The Teen Brain Pt 6: Memory

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By Bobbie Dunn

Eric Jensen (1998) explains that memories are stored in different places throughout the brain, but also throughout the body.  There’s a different spot for memories of sound, reading, names, and learned motor skills, just to name a few.  So in order to help our students best remember things, we need to help them store ideas in more than one place.  According to Judy Willis (2007), “The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is.  This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue.”

If we continually give students sheets full of vocabulary and tell them to memorize them, they will only be putting that information into one area of the brain.  But if we give students a vocabulary word, have them look up the definition, write it, create a picture of the word, and then share that picture and definition with another student, there are many more connections that have been made, and there’s a much better chance that that word will stick with the student outside of the classroom.

Hileman (2007) said, “…the more an idea or skill is used the faster and more accurate we become at the particular knowing or doing.  On the other hand, too much of the same thing can be boring”.  By simply giving students multiple ways to practice one skill, such as vocabulary words, they’re using the same skill repeatedly, but won’t get bored, because of the variety that they’re being given.  This variety not only keeps them from being bored, but it helps them make multiple connections with that one idea, which helps the brain remember that idea better.

Let’s also not forget about the fact that our brains are programmed to determine what’s important and what’s not.  Though I know that even I fall victim to giving vocabulary lists and asking students to memorize them (rote memory), this is definitely not the best instructional practice.  “Rote memory tasks are, unfortunately, the most commonly required ones for students.  Students ‘memorize,’ and soon forget, facts that are often of little primary interest or emotional value, such as a list of vocabulary words” (Willis, 2007).

This idea of memory really connects with all of the other categories that have been mentioned previously.  Learning has to be meaningful to be remembered, and rote tasks do not convince students of their necessity.  When giving things such as vocabulary lists, there’s very little chance that students will make connections with other past experiences, and standard memorization provides little or no feedback.  There’s no movement involved, and students are only working independently to memorize the words that they’ve been told to memorize.  They are learning in only one way, which stops the brain from making many connections, and it generates boredom which is not the kind of emotion that motivates the student to want to learn.

I, like many teachers, have done this exact thing and seen the results.  Students roll their eyes, talk to friends, and suffer their way through vocabulary lists.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student get excited when another 10 new words gets thrown in his/her lap.  If vocabulary is not used in a unique way, students just work on it to get it done, and really don’t ever seem to use or remember the words that were on their list.  Instead of asking for rote memorization, have students act out their vocabulary words for a group, or draw them.  By making it a competition, students will also do their best to be accurate, to help their team succeed.

Be sure to check out the rest of this series, which starts here.

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