5 Ways to Use Rest and Reflection to Make Learning Stick

Research says letting the mind rest and wander helps learning

Mindmapping is a reflective practice that helps students solidify their understanding. jamtoons /Digital Vision Vectors: Getty Images

Memory is sticky.

Rest is good for learning.

These are two of the most recent findings about learning from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 2014) by Margaret Schlichting, a graduate student researcher, and Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience. The study Memory Reactivation during Rest Supports Upcoming Learning of Related Content describes how the researchers gave participants given two learning tasks that required them to memorize different series of associated photo pairs.

Between the tasks, participants could rest for several minutes and could think about anything they chose. Brain scans on participants who used that time to reflect on what they had learned earlier in the day did better on tests later.

These participants also performed better with additional  information, even if the overlap pertaining to what they learned later was small.

"We've shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning," said Preston, explaining that letting the brain wander to previous experiences helped solidify new learning.

So how might educators use the information from this study?

Educators who provide students the time to develop a secure grasp of content through rest and reflection give student brains an opportunity to increase synaptic transmission along the neural pathways that are tasked with a particular form of learning.

Rest and reflection makes those transmissions connect to other background knowledge, and those connections become stronger, which means learning is more likely to stick. 

For teachers wanting to take advantage of these findings in how brains work,  there are several different strategies to try that allow for reflections when new content is introduced:

1.Think-jot-pair-share:

  • Give students several minutes to think about new learning beginning with the simplest question, “What do I already know about this new content and how can that help me better understand?” This is the “rest” period, so give students time to think first without writing.
  • Give students time to reflect and jot down their responses  (doodle, map, outline, notes). This is the reflection period.
  • Have students pair or group and share their responses with each other.
  • Have each pair or group share out what they already know and how this knowledge might help them.

2. Reflective journaling:

Reflective journaling is a practice where students are provided time to think deeply and write about a learning experience. This involves the student writing about:

  • What happened (positive and negative);
  • Why it happened, what it means, how successful it was;
  • What the student (personally) learned from the experience.

3. Mindmapping:

Give students time to think (rest period) as they use the powerful cognitive strategy that combines graphics and  spatial awareness

  • have students start in the center of a piece of paper and use a central image that is connected to new learning
  • Have students branch out in lines and add additional images that are related to the central image
  • Make the lines curved and encourage the use of color to make the mind map
  • Limit the number of words to one per line

4. Exit Slip

This strategy requires students reflect on what they have learned and express what or how they are thinking about the new information by answering a  prompt given by the teacher. Providing time for students to think first,this strategy is an easy way to incorporate writing into many different content areas.  

Examples of exit slip prompts:

  • The most important thing I learned today was…
  • Summarizing what I learned in 20 words:
  • I need help with…
  • I would like to learn about…
  • My  understanding of today’s topic from 1-10 is a ___ because,.....

5. The 3,2,1,bridge

This routine can be introduced by having students do an initial "3, 2, 1" set of reflections individually on paper.  

  • Before new content is introduced, students are asked to write down 3 thoughts, 2 questions, and 1 compare or contrast statement on a topic that will be taught;
  • After the topic is introduced, students complete another 3,2,1 3 thoughts, 2 questions, and 1 compare/contrast statement or analogy; 
  • Students then share both their initial and new thinking and draw a bridge between the before new learning and after new learning. The share the "bridge" with other students.

Whatever strategy is selected, educators that provide time for rest and reflection when new content is introduced are educators that allow students to use their prior knowledge or memories to make new learning stick. Spending the time for reflection with any of these strategies when new material is introduced will mean that students will need less time for reteaching later.