By Glenda Thorne, Ph.D.
Imagine life without memories. We would have no identity. We would ask the same questions over and over because we would not be able to remember the answers to them. We would live forever in the present moment and have no recollection of our pasts, including people and experiences that are important to us, and no anticipation of the future.
Memory is crucial for all of us and there is no time during which memory demands are greater than the school years. The school environment is not often a “memory-friendly” one, however. Children are presented with new information all throughout the school day and given little opportunity to consolidate this information before other new information is presented to them. What children remember is more often than not used as the yardstick to judge what they have learned. If they perform poorly on a test because they can’t retrieve what they know from long-term memory in order to answer test questions, the assumption usually is that learning has not taken place.
Just as there is a relationship between learning and remembering, there is also a relationship between understanding and remembering. If we understand something, we are usually able to remember it better. Understanding enables us to know where to store the information in long-term memory (e.g., what category to place it in), and effective storage usually leads to effective retrieval. Also, if we are able to retrieve previously learned information from long-term memory when we are presented with new to-be-learned information, we can make associations between the two and thus understand the new information better. In this way, memory facilitates understanding. If we think of our long-term memory in our brains as a network of connections, then what we are doing is making new connections between what we already know and what we are trying to learn. And the more dense and complex this network is, the easier it is to store and retrieve new information.
Many school children perform poorly because they do not understand the difference between understanding and remembering. They often think that if they understand something, they will remember it. Think about a joke someone recently told you. It is likely that you laughed when you heard the joke because you understood it; but did you remember it? Could you retell it to someone else? For me, the answer would be an emphatic, “No!” I rarely remember jokes because I process them at a very superficial level with no intent to store them in my long-term memory.
School children often think that if they understand what their teachers say about some topic or if they understand what they read in their textbooks, they will remember the information. Therefore, they don’t need to study much, if at all, for a test because they understood their teacher’s discussion or the chapter in their book. This failure to recognize the difference between understanding and remembering often leads to the demise of many students. The students become frustrated and don’t know what to do to improve poor test grades.
Most of the students that I see clinically tell me that their major study strategy consists of reading over their notes and/or handouts that were given to them by their teachers prior to a test. Some tell me that they don’t even do that because they “understood” the information when it was covered in class. Therefore, a prerequisite to making good grades for some students would be to know that understanding the subject matter is not enough; they must also actively engage in activities that will lead to the storage and ultimate retrieval of relevant information from long-term memory.
General Principles for Enhancing Memory and Learning
There are several general principles gleaned from research that can be applied in the academic setting for enhancing memory and learning. They are summarized below.
1. Understanding and Remembering
Students need to be taught the relationship and differences between understanding and remembering. That is, they need to know that simply sitting in class and understanding the information their teachers present in discussions and/or lectures or understanding what they read in their textbooks is usually not enough to enable them to perform well on traditional tests. They must also engage in some activity for the purpose of enabling them to remember what they understand.
2. Activation of Prior Knowledge
When students are learning new information, teachers should activate their prior about the subject being taught. This may be accomplished by asking students two questions. The first is, “What do you know about . . .?” The second is, “What do you want to know about . . .?” Activating prior knowledge about a topic provides students with a “hook” to hang the new information on in their mental memory network.
3. Maintenance Rehearsal Versus Elaborative Rehearsal
Maintenance rehearsal, as the term implies, consists of using some memory strategy that keeps or maintains information in short-term memory, but does little to facilitate the transfer of the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Repeating a telephone number over and over again until it is dialed is an example of maintenance rehearsal. Elaborative rehearsal is a more active process that involves elaborating on the new incoming information in some way. Elaboration may consist of making associations between the new information and what one already knows, creating a mental image of the new information, recoding information in some way (e.g., taking notes on a chapter while reading it), or creating some mnemonic device that helps memory of the information. Elaborative rehearsal is more effective both for transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory and for storing information in long-term memory. Many students unknowingly use maintenance rehearsal strategies as their primary strategies for learning. For example, when learning vocabulary words, they write the words on one side of index cards and the definitions of the words on the other side of the cards. They then repeat both over and over again. While the act of writing the words and their definitions on index cards is not in itself useless, study should consist of more than reading the two over and over. Students should still engage in some sort of elaborative rehearsal strategy.
4. Multiple Sensory and Multiple Format Instruction
For a number of years, teachers have heard the term multisensory instructional methods – using multiple senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting) – when teaching material to students. The use of multisensory instruction continues to be important for enhancing memory and learning for all children. In addition to multisensory teaching methods, information should also be presented in multiple formats, such as in spatial and linear formats. The computer program Inspiration is useful for this purpose. Inspiration enables students to create and modify concept map webs and other graphic organizers. It also enables students to convert the concept maps they have created into traditional linear outlines. Additionally, it helps students prioritize and rearrange ideas to create essays and reports, as well as to organize information from their class notes or textbook chapters. Thus, it provides students with a number of ways to recode information, and this recoding facilitates long-term memory storage and retrieval.
