Top Ten Favorite Tips to Improve Children’s Memory
Parents favorite tips to help children remember, from a neurologist & teacher
Posted January 21, 2015
Top Ten Favorite Tips to Improve Children’s Memory
Studying for tests is tough on kids and parents. I’m frequently asked to speak and write about how parents can help their children remember things they need to learn for school. From my perspective as a neurologist and teacher, I’ve evaluated the neuroscience research about how the brain learns and remembers most successfully. This article brings together the strategies I’ve suggested, based on that research, reported by parents and educators to be most helpful.
Multisensory input for best memory retrieval
Encourage your child to create visual imagery of history events or scientific process. Describe by example how you might visualize the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, adding details you imagine in the scene. The more dramatic, bizarre, and memorable the image, the better.
Children can then draw a sketch of their visualizations and verbally communicate it to you in their own words. This reinforces the multisensory learning because they personalize and interact with the information in multiple ways. More brain pathways are stimulated and stronger long-term memory is constructed.
How it works:The brain constantly changes through neuroplasticity (building and strengthening the most used memory networks or pruning the unused memory circuits). When a region of the brain is stimulated repeatedly (which happens when we practice and use information), the connections between neurons (nerve cells) in that memory circuit increase in number and durability. These strengthened connections, if used consistently, become long-term, durable memories.
The more regions of the brain that store data about a topic, the more interconnections there are. This redundancy or cross-connections of sensory information storage about the topic means children will have more access to retrieve all of the related stored data. When they remember one way they learned it, signals go out from that memory storage to the related multiple storage areas and all the learning is retrieved to active memory.
Finding the answers as they read or listen increases memory because they have specific goals. There is also greater memory impact resulting from the intrinsic satisfaction of goal achievement when they discover answers.
Self-questioning: Have children begin by thinking about what they might learn in the reading or hear in the teacher’s lesson. They prepare in advance by writing their predictions as unfinished statements and questions on a list before reading the assignment (and again when reviewing for the test). They can also do this on post-its with unfinished predictions or questions they write in advance. Before and as they read, they write responses to their questions (or the ones you help them prepare) on the post-its as they place them into the book.
When it is time to review, they use the original question lists or post it questions (without the answers they wrote). After answering each, they immediately check the text or notes to see if their answers are correct. By doing this after each question, with the correct information in sight, their brains rewire incorrect memory circuits with the correct information.
Here are some examples of the questions they can complete before, during, and after reading.
Before reading prediction questions such as:
* I think you’ll be telling me…
* I already know things about YOU, so I predict.....
During reading children can complete the following questions or prompts:
* You are similar to what I have learned before, because you remind me of...
* I would have preferred a picture of...(or sketch/download their own)
* This surprised me because…
* This is something I want to know more about, so I will….
* This gives me an idea for …
* I see how this could be useful for…
* I think this will be on the test because…
How it works: Questioning before reading and for studying is great because it uses all the comprehension and memory strategies that work in a way that is fun for kids and doesn’t require much written work. Because the prereading questions, predictions, and review self-questioning are not formal school assignments, there is no pressure or penalty for mistakes. They are active participants in their own learning and engage considerable mental muscle that builds strong long-term memory.
It turns out that time spent mentally working to predict, evaluate, and solve a question or problem prepares the brain for better storage when the answer is ultimately acquired. When there is a goal to discover information, that information becomes a stronger memory. Give hints if they don’t know what to write initially, but let them try to figure it out.
When learners quiz themselves on questions before a test, followed by checking the accuracy of their answers, the result is up to three times the effective memory retention compared to just reviewing the material over and over for the same amount of time. Plus the memories made by this pretesting and checking last longer so less time is needed for review on final exams.
Curiosity and the unexpected
Children are born curious. They have a sense of wonder that can be preserved during school years to enhance their enjoyment of learning and memory.. If you boost their curiosity or add novelty to a study experience the information becomes more memorable.
Children’s attention and memory systems will be more open to processing and remembering information that comes in after a novel experience. Connect what they are studying in school with something new/unusual in the car when you pick them up to spark their attention and curiosity that in some way relates to what they are learning. It can be anything from playing a song about the Mississippi River or wearing an unusual hat, cape, or watching a video clip about historical period they are studying. Even a change in their usual study space enhances the storage of what they learn because when they remember that you lit a candle at the table while they studied, they can remember the candle and the associated learning will be activated.
How it works: The brain only lets in a small part of the billions of bits of sensory information available every second. A filter in the low (unconscious, automatic, animal-like) brain decides what gets in. When you link the novel, curious, or unexpected with their studying it opens up the brain’s sensory intake filter so when the information they learn gets into their brains riding the coattails of the novelty that opened their attention filter.
Use the technique of surprise to light up your child’s brains and illuminate the pathways to memory storage. The curiosity invests your child in listening to the lesson or reading the text to satisfy their curiosity. They connect with the information that follows because their brain is engaged and links it to the novelty.
