The Stickiness Effect



“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” - Benjamin Franklin


Try this—take a few seconds to think of a song that you know all of the words to.  Is it your favorite song of all time? Do you have a deep connection to it? Or do you just find it catchy for some reason?  

The song that comes to mind for me is—please hold your judgment—Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot.  Ever since I was a kid I thought this song was hilarious, it was fun to dance to, and the music video with the bouncing buns got stuck in my head.  Whenever I'm at a wedding and this song comes on, I have an overwhelming need to prove to the people around me that I know every word to this song.  And unfortunately for the wedding guests, this need gets fulfilled every time. 

While each of us has our own individual preferences for music, there are specific songs to which we all know the lyrics.  Songs that we would still be able to sing along to after going years, or even decades without hearing it. 

Let's take the song, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen as an example. Even though this song was released in 1975, and has over 350 words, many of us still know every word to this song.  Could it be that it grabs your attention from the very beginning, or that it's unique because it doesn't follow the traditional verse and chorus pattern that most other songs have?  Or could it be that it has a certain set of characteristics that are also present in many other unforgettable songs?

After referencing many different websites on the topic of "songs everyone knows" I found that there were particular songs that kept making the top ten list on different sites.  Not surprisingly, these were the top ten songs that I discovered to be consistently ranked as some of the most popular songs to sing along to:


Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive
Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You
Britney Spears – Baby One More Time
Smash Mouth – All Star
BeyoncĂ© – Single Ladies
The Killers – Mr. Brightside
Miley Cyrus – Party in the U.S.A.


After seeing these song titles pop up time after time throughout my search, I naturally asked myself the question, "What do these songs have in common that makes them so memorable?" After thinking about this question for awhile, I came to the conclusion that each song in this list—as well as many other songs—has what I refer to as the stickiness effect, which acts like a recollection superpower.  To provide some background information, the term "sticky" has been used in the context of education to refer to something that is easy to learn, yet hard to forget.  In other words, information absorbed in the right way can become sticky, because it immediately adheres to the mind and sticks around in the long-term, working memory. 

From my own experience, I have found that there are six different factors that contribute to the stickiness effect, which I call sticky factors.  The six sticky factors that I have identified are the following: emotional elicitation, multisensory input, repetitive application, meaning making, pattern recognition, and creative design.  With this in mind, I am proposing that when any one of these sticky factors is applied to processed information, it makes the learning stick—it becomes tattooed to our brain, so to speak.  



Figure 1: Sticky Factors



If we look at Figure 1 we can see a visual representation illustrating that knowledge—in addition to any one of the six sticky factors—results in the stickiness effect.  For example, one of the combinations represented in Figure 1 could be:  knowledge, plus emotional elicitation, equals the stickiness effect.  In order to fully understand these sticky factors, let's examine each one individually. 

Emotional Elicitation

Research has shown that when we have an emotional reaction to information, we are more likely to remember the content.  What's more, when we experience something that elicits the emotions of joy, humor, sadness, or fear—some of our most powerful emotions—it is likely to have a lasting effect on us.  For example, if you were to conduct a study on the topic of ghosts, you might remember some of your research.  But if you were to read a haunting ghost story, attend a ghost tour that frightened you, or even experience a horrifying spiritual encounter, chances are you would probably never forget it.  And that is simply because you attached the emotion of fear to your learning experience. 

Multisensory Input

Have you ever gotten a whiff of something in the air it immediately brought you back to a previous time and place? My guess is that you probably have.  The reason for this is that our sense of smell has been proven to be our sense that is most connected to nostalgia.  Science tells us that when our olfactory system takes in odors, it sends direct signals to our limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, behavior, and memory. Consider this, if you were to smell freshly cut grass, you might have a flashback of playing soccer, or even visiting a playground as a child.  This is because we often feel a sentimental longing for the past when we detect certain scents, which are implanted in our long-term memory. 

Repetitive Application

We all know that practice makes perfect, right?  The more we practice, the better we get at a particular skill.  In fact, research in neuroscience has shown that repetition is a requisite for learning.  As an example, we all know our multiplication facts from 0 to 12 not because we found them interesting, but because the "drill and kill" method of memorizing these times tables actually worked.  Even now, I still remember using flash cards, and playing countless math facts games in order to remember the products of these numbers.  But just because this rote memorization method of instruction has its place in education, doesn't mean that it should be our first or only strategy that we use for learning.

