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Top Strategies to Enhance Students Memory

Why is Cognitive Health Important

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The memory demands for school-age children are much greater than they are for adults. As adults, we have already acquired much of the knowledge and skills we need to function day to day. Although the knowledge base for some fields such as technology changes rapidly, the new information is generally highly specific and builds on existing knowledge. On the other hand, school children are constantly bombarded with new knowledge in multiple topic areas in which they may or may not be interested. Additionally, they are expected to both learn and demonstrate mastery of this knowledge regularly. Thus, an effective and efficient memory is critical for school success.

Many students have memory problems. Students who have deficits in registering information in short-term memory often have difficulty remembering instructions or directions they have just been given, what was just said during conversations and class lectures and discussions, and what they just read. Students who have difficulty with working memory often forget what they are doing while doing it.

Top Strategies to Enhance Students Memory

The following top strategies are offered to help students develop a more efficient and effective memory.

1. Using Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is the strategy of recalling facts, concepts, or events from memory in order to enhance learning. The act of retrieving something from your memory actually strengthens the connections holding it there, making it more likely that you’ll be able to recall it in the future. A classic example of retrieval practice is using flashcards as a study tool. Sometimes called the “testing effect,” retrieval practice in teaching is not limited to quizzes or exams, but can include any exercise where students attempt to retrieve what they have learned from their memory.

Retrieval practice is especially effective at increasing longer-term retention and generally outperforms more common strategies such as repeated studying. Research in classrooms demonstrates that retrieval practice is an extremely robust strategy across age groups and subject domains. Retrieval practice also aids in higher-order thinking; it’s not just for memorization. Students who use retrieval practice perform better on complex tasks and show improved metacognition.

Suppose you’re studying the systems of the human body—skeletal, muscular, circulatory, and so on. You could do retrieval practice by attempting to name those systems without looking at the list. Once you’ve listed all you can remember, you’d open up your book or notes and check to see if you got them right.

Following are the ways retrieval practice can be implemented:

  • Past Papers: Past papers are one of the most useful and accessible methods of retrieval practice. They are particularly useful as they are specific to the exams you will be taking, rather than just general test questions. By doing past papers – most of which are free online or available through your teacher – you can use retrieval practice with content that is directly relevant to your studies and exams.
  • Multiple Choice Tests: Multiple choice tests can be particularly useful if you are at an earlier stage of revision, as you don’t need to know the answer instinctively; you just need to be able to recognize the correct answer from a set of options. This is still an effective method of retrieval practice as you are responding to a question, but you can select the right answer rather than create it from scratch. Multiple-choice tests may be useful before you use past papers.
  • Essay Answers: Essay answers may well be included in your past papers, but they are a useful method of retrieval practice independently too. This is because they require you to synthesize multiple pieces of information into fluent prose and likely perform some analysis, which will improve retention more than merely recalling isolated facts. Research has shown that the more you do with the information, the more likely you are to recall it.
  • Answering a Question Aloud: Answering a spoken question is a useful form of retrieval practice as replying aloud makes you think about the information differently and make quick connections under pressure. It has been found that reading things aloud is more beneficial than in silence, as it prompts a range of senses and actions.
  • Testing Yourself with Flashcards: Flashcards you’ve made yourself are great because all the questions are directly relevant to your exam rather than being generic questions about the topic. You know what you need to be tested on the most, so you can tailor the questions to your weak spots while using retrieval practice.
  • Having Someone Ask You Questions: One of the most effective methods of learning is teaching others. This approach combines teaching others with answering questions, so is doubly effective for helping you learn. It also allows you to involve others in your learning, which is useful as having a supportive group around you is important for doing well at school. Answering questions from someone lets you discover how well you understand the material, as you’ll need to explain it to them and they can ask follow-up questions to test your knowledge even further.

2. Contextualizing Learning

Contextualized learning, as it suggests, refers to learning the content in a context, i.e., embedding the concepts in meaningful activities and in a scenario that makes sense to the students to enhance their understanding and to make the concepts more relatable. It is important to remember that skills that we want to teach to students, such as problem-solving, analytical thinking, or even dribbling a ball, do not exist in isolation; using purposeful contexts and learning activities, we can show students where these skills are applicable and why they should know them.

