions. It’s little wonder students who dislike a subject have difficulty learning it. Create conditions (gamification) that help students motivate themselves, for example, quizzes with immediate feedback.

Repetition: The creation of a new memory really means the formation of new neural pathways. Repetition, in all its forms, enables more effective recall later. This is why quizzing, practice testing, flashcards, and instructor-driven questioning and challenges are so effective.

A balanced approach to course design, assessment strategies, and lesson planning that incorporates the principles of ANSWER will enhance student engagement and help them focus on long-term learning. In practice, this results in chunked content experiences, varied formative assessment opportunities to practice learning, and a rigorous assessment structure that keeps students accountable on a cumulative basis.

Adapted from Kevin Yee and Diane E. Boyd
Faculty Focus