Recall that the brain’s attention filter only lets in a small part of the billions of bits of sensory information available every second. Color gets through the brain’s attention filter especially well.
Have your children use predesignated colors (colored post-its, colored pens, highlighters, etc.) each representing a specific type of information in their notes or books. Different colors can represent categories such as: levels of importance, related patterns, links to their personal experiences or prior knowledge, information they don’t fully understand, and information they consider important to return to on further review.
For younger children, you can have a reminder of how colors represent levels of importance. This can be a picture of a traffic light on the wall that demonstrates levels of importance of color starting with green, and going up to orange, then red—like the traffic light. Older children can further delineate for the other categories using a poster of a rainbow with reminders of what each color represents e.g. violet for something that relates to what he already knows or a personal experience.
How it works: Information that we learn must become integrated into durable, long-term memory circuits of connected neurons to be sustained and retrievable. This means that the learner has to “do something” with the information so the neural network will be activated.
Color-coding is one of the most powerful mental manipulation activities for preserving new memories so the neuroplastic response (see below) makes them stronger. Mental manipulation is especially critical within the first 24 hours after new learning has occurred, so the developing small connection buds grow into strong links among the neurons holding the information.
Preheat the brain
The brain keeps information in short-term memory for only less than a minute unless it connects with prior knowledge. Activate your child’s prior knowledge by reminding them of related topics they’ve learned before or about prior relevant family experiences concerning the topic. Prior knowledge is data that children have already acquired through formal teaching, personal experience, or real world associations.
“Activate” their prior knowledge by alerting children to information they already know connecting to what they are going to learn or review for a test. Show videos, family photos, or online images and hold discussions that remind your child of that prior knowledge and experience. This preheats those memories so their brains link the learning to networks already existing in their memory.
How it works: New memory encoding links the new with the known. The brain makes, stores, and retrieves new memories through pattern recognition and pattern matching. The brain’s ability to learn new memory is directly related to how successfully it can relate it to existing prior memory.
If children are made aware of what they already know that connects with new information, these relational memories will become links to hold onto new learning. Your help in activating these related memories prepares their brains to successfully construct short-term memory connections.
Strengthen Memory Relationships
After school and as review have your child “do something” with new learning that emphasizes multiple relationships with similar information already stored in memory. Your child can write or draw a timeline on paper or even on butcher-block rolls taped round the room.
Information can be added throughout the learning unit such as important events in a novel he reads for English class or in history, progressive discoveries in science leading up to the current day knowledge, or larger and larger multiplication numbers he is memorizing. Using special colored or glitter pens and adding sketches increases personal relevance and that builds motivation and memory
How it works: The brain keeps the information linked in short-term memory for less than a minute unless more is done to increase its connections. These connections increase in number and thickness each time the new memory is activated.
This “firing” of a new memory circuit is what strengthens its “wiring” as in the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together. Each time your child remembers or uses something he learned, that memory circuit is “activated”—an electrical current flows through the network. That electrical activity within the new memory circuit promotes the neuroplastic changes that will sustain the learning as long-term memory.
Frequently experienced or used memory circuits grow into the strongest, fastest networks. These are the most quickly retrieved when the information they hold is needed. This is the process of, “Practice makes permanent.”
Extending memory durability with an external brain
Increased memory strengthening into durable long-term memories takes place when your child is aware of more relationships between the new memory and other things she already has stored in memory. Help your child create more memory connections through the use of written documents representing relationships between new and previous memory networks.
The use of diagrams and charts is particularly helpful as “external brains” with the addition of graphic organizers. These are a variety of patterning tools that guide your child to recognize multiple relationships among the new with prior learning. Examples of graphic organizers such as similarity/difference charts, Venn Diagrams, and tree and leaf charts can be found at http://yhoo.it/1sUWiJr and others can be tried before purchase at http://www.inspiration.com/.
Concisely summarizing verbal or written communication requires that a learner really understand the information. (Just think about how much meaning can be found in a perfectly crafted haiku.) That concept level of understanding is the basis for the most enduring memories that can be activated to solve new problems and for creative innovation.
Older children can use real or print versions of 140 spaces to “twitter” or “text message” their understanding into concise summaries. Younger children can make “phones” (decorated towel roll) and summarize learning making imaginary phone calls to anyone of their choice. The limitation is that there is only one minute left on the phone card so they need to practice “concise summarizing” as they condense their learning into less than a minute.
How it works: When memory circuits connected through multiple relationships (categorizing, graphic organizers, analogies, similarities/differences, analogies, etc.) they join into more extended, durable long-term memory concept networks with increased strength and speed of retrieval.
Patterning refers to the meaningful organization, coding, and categorization of information in the brain. It is through the patterns constructed and stored in neural networks that our brains recognize and make meaning of the millions of bits of sensory input received every second. The greater your child’s experience in recognizing patterns, such as by sorting information into categories, the greater her chances of finding relevant patterns in new information.
