How the Volleyball Effect Hurts Deeper Learning (And What to Do About It)

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The start of the school year, as it seemingly does every year, has reminded me that schools are often overwhelming places. The pure number of humans and classes and lessons that populate our schools each day is enough to make one’s head spin.

Of course, this hustle and bustle isn’t all bad. The energy can be invigorating and inspiring, and there is no doubt that it is part of why I keep coming back to the classroom fall after fall.

Still, even for those of us who like the buzz of a school building in full swing, it is worth noting that it can also be disorienting, and managing all of the classes and content can be a major struggle for many students. In the past, I’ve talked about how the use of retrieval practice and feedback cycles can help students hold onto and better understand the most important information–information that might otherwise get lost amongst all the noise. But this summer, while re-reading Jennifer Fletcher’s Writing Rhetorically in preparation for our discussion for this newsletter, I came across another potential problem that arises out of the cacophony of our schools: “The Volleyball Effect”

The Volleyball Effect is a term coined by the great Gerald Graff (co-author of They Say/I Say), and it refers the way in which many students respond to all of the information they encounter in school by bouncing from class to class, unit to unit, and lesson to lesson like a volleyball–a volleyball that ricochets off of the surface of classes, units, and lessons instead of doing the deep thinking about how each connects and can potentially help them in other lessons, units, classes, or life in general.

It is worth noting that this is not meant to disparage these students; bouncing along the surface is normal behavior for novices, especially when they encounter a lot of content. Still, if we want our students to make more connections and go deeper faster, we can help them by playing the role of a tailor’s apprentice, one that encourages students to see the seams that they might have missed and aides them in beginning the process of stitching them together. Here are some ways to do that:

Retrieval Practice

While retrieval practice cannot completely eliminate the Volleyball Effect on its own, it is worth noting that when we first encounter something, we spend most of our time trying to size it up. This is why most people forget the names of people they just met. It is also why the first time our students talk about metaphors, they will struggle to think about how metaphor can improve their writing or how advertisers can use metaphor to subtly influence them. But the third, fourth, or eighth time they encounter metaphor, they can begin to think about deeper connections. Further, we can help this connecting process along by doing retrieval practice that examines the same topic from different angles (for example, the second time I discuss metaphor, I use this video to explain how it can improve a personal narrative).

Taking Time to Make the Connections (or Have Students Make the Connections)

When content is revisited and recalled, students will make more connections, but they won’t necessarily make every connection we want them to make automatically, especially if they aren’t used to seeking deeper connections between lessons and classes. We can help with this connecting process by making connections for them and creating opportunities to make connections too.

For example, when we began our discussion of narrative last Friday, I told students some of the moments where it will be a major asset to be able to tell a good story: job interviews, college essays, big presentations, first dates, etc.. On Tuesday I continued that by asking students to create their own list of the ways in which telling stories can help in their own lives. This might seem redundant, but by seeding those connections one day and then offering them space to make personal connections on another day, I was replicating a study that found that students who had previously struggled in science who wrote once a month about how science could help their lives scored a whole grade higher in their science classes on average than those who simply wrote summaries of the content in that time.

Using Storytelling to Help Students Transfer

In Learning That Transfers, Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo talk about how clustering smaller concepts under the umbrella of a larger concept can help students to see how those smaller concepts fit in the larger scheme of things.

This idea of clustering information to aide transfer. Image taken from

I take this approach when lesson planning, but I also give it an ELA twist and organize everything as parts of a larger story. It is worth noting, after all, that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are parts of a story. For example, I structure my whole narrative unit around the problem that stories are so important and yet they are maddenly hard to tell well. The unit then focuses on what makes stories hard to tell and what solutions we have to mitigate those issues.

In our talk a few weeks ago, Jennifer Fletcher argued that “When we just use prescriptive rules and formulas to teach writing, we’re teaching students to act as perpetual novices [because] this kind of fake writing doesn’t help students make it on their own in new situations where there isn’t someone to tell them exactly what to do.” I would say the same thing is true with the Volleyball Effect. If we allow students to bounce off the surface as we throw one class or lesson after another at them, we are often inadvertently consigning them to perpetual volleyball status. But if we take time to let them stop bouncing and begin to make connections, the hope is that they will start to see that around them in the hustle of schools are limitless connections and unexpected lessons that can help them in innumerable ways. 

Yours in Teaching,


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One response to “How the Volleyball Effect Hurts Deeper Learning (And What to Do About It)”

  1. […] I bring this up to say that human memory is a rather funny thing. We have some significant and well-documented limitations—limitations that grow worse during overwhelming tasks like parenting young children or teaching five sections of 30+ students—and yet we are incredibly good at convincing ourselves that we will definitely remember something later, even if (cough, cough) we are someone who has written about our limitations of memory here or here.  […]


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