Scaffolding is one such process that allows the students to work in a contextualized setting and solve problems while focusing on building the associated skill. The following figure presents a pictorial representation of how scaffolding works — if we want a student to achieve the learning outcome which is new to them and out of their reach (by virtue of being on top of a building), we can build scaffolds or supporting structures around the building to help the student get to the learning outcome.

These supports involve meaningful activities and continuous feedback and assessment to ensure that the student is able to build independence. Like scaffolds in construction, the scaffolds in teaching are temporary structures that are removed, i.e., less and less feedback is offered, as the student develops the targeted skill.

Strategies to Enhance Students Memory

3. Interleaved Practice

When you are learning two or more related concepts or skills, instead of focusing exclusively on one concept or skill at a time, it can be helpful to alternate between them (for example, if you are learning topic A and topic B, rather than practice only A on one day and only B on the next, you can practice both on each day by incorporating a mixture of the two topics or by switching back and forth between them). Examples of materials that interleaved practice can benefit include similar types of math problems (for example, calculating volumes of different shapes), easily confused grammatical tenses, and similar classes of visual stimuli.

This strategy forces the brain to continually retrieve because each practice attempt is different from the last, so rote responses pulled from short-term memory won’t work. Cognitive psychologists believe that interleaving improves the brain’s ability to differentiate, or discriminate, between concepts and strengthens memory associations. Because interleaving involves retrieval practice, it is more difficult than blocked practice. It is important to remember that effortful studying feels worse but produces better long-term results.

To interleave while studying, students should choose several topics and spread them throughout their study sessions. The topics can be from the same or different subjects, but some experts believe that this strategy is most beneficial when the subjects are related in some way. For example, during a study session, a student could devote some time to math, some time to chemistry, some time to biology, and then cycle back through the topics, possibly studying the topics in a different order and using different study strategies. 

Changing things up forces students to retrieve information and make new connections between the topics: for example, how is this topic in biology-related to what was just studied in chemistry? It is important to devote enough time to each topic to ensure that a deeper understanding is achieved each time the topic is studied. Learners should be careful not to use interleaving as an excuse to switch to another subject when the current subject becomes too challenging. Instead, they should persist in one subject until they have a sense of accomplishment before moving on to another subject.

4. Develop Cues When Storing Information

According to memory research, information is easier retrieved when it is stored using a cue and that cue should be present at the time the information is being retrieved. For example, the acronym HOMES can be used to represent the names of the Great Lakes — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. The acronym is a cue that is used when the information is being learned, and recalling the cue when taking a test will help the student recall the information.

Strategies to Enhance Students Memory

Here is one more example of such a cue. An easy way to remember the major elements for all living things is C HOPKINS CaFe Mg. C (Carbon), H (Hydrogen), O (Oxygen), P (Phosphorus), K (Potassium), I (Iodine), N (Nitrogen), S (Sulphur),  Ca (Calcium), Fe (Iron), and Mg (Magnesium) are the major elements required for all living things.

5. Be an Active Reader

Active reading simply means reading something with a determination to understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs. Simply reading and re-reading the material isn’t an effective way to understand and learn. Actively and critically engaging with the content can save you time. 

Try these techniques to make your reading active

  • Underline or highlight keywords and phrases as you read. When you return to it later on, you can easily see which points you identified as important. Be selective – too much highlighting won’t help.
  • Make annotations in the margin to summarise points, raise questions, challenge what you’ve read, jot down examples, and so on. You can do this in printed books or etexts. This takes more thought than highlighting, so you’ll probably remember the content better. (Use sticky notes if you don’t want to mark the text.)
  • Read critically by asking questions about the text. Who wrote it? When? Who is the intended audience? Does it link with other material you’ve studied in the module? Why do you think it was written? Is it an excerpt from a longer piece of text?
  • Test yourself by reading for half an hour, putting the text away, and jotting down the key points from memory. Go back to the text to fill in gaps.
  • Look for ‘signposts’ that help you understand the text – phrases like ‘most importantly’, ‘in contrast’, ‘on the other hand’.
  • Explain what you’ve read to someone else.
  • Record yourself reading the module material or your notes, and listen to the recording while you’re traveling or doing household chores.

6. Reviewing Material Before Going to Sleep

It should be helpful for students to review material right before going to sleep at night. Research has shown that information studied this way is better remembered. Any other task that is performed after reviewing and prior to sleeping (such as getting a snack, brushing teeth, listening to music) interferes with the consolidation of information in memory.

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