In the previous blog of this particular series, (about tools and strategies to support learning), we looked at the importance of ‘memory’ in the current assessment-based learning environment. It becomes paramount to help students appreciate why we forget stuff, so that they can take responsibility for addressing those reasons and improve retention of their learning.
I promised to share this time, my favourite method of ensuring more effective recall for students, as it works for any age group. Memories are formed when information is stored in neural pathways of the brain. Unless learning comes from a traumatic or particularly exciting event where strong emotions were present, it is easy for a piece of information to ‘get lost’ or forgotten. This is even more likely if the information was not relevant or of any interest to the student.
The brain also has difficulty ‘storing’ new information if it is unable to find similar data with which to file it. That is why it is so important in teaching and learning, that the significance of the learning is recognised by the student, and that the teacher links the new learning to what has already been covered. Random information, unless absolutely fascinating, will not be retained unless an individual’s mind is able to link it successfully to something else.
Stronger memories are formed if several senses are involved at the moment a new piece of formal learning takes place, but this is rare, particularly beyond Primary school. What is needed therefore, is a method that can treble the impact, whilst ensuring that the brain can facilitate linking the learning together in one place. The Key Word Card method does this and more! This may sound like a simple process for younger learners only, but it is a useful tool at any stage of learning (even for adults) if used correctly.
So, what are the benefits for a student of using the Key Word Card method;
- The brain responds well to colour, so creating Key Words from a range of coloured card (preferably pastels), helps with memory storage.
- Using different coloured marker pens with which to write the words, also allows the brain to use colour memory to help with retention.
- The student is physically making the cards by cutting an A4 sized (portrait) sheet into six even sized strips.
- The sense of sight is also being used to sort out measurements and analyse the combination of card and pen colours for best effect to coordinate particular subjects or topics.
- The student then writes the Key Words for a given topic onto the cards, only one word (or two where necessary) per card. (This could be the main characters from a play for instance or all the named parts of a cell).
- Once the Key Words are ready, the student is challenged to put them into some kind of ‘order’ on the table in front of them to demonstrate any links that they may be aware of (eg; the characters from a play could be put into family groups or with others who share a particular scene, or the parts of a cell could be divided into those shared by all cells and those that are specific to plants or animals.)
- It is a good idea at this stage for the student to explain their reasoning to someone. A teacher could check for any misconceptions or missing information which they could follow up, and a parent could check the text book, or ask google, to help the learner check their reasoning. The student can then re-shuffle the cards (if necessary), into a different configuration to demonstrate a clearer understanding.
- I always recommend to students when learning something relatively unfamiliar, to jot a pencil note on the back of each card as a reminder, with the opportunity to flip it over and check if feeling lost. The note would usually be just a definition for the word (or identity of a person).
- From this basic beginning, other cards can be made and added as knowledge and understanding grows, each time being fitted into the whole picture, requiring a restructuring of the flow chart that starts to emerge in a different format each time to accommodate the new information.
- Throughout this process the student is constantly looking at the words, helped by the colour coordination (which comes in handy as the subjects or topic matter grows), listening to their own reasoning and any discussions surrounding the cards they have laid out, whilst physically manipulating them (touching/doing) to create ever fluid flow charts of their own understanding.
- Do not be tempted to reconfigure the flow chart for learners. If the student appears ‘lost’, try asking questions that might help them reason on why their version may not be quite accurate. They will usually see the error for themselves and adjust the layout accordingly. Remember that there will be several possible ways in which the cards can be displayed, and the most important thing is that it makes sense to the student!
During this process the learner is constantly revisiting and re-evaluating the information, whilst linking key ideas together as a complete picture. Recall subsequently improves dramatically, and even learners with difficulties, are often thrilled to find that they are ‘remembering’ things in a way they could not before.
Repetition strengthens neural pathways and if the brain registers that the individual is trying to hold onto particular information for future reference, it will make that pathway more permanent, creating a stronger memory that is readily called to mind.
If it is not possible for each student to make their own cards, you can attach a set of your own randomly to a pin board and ask students at the end of each lesson, to reason out the links between them, whilst they direct a volunteer where to pin the cards in relation to each other. I can assure you that even adult learners love this activity!
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