Why do students remember everything on TikTok but forget my lesson?

In his recent book Why Don’t Students Like School?1 cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham recalls a 1969 memory experiment. In it, researchers asked participants to perform different tasks upon hearing lists of words. One group was asked to rate the pleasantness of each word while another group was asked to count the number of times a certain letter, such as “e,” appeared in the word. 

Which group do you think remembered more words when researchers tested their recall? And what can experiments like these tell us about how to improve equitable outcomes in our classrooms? 

In the end, the group asked to rate the pleasantness of each word remembered about twice as many words as the group that counted letters. This and other experiments like it, have led researchers to land on a key insight about our memories: We remember what we think about. 

When participants considered how pleasant a word felt, they were forced to consider its meaning. This action also made them more likely to make connections between the words, something researchers call clustering, which is also helpful for memory. Not coincidentally, meaning-making and clustering are two reasons students remember so much from what they view on TikTok and other social media.

Conversely, the group that counted letters didn’t need to consider the word’s meaning at all, which produced much less thinking about each word and led to less remembering. 

So, how do we leverage this insight for increasing both student achievement and classroom equity? Here are 4 steps math teachers can take:

Connect Mathematical Concepts 

When we ask our students to make connections between the mathematical concepts they are currently learning and those previously taught, students are forced to think about the meaning of the concepts rather than just the procedures used to solve problems. Below are examples of questions we can pose to our students. The key is to compel students to think about meaning.

  • How are polynomial equations similar to linear equations? How are they different?
  • Does this answer make sense? How do you know?
  • What would happen if we changed ____ about this problem? 

Be Careful with Attention Grabbers 

A lesson hook can be great for grabbing students’ attention, but if employed at the wrong time or without a clear connection to our content, students will likely only remember that we launched a marble across the room, and not that we can model the paths of projectiles with quadratic equations. Since we remember what we think about, the key question here is: what are my students likely to be thinking about after this lesson hook? One tip is to try to end lesson hooks with a question or an unknown that leads students to think about the mathematics behind the hook.

Increase the Amount of Interaction During a Lesson

We remember what we think about, so if we do all of the thinking as we demonstrate problems on the board, we’ll remember a whole lot from our lessons, but our students may be just as likely to remember a daydream as what they dutifully copied down in their notebooks. So, as much as possible, we need our students doing and talking about the mathematics we aim to teach them. Experience First, Formalize Later2 is a great model for this. At minimum, sprinkling in a few turn-and-talks throughout our lesson will help. 

Cultivate Our Students’ Sense of Belonging

If our students spend most of our class period thinking about how this place isn’t for them or worrying about how deficient they feel, what will they remember about the mathematics we’re aiming to teach them? Probably not very much. So when we work to cultivate our students’ sense of belonging through Spider Web Conversations3, Encouraging Feedback3, or Attributional Retraining4, we’re not only improving our students’ comfort in our classroom, we’re also increasing the chances that they remember our content. 

Cognitive psychology reminds us that we remember what we think about. By fostering meaningful connections, engaging students actively, and cultivating a sense of belonging in our classrooms, we not only enhance student achievement but also promote equity by ensuring that all students have the opportunity to engage deeply with mathematical concepts and retain what they learn.




Pete Grostic, Ph.D

Executive Director

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1Why Don't Students Like School? - Daniel T. Willingham

2Increase Equity with EFFL

3Increase Feelings of Belonging with These Powerful Strategies

4An Effective Way to Leverage the Experience of Older Students