In Brain Rules, John Medina (2014) outlines three essential steps for remembering information: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. In this post I will focus on a teaching tool that incorporates all three of these steps to help students develop strong writing skills: evaluation by portfolio.*
Portfolio as Encoding Tool
The moment at which information first enters our brain holds critical importance. The more we are able to initially elaborate (connect meaning to) the information the better we will remember and use it. When a student prepares a portfolio of collected writings, each new piece is related to a previous sample. Student writing is placed in the portfolio to demonstrate progression of specific and related writing skills. The collection tells a more meaningful story about that progression and gives the individual work samples greater meaning through context. If the portfolio is theme-based that contextual meaning increases. In Medina’s (2014) terms, the portfolio allows student and teacher to “understand what the (new) information means.” (p. 139)
One of the ways in which memories are effectively encoded is through real-world examples. These examples further the elaboration process because they enable us to see information “at work” in different situations and to understand the common principles underlying those examples. The writing portfolio provides multiple and increasing examples from the student’s own life and work. It also allows students to extract larger writing concepts from varied writing samples by comparing common elements such as use of an opening “hook,” support through evidence, development through analysis, etc.
By collecting writing in a portfolio, students also create a “familiar setting” for information input and retrieval. Though the collected student writing must address diverse audiences, purposes, and genres, the portfolio itself provides a stable environment.
Portfolio as Consolidation Tool
Medina (2014) introduces the concept of memory consolidation as “reversion”:
There is increasing evidence that when previously consolidated memories are recalled from long-term storage into consciousness, they revert to short-term memories…these memories may need to become reprocessed if they are to remain in durable form. (p. 146)
Portfolio evaluations require students to revisit their writing again and again. The portfolio may focus on revision across multiple pieces multiple times or may ask students to simply revisit and reflect on their previous work. Either way, students must reprocess the skills they used and reevaluate the writing they produced.
Portfolio as Retrieval Tool (and for Slow Consolidation)
Modern brain science has begun to uncover the complicated and time-consuming process that allows us to store and reliably retrieve memories. Stable memories require many intertwining “roots” between cortex and hippocampus. This neurological “conversation,” described as consolidation once the memories have been released to the cortex, can take years. So Medina (2014) proposes:
Given that system consolidation can take years, perhaps critical information should be repeated on a yearly or semiyearly basis. (p. 157)
Requiring students to prepare writing portfolios that “follow” them throughout their high school career allows this kind of repetition. The “critical information” on which writing depends requires repeated practice. It also requires repeated reflection, multiple opportunities to name individual components of effective writing and to question, “Have I used them successfully here?”
In addition, multi-year portfolios allow teachers across grade levels to adjust their teaching practices in accordance with what they observe as student writing develops. Do we need to focus repetition practice more on selecting textual evidence? Should we make more concrete distinctions between expository and narrative writing? Or provide more consistent schemata around writing processes?
Medina (2014) claims that, “Our brains only approximate reality because new knowledge and memories are mixed and stored as one.” (p. 159) If this is so, then evaluative portfolios approximate the reality of the brain, storing old and new work as part of an ongoing, creative whole.
*Evaluation by portfolio offers a teaching tool well aligned with Medina’s understanding of memory in many disciplines. Because English Language Arts classrooms more commonly collect writing for portfolio evaluation I have chosen to focus my examples on the writing portfolio.
Medina, J. (2014). Memory. In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press (pp.125-159).