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Super Easy Memory Strategies

Super Easy Memory Strategies

3 Strategies to Try with Your Students Tomorrow

Let’s admit it – as educators it can be tremendously frustrating when kids quickly forget the content we teach them.  In fact, besides dealing with challenging student behaviors, this may be the most common concern I hear from teachers, “My kids just forget the information so quickly.  I teach them the information they need to know and the next day it’s like we never talked about it!”

Has this ever happened to you? You spend hours preparing a lesson that you know will be interesting to your students –  you find the right resources, you include engaging strategies, you plan for informal assessment, you include opportunities for feedback, and you even find the right technology to support the learning.  You deliver the lesson and you’re convinced that your kids will remember the information and the content the next day.  Except that they don’t (or too many of them don’t).  Why is that so many of our kids struggle to remember important content from day to day?

This is all very frustrating….we seemingly do all the right things in the design and delivery of our lessons but they still forget.  While we don’t have the space or time here to include an overview of the research related to memory, let’s start with this one very important concept: long-term memory is less about the information we give to students and more about what they do with it.  That’s so important it bears repeating – long-term memory is less about us (what we do to teach the content) and more about what kids do to explain, elaborate, discuss, write, and interact with the content.  Make no mistake, what we do is important…how we design learning opportunities and deliver content knowledge does matter.  But, what matters more is what students do before, during, and after our delivery.

With that understanding, here are 3 extremely simple, but very powerful, strategies that greatly increase the likelihood that students remember what you teach.

  • Elaboration – The more that students elaborate on something at the time of the learning (in neuroscience terms, at the time of the original encoding) the stronger the memory becomes.  We’ve known about the power of elaborative rehearsal for a long time but far too many students and teachers are satisfied with rote recall.  The problem with rote strategies is that they are fairly fragile and often don’t last very long. To get students to elaborate, expand, and explain their thinking, try the simple strategy titled Says Who?  As a questioning strategy, Says Who? requires that students provide a rationale, an explanation, an example, or evidence for their answer(s) to a question.  As teachers, we need to not be (fully) satisfied when students provide correct answers. No doubt, correct answers are important.  But, when we stop the questioning after a student provides an accurate response, we also stop the thinking.  Plus, a student may have a correct rote answer memorized but may not know why it’s correct.  When any of us (students for adults) have to elaborate on our thinking, the depth of our knowledge becomes evident very quickly.  It becomes evident to others and to ourselves. And this is a key idea – elaboration is self-revelatory in nature.  When I have to explain something to someone else, I become aware (self-aware) of my own depth of knowledge. Not only does elaboration allow teachers to gauge the knowledge of students, it allows students to gauge their own knowledge.

 

  • Teaching – Teaching something to someone else is a tremendously powerful memory strategy.  As teachers one of the reasons we know our content so well is that we spend a lot of time teaching it to students. I’d go so far as to say that most of us really did not know our content deeply until we had to start teaching it to students.  For example, I have a Bachelors degree in history.  In college, I got good grades, took a lot of tests, and wrote a lot of papers. By all measures, I was a successful student and my university proudly labeled me a cum laude graduate. However, it wasn’t until I had to try to explain historical concepts and ideas to middle school students that I really learned history. Teaching both reinforces memory and prompts new learning. As a result, as much as possible provide students with opportunities to teach important content to others.  However, this “teaching” is not the formal in-front-of-class stance that may come to mind.  In fact, do not place an individual student in front of the class and tell them to teach content.  That would be malpractice and you may find yourself having to reteach anyway. Rather, place students in situations where they have to teach, explain, elaborate, show, and model.  It could be as simple as placing students in small groups and giving them a prompt such as, “Using the visuals and materials provided, teach your partners the steps in designing  an experiment.”  One last note, teaching is not the same as having a discussion.  Strategies like partner discussions are important but they don’t get to the depth or sophistication that true teaching requires. Teaching requires asking and answering questions, providing examples and non-examples, giving feedback, and responding to the needs of the learning.  Plus, like elaboration, when I am required to teach someone else, the depth of my knowledge becomes self-evident.

 

  • Writing – Here is one simple truth about writing – writing is thinking. Or, more accurately, the process of writing is the process of thinking. In order for students to remember what they learn, they need to be given opportunities to reflect, think, wonder, make connections, and question their knowledge.  Quite simply, if you want your students to remember more of what they learn, incorporate writing-to-learn strategies.  Writing to learn, as opposed to learning to write, involves providing students low-stakes opportunities to think about and process their learning by writing about it.  Low-stakes writing means that the teacher is not focused on grammar, spelling, etc.  Rather, the focus is on getting students to write for the simple goal of thinking about what they are learning.  The more time students spend thinking and reflecting via writing, the stronger the memories become.

 

All 3 strategies have one very important thing in common – they all force kids to get the information out of themselves.  The more I learn about the brain and memory, the more I keep getting lead back to this one very important truth:  long-term learning and memory is supported when I actively get the information out of myself.  Elaborating, teaching, and writing all require that I actively do something with the content I am learning. When I am active in the development of knowledge and I then do something with that knowledge, I am more likely to remember it.
References:

  • Benjamin, A & Bjork, R. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 26(3), May 2000, 638-648
  • Craik, F.I.M., & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing. A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 11, 671-684.
  • Conaway, M, & Gathercole, S. (2007). Writing and long-term memory: Evidence for a “translation” hypothesis

Nestojko, J, et al. (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages.

Bryan Harris, Ed.D. is the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande (Arizona) Elementary School District. In his 20+ year career in education, he has served as a teacher, district-level specialist, principal, and central office administrator. His work focuses on student engagement, motivation, classroom management, brain-based learning, and standards implementation. As the author of three highly-regarded books published by Routledge, he has a passion for helping educators discover ways to inspire and engage students.

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