Helping our students to remember: ten strategies – Victoria Littler

The original blog can be found here:

How do we help our students to retain information, particularly quotations and facts?

It is an age-old question, but it is a very good one. It is not about producing unthinking parrots that squawk out facts and quotations and exhibit little understanding of their meaning; instead, the automatic memorisation of information helps to free up the working memory of our students so that they can make insightful interpretations and evaluate meaning more easily.

We need to help our students remember the content of the material, but be able to show their deep understanding of them too. So rather than focusing on just the memory of the words, we need to attend to the meaning of the words as well. Happily, by elaborating on the meaning of the quotation, it proves easier to remember by rote too. It is a win-win!

In essence, we need to give our students multiple tools to do this job of memorising and making inferences and insights. If a singular quotation, for instance, has multiple different memory cues, such as a visual symbol that helps them remember the meaning of a key word or phrase in the quote, then they are more likely to both embed that quotation in their long-term memory and then to retrieve it when they need to do so. Here are some handy tips to do just that:

  1. Remember, remember… rhymes and mnemonics. Creating little rhymes and mnemonics is a classic strategy for memorising quotations. It draws upon a few memory principles. First, repetition. We better remember the rhythms and patterns of speech and song. By utilising this predilection for rhythm, stress and repeating phrases and words orally, we give students an easy cue for remembering the information.
  2. Spaced repetition of information. We know from over a hundred years of memory research (seek out Herman Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’ from 1885) that we gradually forget facts over time – no surprise there! This can help us mitigate memory loss. For example, if you are learning five quotes from ‘Romeo & Juliet’, then you could practice and annotate the notes on Monday, then have a quick reminder on Wednesday and a quiz at the end of the quiz. If you return to that quiz in two months, you make students struggle, but in a way that helps them remember. This notion of ‘retrieval practice’ is crucial for remembering material in volume. We therefore need to support students with our lesson planning and curriculum planning.
  3. Interactive quizzing. Quizzing is an age-old approach and it has stuck because it works. This low stakes testing approach is memorable because of the ‘testing effect’: we remember better when we have been tested on something. Quizzes are common but pretty much essential to good instruction that aids memory.
  4. Provide students with visual cues and symbols. We are able to cram a lot of content into our visual memory. If we asked students to list the objects in their room they would do a decent job; however, if we first gave them time to visualise that same room, they’d likely increase their powers of recall. Good readers visualise all the time. We need to make the strategy explicit, drawing out symbols and connecting visual ideas. Using images associated with quotations offers our students vital memory cues.
  5. Build the ‘memory palace’ of quotations and facts. The ‘memory palace’ is a strategy that is thousands of years old. You create a palace, or a humble house, with multiple rooms. You then compartmentalise the rooms and start to allocate different quotations or pieces of information to different rooms, linking these to objects. Put simply, it draws upon the power of visualisation from point 4, helping create a coherent narrative between bits of information.
  6. Only connect…the story and the material. Students are often good at remembering single facts, but they are then unable to skilfully connect them up. Now, we know that stories are psychologically privileged in the human mind, so we can connect the different quotes/facts to a narrative. I am a fan of remembering quotes/facts in chronological order for this very reason and I often encourage students to retell the story of the novel or play through that quotation/fact sequence.
  7. Shorter quotations, with a narrower focus. Students, left to their own devices, will think that learning long quotations are more effective: simply, long is better. The reality is that this approach clogs up their working memory. If they focus more on individual words, phrases and shorter quotations, then will be more likely to generate in-depth explanations of those shorter quotations – the stuff of exam success.
  8. Fewer facts and quotes, but deeper. Some students are adept at learning lots and lots of these. The issue is not simply a student knowing 40 useful things; it is about knowing perhaps 15 things in great depth. Put simply, fewer, in this case is more.
  9. ‘Just a minute’ meaning rehearsal. One key approach to having deeper quotation/fact knowledge is to demand that students remember the quote/fact AND the many associated meanings (if there aren’t any multiple meanings, is it a good quotation/fact to recall?). Simply, ask students to talk for ‘just a minute’ on an individual quotation. If they can’t then they may have another go later. Also, if they can’t, others fill the gap. It becomes an interesting and interactive approach to pooling insight & knowledge.
  10. Promote ‘word consciousness’. Students too often remember the quotation but have a superficial understanding, or a singular insight, into meaning. By promoting ‘word consciousness’, we get students to look at layers of meanings within words. For example, a key word in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is misanthropic (misanthropic comes from the Greek: ‘miso’ – hating; ‘anthropos’ – man. People who hate people i.e. Scrooge). We should go to town on teaching these crucial vocabulary choices so that students understand the etymology of the word, thereby enhancing their depth of word knowledge and making the quotation more likely to stick in their memory.

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