5. Proactive and Retroactive Interference
Both of these concepts are important ones for schools and teachers to know and address, particularly with regard to the length of class periods and instructional methods. When storage or consolidation of newly learned material is disrupted by prior learning, the phenomenon is referred to as proactive interference. When subsequent learning disrupts the consolidation of information in memory, the phenomenon is called retroactive interference. During the traditional school day, students are presented with new or partially new information approximately every 45 to 60 minutes. This situation produces fertile ground for proactive and retroactive interference to disrupt the storage of knowledge in long-term memory. If proactive interference occurs, the learning of information presented in the first class will interfere with the learning of information presented in the second class. If retroactive interference occurs, the opposite situation will exist. That is, the learning of information in the second class will interfere with the learning of information in the first class.
Because of proactive and retroactive interference, block scheduling is a good alternative to traditional scheduling. With block scheduling, students have approximately four 90-minute classes each day. If teachers use the 90 minutes wisely (i.e., they do not simply lecture for 90 minutes instead of 45 minutes), they can provide students with opportunities to engage in activities that will actually enhance the consolidation of the new to-be-learned information in long-term memory. Proactive and retroactive interference also provide rationale for curricula that crosses different disciplines.
6. Episodic and Semantic Memory Systems
Episodic memory is the memory system that stores information about the events or episodes in our lives. Semantic memory is the memory of knowledge and concepts. Because individual differences exist in the effectiveness of both of these memory systems, teachers should use multiple, varied activities, such as projects, group work and field trips. Parents should also reinforce learning by exposing children to active learning experiences such as trips and tours.
7. Perceptual and Conceptual Priming
Perceptual priming refers to the phenomenon that prior perception of an object leads to easier subsequent perception of the same object. Priming occurs on a conceptual dimension as well. Thus, exposing students to concepts via advance organizers such as introducing vocabulary, objectives and/or questions prior to reading or presentation of new information can facilitate the memory and learning of this information.
8. Classical or Associative Conditioning
Classical conditioning consists of pairing a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that in the absence of learning evokes some response (i.e., unconditioned response). Subsequently, the previously neutral stimulus simply by its association with the original stimulus comes to elicit a similar response called the conditioned response. Many positive and negative emotional responses to situations are learned through the process of classical conditioning. Teachers and school personnel need to be aware of this phenomenon because it can be the cause of many fears and anxieties associated with and experienced in the school setting. By the same token, teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon to enhance children’s positive feelings in school.
9. Nonassociative or Evaluative Learning
This term refers to the influence that prior experience has on whether a stimulus is subsequently perceived as positive or negative. We tend to favor familiar stimuli over unfamiliar stimuli. This concept is important for teachers to remember when they are introducing new unfamiliar learning activities to their students. Students may have an initial knee-jerk negative reaction to these activities. In addition, this concept may be useful for understanding and overcoming discrimination against racial, ethnic, cultural or learning differences that are common in the educational environment. These differences may be less favored simply because they are less familiar.
10. Encoding and Retrieval Practice
Encoding practice for school students generally consists of various ways of inputting to-be-learned information. Specific strategies might include reading and re-reading textbook chapters or lecture notes (i.e., maintenance rehearsal), or more effective strategies such as outlining or mind mapping information presented in the book or during class lectures and/or using some mnemonic strategy such as the method of loci or word substitution method to encode information in long-term memory. Retrieval practice consists of engaging in activities that call for the recall or access of stored information in long-term memory. Studies have shown that in some cases retrieval practice may actually be more effective for retention of information than encoding practice. Thus, research supports the notion that activities such as reviews of previously presented information when students are asked questions in class, practice tests, studying with other students and parents who ask questions about the information to-be-learned, and constructing and completing self-tests should enhance memory and learning.
11. Retrieval Cues and the Encoding Specificity Hypothesis
A retrieval cue is a stimulus that is stored with the to-be-learned information. Retrieval cues facilitate the recall or access of the stored information. The encoding specificity hypothesis states that retrieval cues must be present when learning takes place in order to be effective in facilitating the recall of information. Retrieval cues may take various forms. They may consist of conceptual categories that the new information is placed in. They may also be visual images or other words that the new information is associated with at the time it is stored in long-term memory. Retrieval cues may consist of prior knowledge that has been activated and used as the “hook” in memory for hanging new knowledge on, or it may be experiential in nature, such as completing a project or going on a field trip. When students are provided with the retrieval cues (e.g., multiple choice tests or tests with word banks), it is easier for them to access information that has been stored in long-term memory.
12. Mnemonic Methods
Memorization of facts and knowledge through the use of mnemonic methods may provide the scaffolding for higher order thinking. Mnemonic learning might be especially helpful for storage and retrieval of information in long-term memory when students lack a relevant knowledge base about the topic they are studying. When mnemonics are used during encoding or information, they may provide visual imagery or verbal elaborations that serve as cues for recalling information that is low in imagery or in meaningfulness. Students can generate their own mnemonic devices or their teachers can provide them with mnemonic materials.
Students often need help with identifying their specific individual profiles of memory strengths and weaknesses. For example, children who have problems in the school setting often have a relative weakness in auditory short-term memory and a relative strength in visual short-term memory. This knowledge will help enable them to develop and/or understand the need for strategies to deal with situations that place considerable demands on auditory short-term memory.