Improving Comprehension and Retention When the Content is Complex

Improving Comprehension and Retention When the Content is Complex

This article starts with the results of a question 170 students in cell biology courses answered during the first week of the semester: “What percent of the information you have learned in your university courses do you still remember 6 months after those courses are finished?” Just over 50 percent of the students said 50 percent of the content. Another 30 percent said they only remembered 25 percent.

That amount of content lost has motivated a series of on-going efforts by this group of biologists to improve student comprehension and retention of the complex mechanisms they regularly study in undergraduate biology and biochemistry courses. And although much of the content in the article is discipline-specific, their goal of better comprehension and retention of content complexities is shared by faculty in every field. How they approached their objective is unique and applicable elsewhere.

The first author writes about an important personal discovery. Late in the afternoon he would realize that tomorrow morning he’d be teaching. “Already? Not very much time to prepare. What then did I think about? What’s the topic? Do I need to review my notes? Are my slides ready? Is there a quiz? What else do I need to do? I came to the realization that everything was about me—the teacher. But what about them—my students.” (p. 17) He calls it an “instructive moment” and one that “changed my perspective.” “I concluded that perhaps what they were doing might be more important than what I was doing.” (p. 17)

Throughout the article, there’s evidence of that change in perspective with interesting feedback from students collected along the way. Consider this description they put together outlining how a hypothetical but typical student studied in their courses—and perhaps in other courses: “Jack” doesn’t come to class having done the reading because he thinks it’s easier to wait until the teacher goes over the material. He’ll also find out what she thinks is important, ergo what he will need to know for the test. Neither Jack nor many of his classmates ask questions during class. They don’t want to reveal their ignorance. Jack studies alone. He considers study groups a waste of time. When studying, he silently goes over his notes, reviews the text, paying special attention to words printed in bold type. There’s an overwhelming amount of content but Jack has discovered that the multiple-choice questions on the test are pretty much like those in the study guide that comes with the text. Does the teacher offer advice on how to study? “Not really,” according to Jack.

In a nutshell, Jack’s approach to studying pretty much avoids anything that’s intellectually demanding; he doesn’t test his own conceptual understanding, doesn’t collaborate with classmates, memorizes but doesn’t articulate what he thinks he knows, and focuses almost entirely on what to learn, not how it could or should be learned. In other words, his approach violates most of the evidence-based study practices identified by research.

To promote better comprehension and retention, the researchers started using tests that contained conceptual problems. For example, students were given data sets and told to “state in one sentence” the conclusion justified by the data. Questions like these were used formatively in class so that students could practice generating answers. In one class session, after doing one of these problems and with the class average just below 40 percent, students were asked (anonymously) to explain their performance. One-third reported, “My strategy was to search the problem for specific clues as to what you wanted rather than using the prompt to allow me to demonstrate my understanding.” A quarter responded, “I really don’t know why I left important elements out that I thought I understood.” (p. 9)

When asked what they planned to do to improve their answers, the researchers write, “Our hope was that they would recognize the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the fundamental principles. . . .” (p. 12) Nineteen percent of the students reported that they would “put down everything I know.” In other words, “cover all the bases.” That approach fails to address the real problem—the “inability to discriminate critical from trivial attributes.” Most of the rest of the responses had to do with trying harder, paying closer attention, and “working harder to figure out what the teacher wants.” “Together these results indicate that many students are unable to make an accurate diagnosis of their analytical deficiencies or prescribe a useful remedy.” (p. 13)

Said bluntly, experiences in many college classrooms not only don’t teach much of anything about how to learn, they actually reinforce poor study strategies with class sessions and assessments that focus mostly on content details. Students in this course did provide feedback indicating that they understand memorizing details, regurgitating them on the exam, and then forgetting them is of limited benefit. They would prefer a better approach. “However, when the assessment task is unexpectedly rigorous or different compared to what they are accustomed to, many students appear to be unable to intuitively adjust, to make a successful course correction.” (p. 17)


Bradshaw, W. S., Groneman, K. J., Nelson, J., and Bell, J. D. (2018). Promoting mastery of complex biological mechanisms. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 46 (1), 7-21.

Leave a Reply

Logged in as Julie Evener. Edit your profile. Log out? Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...