By Glenda Thorne and Alice Thomas
“I just don’t understand. Steven knew all of his spelling words when we went over them on Thursday night, but he made a D on his spelling test on Friday.”
“My daughter Janet remembers the most intricate details about our family holidays – the numbers of the condominiums we stayed in for the last three years and what tie Uncle George wore last Christmas. But she can’t seem to remember information for her biology test. How can we help her?”
“When I’m working long division problems, my brain gets too full, and I can’t remember where I am in the problem.”
These and similar remarks are commonly made by parents and students. It is important for students to understand the different kinds and components of memory and what their memory strengths and challenges are in order to develop strategies or memory tricks or techniques (mnemonics) to overcome their memory problems.
First, let’s look at several different memory systems that allow us to process, store and recall information. Information which first comes to us through our senses is stored for a fleeting moment within the sensory memory, usually called the sensory register. We are surrounded by sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations and countless other stimuli. These stimuli appear to be accurately reproduced in the sensory register. For example, when we look out the window, for a fraction of a second our brain absorbs all the varied colors, shapes and patterns. Unless this information is transferred to short-term memory, however, it disappears within a second or two.
The next memory system, short-term memory, provides a temporary resting place for information such as sensory information. Short-term memory, as the name implies, has a short duration. For example, when we call information and get a telephone number, we need only to remember it long enough to write it down or to dial it. Then we usually forget it. The capacity of short-term memory, by the way, is about seven items or chunks of unrelated information, which is why phone numbers are not more than seven numbers.
Another memory system is working memory which is the process by which several task components can be held on the screen at one time in order to complete a task. For example, in order to perform long division, we must hold division facts, multiplication facts, subtraction facts, how to write numbers, and the steps for performing long division all at once. The student describing that his brain was too full when doing long division was describing a breakdown in working memory. In computer terms, it is the inability to keep several files open on the desk top at once. Have you ever been in the kitchen and gone to your bedroom closet to get something, only to arrive at the threshold of your closet without any memory of what you came to get? That is another example of a working memory breakdown.
If the student is having difficulty with Short-Term Memory:
Actively engage the student by asking him to repeat or paraphrase the information.
Give a visual example as well as a verbal one (for example, write the phone number down in addition to giving it orally). Many wonderful brains have a keener capacity to remember what they have seen better than what they have heard.
If the student is having difficulty with Working Memory:
Encourage the student to become an active reader–underline, highlight, or jot key words down words in the margin or on post-it notes when reading chapters. Then go back and read what is underlined, highlighted, or written in the margins, or put all the post-its in linear order on a sheet of paper as a way of creating a virtual active working memory.
When performing long division, have the student use a post-it note to record the four steps (estimate, multiply, subtract, bring down). Then move the post-it from problem to problem, or use a multiplication fact chart or a calculator for the internal steps in the problem.
If the student is having difficulty with Long-Term Memory:
Talk about the different ways to consolidate information so it is compressed (paraphrasing) so there is less to store.
Model how to cross-reference or cross-file. If facts are registered under several categories, the odds are increased for readily finding it somewhere. For example, a cat is a mammal, a warm blooded animal, a pet, and perhaps a Persian.
Talk about your own memory struggles. It is comforting for children to know that the heroes in their lives adults have experienced similar problems, and turned out okay.
Model some of your own mnemonic devices, and play an imagination game with the goal being to think up new memory strategies for, say, social studies vocabulary words. The crazier or more absurd the story or picture, the more likely it will be remembered.
Encourage experiential learning experiences. When learners, both young and old, experience something, they are much more likely to remember it. Evenly dividing a tray of brownies (and then eating them) gives a second grade class a much quicker understanding of equal fractions than a verbal definition.
Engage the use of all of the senses when studying – visual, auditory, and touch (tactile-kinesthetic). For example, say the letters of a spelling word out loud while looking at it and writing it below the example at the same time allows the brain to be bombarded with the information from three directions simultaneously.
Give the student with slow retrieval extended time for taking tests so that a true picture of what she knows may be gained.
Remind the child that at no time in his life is memory worked harder than when in school. As adults, we are able to specialize in a particular field, and we no longer have to keep information on a multitude of subjects at our fingertips.
Memory does indeed play tricks on us all. Our job is to help kids find fun memory tricks to replace tricky memory.