Helping Kids Remember Stuff
We cannot store every piece of information our brain encounters in our memory. How does it decide what needs to be remembered? Well, since our brain likes to avoid thought, if we spend a lot of time thinking about something, our brain decides to store it.
Our brain listens to us by storing what we spend our time thinking about for easy access later. Our brain wants to save us from the slow and laborious process of thinking. To do this, it uses our memory banks.
Whatever your kids are actually thinking about is what they will remember. Well, that explains a lot!
“Memory is the residue of thought.” Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?
How do we help kids think about the things we want them to remember?
Cognitive scientists have found there is one type of presentation of material that is used in a special way by the brain.
Stories are what Willingham calls “psychologically privileged” which means they are treated differently in memory than any other type of material.
Willingham suggests that the organization of a good lesson should follow the same general format as a story.
The structure Willingham suggests is a simple and straightforward method called the four C’s.
Causality-This is the set-up, where we lead the student into caring about the question. In a movie, this usually takes around 20 minutes. It may take you the same amount of time, but the time we spend in this area is very valuable, even if we feel like we are not accomplishing much. We are getting kids interested in the question, which will lead them to think, and thinking leads to remembering.
Conflict– This is the question of the lesson. Do not present the answer directly after the question has emerged. Make sure you go through the complications and characters involved first. This will also help lead your student in the right direction, so they may get to the answer themselves.
Complications-This is all the additional details that make the answer more complex. To get here you could propose a wrong answer. If the child is already somewhat familiar with the material they may even get excited about your wrong answer and delight in telling you why that can’t be the correct answer. To prove it to you, they will have to think and that will help them remember.
Character-The characters may be hard to think about for some lessons, as they may not always be people. If studying chemistry, the characters are the elements. If studying math, the characters are both numbers and symbols. I am not saying we need to personify an equals sign, an equals sign already has a strong character, which is clearly defined, and unyielding in meaning.
Reasons stories boost understanding and memory
- Our brain is familiar with the pattern of stories and so information presented in that pattern is easier for us to interpret.
- Stories are interesting, this may because they require inferences that our brain rewards us for figuring out, stories with an excess of detail are less interesting probably because no work is left for our own brain to do.
- They are easy to remember because we have to connect many dots inside of a story forcing our brain to think about meaning the whole time.
- Also, because of stories causal structure once we remember one part of the story we can usually remember the whole story.
“My intention here is not to suggest that you simply tell stories, although there’s nothing wrong with doing so.” Daniel T. Willingham
“The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.” Daniel T. Willingham
One thing to remember is that an answer by itself is not very interesting, it only becomes interesting because of the question, and if we want students to think about the meaning we have to remind ourselves again, and again, to start with the question and also not to rush too fast towards the answer.
What About Learning Mundane Facts?
Okay, so what about topics that seem meaningless, or lists of facts students actually need to know before they can move into a skill.
Such as needing to know the sounds of the alphabet before they can read.
Or learning math facts so they have space left in working memory to remember the steps in long division?
Or spelling, how much meaning is there in spelling words that are not phonetic in nature? (Well, I have to say, there is usually interesting history behind those words, so usually, we can actually get to meaning even there.)
The point is, there are times you may decide kids needs to rote memorize something as a stepping stone to being able to understand the meaning behind something.
Since there is no intrinsic meaning we cannot use the story structure without it being somewhat contrived (although I will always love you, Alphablocks, for turning the learning of letter sounds into a story).
What is the best method for rote memory?
Willingham goes over various mnemonic devices, but here I am just going to focus on the ones that research has found the most effective.
The acronym method
This can be helpful if you already know the facts, it can help you remember all of them. Can you name all of the Great Lakes?
Even if you can’t, you may know that you know them. The information is somewhere in your brain but you need help finding it.
What if I tell you to use HOMES as a clue to help you? Each lake starts with one of the letters. For me, the acronym is the difference between being able to recall them all and drawing a complete blank.
But acronyms are not magic, your student still has to get all of those names into long-term memory, this is where repetition comes in. Once your student spends enough time thinking about the names of the Great Lakes, their brain is going to go “Hey, I think I need to store this info, it is causing a lot of work for me!”
The only problem with using a song is that it takes a lot of work to write a song. Another thing about using songs for learning that drives me nuts is the lack of the quality of a song. If the song is painful to listen to, your brain is probably going to try to block it out! Having said that, when you do find good songs that cover material that needs to be memorized, use them. They are very effective memory aids.
Chanting in rhythm is also a great help when trying to memorize information. It is fairly easy to take any set of facts and set them to rhythm.
Of course, whether you use acronyms, songs, or chants repetition is still an essential part of getting the information to stick. Because what you spend time thinking about is what you will remember.
Using these ‘tricks’ will only be effective if your student understands the meanings behind the facts and has reason to refer back to the information frequently.
Start with stories and get kids interested, get them thinking, then add in some acronyms, songs, or chants. Also, remember, the ability to memorize information is not fixed, it gets easier with practice.