Meaning Making

If we aren't able to comprehend the purpose or relevance of what we are trying to learn, it is very unlikely that the information will stay with us.  This is why it is often a good idea when seeking or presenting new information to start with the why, rather than the who, what, when, where, or how.  It is only after we fully understand the purpose, and see the relevance to our own lives, can we begin to make meaning of new information that will likely make its way to our long-term memory.  When students are empowered to use inquiry-based learning by asking meaningful questions, they have purpose in order to apply their knowledge to the real world, which makes the entire experience more memorable.  

For instance, if students were to analyze a series of photos of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, they could ask questions that would eventually lead them to the discovery of metamorphosis—which would be a powerful learning moment.  Whereas, if students were simply told that they were going to read a book about metamorphosis, the learning impact might not be as high.

Pattern Recognition

Our ability to detect and predict patterns is essential to our understanding of how the universe works.  It helps us to make sense of information, categorize it into themes, and apply it to new situations.  We begin detecting patterns at an early age, and we are constantly gaining new knowledge that helps us to refine the patterns that we create for ourselves as we get older.  And whenever we detect a pattern on our own—when we make a connection that we have never seen before—it creates an aha moment that becomes embedded in our brain.  

To give you an idea, think about when you first learned that the earth is round, that it revolves around the sun, and that the moon revolves around the earth.  I remember this being a huge aha moment for me as I began to connect the dots—like why we see a full moon roughly once a month, and why we celebrate our birthdays once a year.  And the fact that we can predict patterns like these—patterns that are in a cycle—helps us to make decisions based on our deeply seeded understanding of these events.

Creative Design

When we use our brain to create something new—whether it is a physical artifact, a digital product, or a conscious idea—learning gets really sticky.  We often learn more effectively during the process of creativity because it requires our brain to be active in multiple regions at the same time.  And this complex system of thinking typically results in higher levels of learning—indelibly constructing and sustaining knowledge in our long-term memory.  

I agree with the authors in the book, Invent to Learn, when they write, "Children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn" (Martinez and Stager, 2013). As an example, suppose that a student is given an assignment to demonstrate their learning and understanding of electricity by creating a circuit.  They would first have to design either a series or parallel circuit, and then tinker with different electrical components in order to build it.  And by creating a circuit from their own design, they would have used a coordinated set of thought processes that would solidify their knowledge of electricity. 

The Super Stickiness Effect

To recap, we have looked at some examples of how learning with individual sticky factors can significantly impact our knowledge and long-term working memory.  But what if we were to combine multiple sticky factors and apply them to a learning experience?  When this happens, it creates what I call the super stickiness effect—the result of an enhanced learning outcome from the combination of multiple sticky factors.


Figure 2: The Super Stickiness Effect



Songs, jokes, and movies are types of mediums that make learning super sticky because they each contain more than one sticky factor.  These three vehicles of communication are all highly emotional, meaning making methods that work wonders on our ability to remember them.  For example, there are countless songs that I know the words to, tons of dad jokes I can quickly retrieve, and numerous movie quotes that I can easily recite, simply because they are all super sticky.

Let's think about jokes for a minute.  Jokes elicit humor, use predictable patterns of puns, and usually create meaning between two unrelated words, topics, or events.  Take this joke for instance, "Why did the scarecrow win an award?  Because he was outstanding in his field." Now, whether you think this joke is funny or not is beside the point.  This joke was cleverly crafted to make you laugh, and included two unrelated puns using the words outstanding, and field, which helps us to make the connection between the double meaning of each word. 

All jokes aside, let's turn our attention to movies. Movies are super sticky—not only because they have multiple sticky factors, but because they have the magical ability to grab our attention, pull us closer, and even push us to take action.  First of all, we know that movies elicit emotion, because they are categorized into genres predominantly based on emotions: comedy, drama, horror, action, romance, thriller, mystery, and fantasy.  We also know that movies are multisensory from our use of sight and sound, as well as touch if you have the volume turned up loud enough to feel the vibrations of the speakers like I do.  Furthermore, short films and documentaries can create meaningful, real world connections to promote change, whereas other motion pictures develop characters and plots that are totally relatable. And most prevalently in Romcoms, movies generally follow a fairly predictable—and stereotypical—pattern of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, then boy wins back girl.  

