Recent research shows our brains are wired to forget information. This may not sound like great news to ESL teachers whose job is to help students acquire a whole new language. Yet better understanding of the dynamics behind forgetting gives us valuable insight on to how to work with — not against — the brain in the language classroom.

According to a University of Toronto study looking at the role forgetting plays in memory, the brain purges itself of outdated information so that its operation is more efficient when it comes to solving real-world problems. The findings go contrary to the common assumption that forgetting signifies that the mechanisms involved in storing or recalling information have failed.

"The real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making," says University of Toronto Scarborough Assistant Professor Blake Richards, author of the research paper. "It's important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that's going to help make decisions in the real world."

Interestingly, it is not due to a lack of space in the brain that makes it expend energy to override certain information. What the brain chooses to forget is also dependent on an individual's circumstances.

So what can language teachers do to convince their students' brains that the irregular verbs they've just assigned shouldn't be tossed out with the weekly trash? Fortunately, there are clear ways to promote information retention. According to an article in The Verge, the likelihood of the brain to remember things it encounters depends on three characteristics:

  • how novel the situation is
  • how much attention someone is paying
  • how much adrenaline is in the system

1. Create novelty in learning

The brain is more likely to retain information that is presented in a way that makes it memorable. Many teachers know that introducing an element of surprise in their lessons is key to successful learning. In previous articles, we've looked at using film, exercise, music and other novel elements to capture student attention.

In addition to a "bells and whistles" approach, presenting and practicing the target language in a context that makes logical sense appeals to the brain. We want the brain to say, "This information is pertinent to my life." Here's where projects, role playing and field trips can be exploited.

2. Get students to pay attention

This may seem obvious, but students have to be paying attention to what they are being taught for their brains to remember it.

Before you laugh at this no-brainer, ask yourself how many times have you gone on with a lesson despite the fact that your students weren't fully attentive? Perhaps there are times when we want to stay on schedule with our planning so we ignore student disinterest.

Discovering new ways we can actively engage our students in their English learning will pay off in how much they remember later.

3. Add adrenaline to language learning

As teachers, we can do activities that emulate the struggle for survival in our students' brains. Consider the addictive quality of many computer games. The adrenaline released in the body while people play these games is akin to what might happen if their lives were really in danger.

Competitive activities can trigger a sense of urgency in students that pushes them beyond their normal capacity to recall. However, it's important that these activities don't feel threatening or aggressive, which may have a contrary affect causing some students to freeze.

I've used a simple tic-tac-toe game with a picture of a vocabulary word they are studying in each square and the rule that they can only claim the space by saying the word. The first time we play, I give each player hints or the whole word when they've completely forgotten it.

In the heat of competition, their desire to win inspires them to get that word in their brains whatever it takes. By the third time we play, even students who usually struggle to grasp new vocabulary have the words they need to win the game committed to their short-term memory.

Flow with the brain's forgetfulness

Acknowledging that the brain is designed to forget, we need to be patient with our students when they don't remember information we have taught. Here we can empathize with them if they forget instead of judging them — then give them another chance to learn the material.

Repetition is key, but it doesn't have to be tedious. For example, we'd revisit the vocabulary from the tic-tac-toe game in a few other contexts to ensure that students will remember it over the long term.

Textbook organization based on topics is useful in ensuring that we cover the necessary themes. However, effective language teaching isn't like a race from point A to D where we pass through B and C. It should be more like a spiral where we repeatedly return to each theme to explore it at a slightly more complex level. Therefore, revisiting themes and vocabulary throughout the school year is a tried-and-true way to reinforce memory retention.

Understanding the brain's tendency to forget gives us another good reason to enliven our language lessons. These new findings further support what most of us are already doing for students in our language classrooms.