Improving Memory

In this current blog series, I have been focusing on simple, psychological changes that we can encourage students of any age to make, to help them be more independent learners. As educators or parents, we want them take greater responsibility for their own learning and an important factor in achieving this, is discovering reliable ways to remember what has been taught.

My great wish is that education can move away from teaching a curriculum where facts need to be regurgitated for assessment, but until that happens, I feel it is important to help students improve their memory skills if they are going to feel successful.

When discussing this topic, I always start with a practical demonstration of how difficult it can be to remember a list of random items that have little in common. Once the student has found that they can remember only half (or less) of the items on the list, I wind a story around the items in a way that links them together, before encouraging the student to have another ‘go’! As a general rule, at the second attempt, they remember all (or almost all) of the items, which demonstrates beautifully how the story helped to make the list more memorable.

There are however, many reasons why we may find remembering stuff difficult, and students really appreciate the acknowledgment of that very real struggle. We therefore visit together, a whole variety of reasons why they may not be remembering as much of their learning as would be helpful for passing assessments, like; It’s not important enough to bother, I didn’t ‘get’ it, I’m easily distracted, there was too much of it, it was too quick for me, I was feeling stressed at the time, I just don’t seem able to take it in, I know I have a poor memory so there’s no point trying, I don’t know how, etc.

After looking at all the possible reasons we may have for not remembering things, the student chooses the ones that they feel apply to them and then we look for solutions. “So, if that is an issue for you, do you have any ideas what you might be able to do to change that?” That’s the question I ask of the learner, and invariably they have some idea of what the solution might be. If not, I support them to reason it out, and they then create a chart from this discussion, listing each issue and the solution for them personally to help overcome it!

One of the main issues that arises with my students is that they didn’t understand what it was they were supposed to be learning, so are not sure about where to put their efforts. This is particularly true if a teacher, in their (understandable) desire to give pupils a wider view of their subject (and/or life generally) provides no guidance on ‘what’ in amongst all that overwhelming amount of information, needs to be retained for future reference. It can also create a problem if the student has had teachers who have placed great emphasis on the presentation of work.

If the student becomes focussed on neatness and getting the work handed in, this actually detracts from the purpose of doing that work in the first place, which is to consolidate learning. What they have actually learned is that they will get into trouble if the work is not neat enough, or is handed in late, and they completely miss the reason why they were asked to do it. We need the emphasis to shift to what they learned, and how they will remember that for future reference.

In this current climate of continuous ‘assessment’, we really need learning to be more memorable, and for that to happen, the emotions have to be stirred and a purpose readily apparent. Strong neural pathways are created (forming memories) when a learner appreciates exactly what it is that they need to know, understands the relevance of the new information to what they already know, engages with it in a purposeful way, and subsequently gets plenty of opportunity to consolidate and practise. We can therefore help with retention of learning by keeping this in mind when we structure learning opportunities.

Of course, it is the student who ultimately has to do the ‘remembering’, so following discussions around how they might put in the effort to overcome some of the difficulties associated with that, we then look at all the different memory techniques that a student could employ. This includes actions to go with words, mnemonics, rhymes, visualisations, stories, colours etc. If the purpose of improving memory is to get better exam results, then the importance of ‘revising’ is also a really important part of the strategy.

Some learners feel that they ‘should’ remember stuff more easily and need help to see that for the most part, greater effort is required than just doing something once or twice. It is beneficial if that effort includes methods that work well for that particular learner, which will differ from person to person.  Whatever method is used, it has to engage all the senses, and focus on ‘understanding’ the material not merely knowing it.

The brain finds it very difficult to store information that has not been understood, because it is unable to link it to previous knowledge. A vague piece of knowledge that has not been incorporated into an existing framework will fade and be lost. So, it is really important that someone revising for exams has understood the concepts that they are trying to memorise. Make sure that your students feel free to say that they haven’t understood something, and do your utmost to hang the new learning onto something that they do already know! Appreciating the links between various aspects of a topic will allow answering exam questions from whatever angle they are asked.

My favourite method to support learners with this, is the use of Key Word Cards, the merits of which I will discuss next time.

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