As we learned earlier, music has a similar effect on our memory.  Music tends to be super sticky because songs—such as the ones I used in my top ten list—can use up to four or five sticky factors at the same time. For one, highly effective songs create a strong emotional reaction when they evoke emotions like pleasure, anger, serenity, or sorrow.  Secondly, they usually create patterns of rhyming lyrics which helps us to anticipate and remember the next line in the song.  As a third sticky factor, they routinely have a chorus that repeats itself throughout the song so that we hear it again and again. Fourth, people naturally find meaning in songs as they are often extremely relatable.  And finally, songs that have a dance associated with them—songs like, Y.M.C.A., MacarenaBoot Scootin' Boogie, and the Cha Cha Slide—are the stickiest because they involve the additional sense of touch from physical movement.

While there are many styles of performing arts that are super sticky, I would argue that stories score the highest on the stickiness meter.  If you think about it, stories are everywhere—they are in movies, TV shows, songs, books, poems, plays, musicals and more.  This is largely because human beings have always learned valuable life lessons from telling stories.  In their book, Humanize, Notter and Grant tell us, “We were born to create and share elements of our experience of life through art and through storytelling.  We have been coming together in communities from the beginning of our existence." In other words, storytelling is—and has always been—an essential catalyst for learning and connecting with each other.

What's more, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, Zaretta Hammond, has found that there are some cultures with a strong oral tradition that rely heavily on the brain's memory and social engagement systems to process new learning. In her research, Hammond notes that learning will be more effective if processes using the common cultural learning aids—stories, music, and repetition—are intentionally applied. Hammond goes on to suggest that these elements help build neural pathways, activate myelination in the brain, and help neurons fire and wire together in ways that make learning sticky (Hammond, 2015).

Most notably, Daniel Pink—who is one of my favorite authors—reveals that "right-brain" skills—our ability to encapsulate, contextualize, and emotionalize—have become vastly more important in our world today.  In his book, A Whole New Mind, Pink makes the relationship between storytelling and learning easy for us to understand when he writes, "Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember." He adds that narrative imagining—story—is our most fundamental instrument of thought (Pink, 2005).  And this is what makes stories super sticky—they help us process, contextualize, and emotionalize information to be permanently stored and applied to both familiar and novel situations.


Classroom Connection

Now that we have established what sticky factors are, and how they contribute to the stickiness effect, let's think about how they can be applied to learning in the classroom.  Based on my experience and research on this topic, I am proposing that if teachers are able to intentionally integrate these sticky factors into their lessons—if they are able to elicit emotion, encourage the use of multiple senses, repeat important information, make real world connections, provide opportunities for pattern recognition, and allow students to use their creativity—then students will deepen their learning and understanding by constructing knowledge that will remain active in their working memory for the rest of their lives.

Believe it or not, we can actually learn a lot about effective methods of instruction from some popular children's television shows.  In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shares his insights that he gained from his research on Sesame Street and Blue's Clues.  Gladwell's first realization was that Sesame Street succeeded because it learned how to make television sticky for kids. More specifically, Sesame Street figured out that children were fascinated by having people and puppets on-screen at the same time.  This made the show sticky for kids, which caused them to pay attention long enough to learn from the program.  Because of this, Gladwell concluded that "If you paid careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you could dramatically enhance stickiness” (Gladwell, 2000).  Therefore, if teachers are able to deliberately use a variety of sticky factors in the classroom—by presenting material in strategic ways that are engaging and impactful—then students will likely be glued to the lessons.

Gladwell also states in his book that Blue's Clues took those same sticky elements and tried to make them even stickier.  "The first," Gladwell points out, "was the idea that the more kids are engaged in watching something—intellectually and physically—the more memorable and meaningful it becomes” (Gladwell, 2000).  In each episode of Blue's Clues, kids watching at home would be encouraged to become actively involved by verbally responding to the TV to help Blue solve the puzzle.  This brilliant feature used the multisensory sticky factor by adding a physical element to the show.  

