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Where did it all go? Thoughts about student memory and retention

Have you ever taught something and your class really seemed to get it, only to revisit the concept a short while later, and it’s as if they never heard of it? Better yet, have you patted yourself on the back after your students aced an exam only for you to ask a related question two days later and get back a class full of blank stares? It’s almost as if their minds were one big etch-a-sketch that had once memorized lots of information before being wiped clean.

If you’re like me, you’ve had that experience more than once. And we all know how it feels. It can be one of the most frustrating experiences for a teacher, seemingly invalidating all of the hard work — in terms of preparation, content delivery and reinforcement — of the past many weeks. Why does this happen and what can teachers do to ensure that students properly process and retain key information?

While there is no single answer to these questions, we do know that forgetting is due largely to a lack of proper encoding. When information comes into our brains through one of the five senses, our brain first determines what is important to attend to and what to ignore. Researchers tell us that at every moment our brain is processing over 2 BILLION pieces of information, relating to our environment, the temperature and so much more.

Information the brain chooses to “keep” first enters into our short-term memory (STM). However, our STM can only serve as a staging area for the next stage of retention, as it is limited in its ability to hold much information (only about seven independent items at one time) and for much time (approximately half a minute). It’s like our STM is a combined Twitter-Snapchat app that will hold and then auto-delete small amounts of content unless moved to a more permanent storage area.

That’s where our long-term memory (LTM) comes in. LTM is like our internal hard drive, offering long-term memory and storage in various parts of the brain’s cortex. If properly encoded, the information can remain for a lifetime. So what can teachers do to ensure that information gets properly stored and encoded by their students and that it can be properly retrieved as needed?

1. Organize and order information. All learners do best when they are able to easily organize information and know where to find it when they need it. This is similar to when we seek to save a computer file; we can do so most easily if there is a folder or subfolder in which to put it.

One way to do this is to offer students graphic organizers with which to organize their ideas and create a visual representation of the information. For example, use a cluster/word web to divide a big idea (“primary causes of the Civil War”; main characteristics of a plant cell”) into smaller components that can then be divided further into greater detail. A flow chart or timeline can help students organize and remember historical sequences or progressions in the narrative.

2. Group similar concepts or related ideas. This is particularly useful for lists and other, seemingly disparate content. For instance, say you want your students to remember a list of 20 different sports that are part of the Olympic Games. Instead of asking students to simply memorize the list, help them to group the sports by type (winter/summer; individual/team, water/field, etc.) so that they can focus on clusters rather than on many independent words and concepts.

3. Use the funnel approach. Teachers can help students remember information if they teach general concepts before moving on to specific details. This is called the “funnel approach.” Just as with a funnel, which is wide on top and then gets progressively slimmer down toward the bottom, you begin with the wide concepts. Once the general concepts are understood, details relate better, make more sense, and fall more neatly in line.

4. Add “mental glue.” Mental glue is a form of elaborative encoding that helps us remember things. We remember via context, such as the place where something occurred or was taught, specific actions associated with the learning (cooperative groupings, soft toss Q&A, etc.), and even with the clothes that we were wearing. One memory expert once shared at a workshop that she did not change her outfits for entire units (!) in order to help her students retrieve information by looking at her and using that as a retrieval cue.

Other ways to make information stick is to make it personally meaningful. Ask students how it relates to them, their lives, experiences or goals. You can also associate details with something well known, such as numbers with football player jerseys or well-known historical dates. Have students create a narrative (or make one for them) that includes key information. The stranger the better!

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Education.

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