How to Tap Memory Systems to Deepen Learning

Memorization can get a bad rap in education debates, conjuring images of mindless repetition or a “drill and kill” pedagogy. After all, why memorize something when we can look it up on our phone?

This is an interesting article about the importance of memorizing material. It emphasizes the importance of teachers having a better understanding of the brain’s memory system, in order to help students develop stronger study habits and engage them in deep learning.

In the article written by Deborah Farmer Kris, we learn about the book by Barbara Oakley, co-author of the new book “Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn.”

She distinguishes between students who absorb and master skills faster than others, the race car learners and the hiker brains.

Our brains are wired to acquire “biologically primary material” with very little effort – think of a toddler learning their first language. Oakley calls this the “easy stuff.”  Biologically secondary material – or “the hard stuff” – includes skills that we haven’t yet evolved to do, but that we can acquire and store in our long-term memory with instruction and practice. These include reading, writing and mathematics.

I recommend reading the whole article and of course buying the book. Here are some useful points for you to adopt when planning the next school year.

You can also watch the Uncommon Sense webinar here. One of my takeaways is the focus on motivation. What motivates students? Teacher expectations are one. This is actually something that was of great interest to my students when we wrote a book together, Connected learners a step-by-step guide to creating a global classroom.

Every educator wants to experience the moment of “flow” when all the goals are set and understood and work is moving along easily and naturally. When we read about engaging students in the classroom using technology and social media, authors often leave us with the impression that this work will flow gentle as a stream. When talking about motivation and learning in school, grit is most often left out of the conversation. Yet, according to Daniel Pink, the best predictor of success is grit, defined as perseverance and passion for long term goals.

Simple strategies for integrating more active learning into a class period include:

  • Offering brain breaks: Breaks are crucial to long-term memory formation. When students relax mentally, even for a minute or two, it gives their brain time to consolidate new learning. Think of it as interval training for the brain, says Oakley.
  • Use the Jot-Recall Technique: Pause while teaching and help students check whether they’ve moved the material from working into long-term memory. Take one minute and have them jot down important ideas from class, jot down a sketch to visually represent their learning, or jot down key ideas from previous classes that relates to the topic at hand. This retrieval practice is especially important for students who struggle with working memory.
  • Teach Students How to Engage in Active Recall: Remember the student who looks at the vocabulary list and thinks they have it memorized? Teach students to regularly put away their notes or shut their book and see what they can recall. Have them teach a science technique to a classmate, tell the story of photosynthesis to a pet, or create a study guide without looking at their notes –  and then go back to fill in the gaps.
  • Engage in Think-Pair-Share: Activities such as think-pair-share ask students to engage individually, engage with a partner and then engage with the class. In effect, they are interacting with the information three times in quick succession, helping strengthen their neural pathways.
  • Practice Interleaving: Interleaving involves mixing up practice problems instead of working on nearly identical activities over and over again.  This builds in active recall practice and cognitive flexibility as students have to consciously decide what information or procedure to apply to a given problem. And the practice builds procedural memory.

And for those students who already feel like learning is a constant struggle? Remind them that speed isn’t smarts. “Too many students think they are dumb because they don’t get it quickly the first time.  You can still be a highly successful learner who is not one of those race cars who picks it up easily. There are Nobel prize winners who are hiker learners, who didn’t do very well when they were in high school. They really struggled with their learning. And it was that struggle that actually helped them to see the problems that all the race car learners just jumped right over,” says Oakley.

I would love to hear from you