Graphic organizers enhance the brain’s natural tendency to construct meaning by forming patterns. The best graphic organizers engage the children’ imaginations and positive emotions in a creative process whereby they recognize, sort, and discover patterns for themselves.
Patterning, with graphic organizers and diagrams, allows the brain to store information by adding new learning to existing categories. By using pattern recognition strategies, your child will make those links and construct permanent relational memories. These stores of related memory will increase accurate decision making, choices, and even answers to questions because the more memory linked in relational patterns, the more successfully the brain can interpret new information or questions. This is a process of prediction that occurs when the brain has enough information in a patterned memory category that it can find similar patterns to relate to new information. Then, it can predict what the patterns mean and what would be the best response to a question.
When new memories are connected to existing networks of related information already in brain storage, the neural circuits expand into strong networks that are even more effective in recognizing subsequent pattern in new learning. When he adds new memories related to information already in brain storage, the neural circuit for that pattern or category of knowledge grows larger as more connections form between nerve cells. In essence, the more information stored in the brain’s networks, the more successfully children respond to their environments. The more they learn, the more information stored in extended neural networks, the more likely their brains are to relate to new information—hence learning promotes learning.
Personalize the material by relating it to you child’s or the family’s experiences to make powerful personally meaningful, emotionally positive memories. Help her make connections to how the information relates to things she considers important, interesting, and applicable to her life. Ask, “What does that remind you of?” or “Do you think I could use that information in my work?”
Older children may be more comfortable relating the information to their potential careers or things they care about in the community or world. “How do you think you could ever use that information?” or “Why might this information be useful or important to you or to historians/writers/scientists/mathematicians in the future?” Asking questions like these shows increases the value your child’s brain places on the information and memory.
Ranking in Personalized lists: When children are invited to arrange a list of words (vocabulary, spelling, etc.) starting with the words they find the most “pleasurable” to the words they find the least “pleasurable”, they recall more than if they simply copy the list as it is several times.
How it works: Rote memory involves simply memorizing, and soon forgetting, facts that are often of little personal interest, such as a list of vocabulary words. Usually these facts are not paired with interesting connections that would give them meaningful context or relationship to children’s’ lives or past experiences. There are no neural networks (patterns) to which these isolated bits of data can connect, so permanent memories are not constructed.
By using personalizing, connecting, and other tools of increasing personal relevance, your child will spend less time memorizing. Instead, she will be able to link new information to her previous knowledge, existing categories of stored information, and personal experiences to efficiently construct permanent memories more rapidly and enjoyably.
Translate learning into another form
Using different ways makes the learning more memorable and builds more nerve cell circuits to access and remember the information.
* Write or tell a story: After reading a chapter in history, literature, science, you child can enjoy making it into story form and telling it to a younger sibling or writing it as a narrative. This works by making dry, factual information more personalized allowing more time to think about it as he “translates” the facts into an accurate but more relatable form…such as the history of Paul Revere from the perspective of his horse.
* Dramatize: Even at home, if you child puts the information into a skit or a pantomime for you to guess in a charades game, that process will increase the brain pathways to long-term memory. You can also pantomime the vocabulary word and have your child select it from the list.
* Teach the information: Have your child teach the information to you, a sibling, or even your dog or cat. The value comes from the brain’s greater mental effort understanding the process of teaching it.
How it works: To successfully turn learning into a story, skit, or lesson for someone else requires a clarity of thought and understanding that supports long term memory of the concept. Putting information in story (narrative) form, such as writing about electrons dancing circles around their friend the neutron in the center, increases memory because children grew up hearing stories. The pattern for stories (beginning, problem, resolution, happily ever after) is strong in their brain and increased recall occurs when learning is translated into stories, etc.
It is not just nightly sleep that maintains healthy brains and supports learning and memory. Syn-naps, or brain breaks, are important during homework and study sessions to keep neurons firing efficiently. Depending on students’ ages and focus abilities, the time intervals when they need syn-naps will vary. Syn-naps should to take place before fatigue, boredom, distraction, and inattention set in. As a general rule, to keep children alert and engaged, syn-naps should be scheduled after 10 minutes of concentrated review or practice for elementary school and 15-30 minutes for middle and high school students.
During these three to five minute breaks there does not need to be a disruption in the flow of learning. Simply stretching, drinking water, or moving to a different part of the room can provide a fresh outlook. A bit of physical activity, such as jumping jacks or singing a song can be revitalizing.
There is a restoration of neurotransmitters and brain transport proteins needed for memory construction and attention, that deplete after as little as ten minutes of doing the same activity. After just a few minutes, the refreshed brains will be ready for new memory storage.
Physical movement during the syn-naps will also increase the blood flow to the cranial circulation, and the deep breathing of exercise will increase the blood levels of oxygen.
Joy and enthusiasm
Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen—literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. I offer you these tips to help you promote those experiences for your children. I invite you to add your tips or select your most useful from these so we can continue to share ways to help children build their best brains.
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