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There’s a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society—if you’ve never seen it, just know that it’s a classic teaching movie and you absolutely should—where Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating has his students line up on a soccer field and take turns reciting lines from Walt Whitman’s poem A Song of Joys. It’s one of many times in the movie when Keating does something in the classroom that might be written off as mere eccentricity, like standing on desks or tearing pages out of books. But looking at it from a pedagogical standpoint, what he’s doing is using novelty as an instructional device, and it’s backed by solid research. Any time you add some kind of novelty to a learning experience—some new or different ingredient than what’s expected—you are making it more likely that your students will remember the thing they were supposed to learn from that lesson, even if the novel ingredient has nothing to do with the learning target.

Here’s a simple explanation of how this works in the brain: The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory. When you encounter some kind of novel stimulus, dopamine is released in the hippocampus, which helps make that part of the brain more “plastic” and ready to form new synapses (see list of references at the end). 

So this is just another thing you can add to your bag of tricks if it isn’t there already. If you want to boost learning in a lesson, add a little bit of novelty to make it memorable. 

Here are a couple of ways you can change things up to add novelty…

If you’re doing this right, you should see the novel thing working to jar students’ memories. You might hear students say something like, “Oh yeah, that was the thing you taught us that one day when we sat in the hall,” or “Wait that was when Ms. Thomsen came in and read that thing to us!” They’ll make these little connections and be just a little bit better at pulling the stuff they learned out of long-term memory.

Research on Novelty and Learning

Fenker, D., & Schütze, H. (2008, December 17). Learning By Surprise. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/learning-by-surprise/ 

Hicklin, T. (2016, September 20). How novelty boosts memory retention. National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-novelty-boosts-memory-retention 

Hitti, M. (2006, August 2). Novelty May Boost Memory, Learning. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20060802/novelty-may-boost-memory-learning 

VIB (the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology). (2020, February 5). Novelty speeds up learning thanks to dopamine activation. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200205132255.htm

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