In the course of his investigation, Gladwell also found that Blue's Clues improved the idea of anticipation through the use of repetition.  What he found interesting was that "An adult considers constant repetition boring, because it requires reliving the same experience over and over again.  But to preschoolers, repetition isn’t boring, because each time they watch something they are experiencing it in a completely different way" (Gladwell, 2000).  For example, after repeatedly watching the same letters with visual associations pop up on the screen, children began to predict the sequence of the alphabet.  This eventually led to students learning the letters in the alphabet in the correct order.

Gladwell also found that children began to detect a pattern after watching several episodes.  With each subsequent episode of Blue's Clues, children started to notice that the clues in the show would progressively get harder.  It was the perfect balance of hooking kids with easy clues at first, and then challenging them toward the end of each episode.  However, what he found most surprising was that children wanted to watch the same episode time and time again.  The reason being that—from repeated exposure—they were not only able to anticipate the answers, but it would deepen their levels of understanding (Gladwell, 2000).  What television series like Blue's Clues and Sesame Street teach us is that the calculated use of intended sticky factors can have a profound impact on student learning.

Arts Integration

In the summer of 2011, I attended the Arts Integration Conference: Exploring an Approach to Teaching at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.  To provide some background context, The Kennedy Center defines arts integration as, "An approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form."  The definition continues to read, "Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both." From attending this conference, I was able to learn how to strategically integrate visual and performing arts into my sixth-grade math and science classes that I was teaching at the time. 

My biggest takeaway was allowing my students to demonstrate their learning and understanding of math and science concepts through performance assessments. I would allow my students to work individually, or in small groups in order to create a performance or a product that showcased what they had learned over the course of a unit. Some students chose to write and record their own songs, act out a skit, produce a video commercial, create a digital or physical poster, or write a children's book.

I tried to provide my students with creative options for their performance assessment, but if they had an idea to put together something that wasn't on the list, I encouraged them to surprise me. From an assessment standpoint, I was able to provide feedback on their work by using a rubric that had categories for their learning objectives, as well as categories for their learning process throughout the project. Not only did I find that students gained a deeper level of learning and understanding, but they were also afforded the autonomy to highlight their personality and creativity through their projects.

I didn't realize it at the time, but by using the arts integration approach to teaching, I actually incorporated the six sticky factors into my instruction. By creating these performance assessments, I provided my students the opportunity to emotionally invest in their project; to attach meaning and relevance to their product; to practice and rehearse their performances; to use multiple senses of sight, sound, and touch; to make interdisciplinary connections; and to design their own masterpieces.

To this day, when I see my students out in public they always reference their math and science projects that they did when they were in my class. For me, this is living proof that the projects I did with my students will have an everlasting stickiness effect—a learning memory that they will never forget.


A Sticky Synopsis

My challenge to you is this—if you find yourself in the role of teaching students, try to find ways to willfully introduce sticky factors into your lessons. During your daily warm-ups, use prompts that draw out a specific emotion that is directly related to the content. Consider including multiple senses when students are making observations. Find ways to repeat important information, and provide students the time to exercise their strengths, as well as practicing their growth areas. Attempt to make your lessons culturally relevant so that students can apply meaning to their lives. Plan interdisciplinary lessons so that students can detect patterns in the world. And promote creativity by permitting your students to design artifacts, performances, and solutions to problems. If you are able to try any one of these sticky strategies, then you will be increasing the potential for your students to form at least one more memorable learning experience in your classroom.


References
  1. Armstrong, Sam. “Songs Everyone Knows.” UDiscover Music, 10 May 2021, https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/songs-everybody-knows/. 
  2. Gladwell, M., & Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: how little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.
  3. Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. California, Corwin, 2015.
  4. Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
  5. Notter, Jamie, and Maddie Grant. Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. Que, 2016. 
  6. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  7. “What Is Arts Integration?” The Kennedy Center, https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/articles-and-how-tos/articles/collections/arts-integration-resources/what-is-arts-integration/

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