Memory, Part 5: What works?

Memory strategies and examsThe school environment requires students to memorize more information than they’ll ever have to as adults. From multiplication tables to state capitals to historical dates to the formula for the area of a circle, students find themselves required to remember an increasing amount of information as they progress to high school and post-secondary settings. While there’s also an increasing role for critical thinking and (hopefully) creativity, facts, concepts and formulas still have to be learned. Parents also play an important role in helping their kids learn how to remember the material being taught at school. My son was having trouble remembering whether the “a” or the “u” came first when spelling “because.” He really enjoyed my suggestion: “Bunnies Eat Carrots And Usually See Everything.” He aced his spelling test and later taught his brother the same trick. But if a Google search for “mnemonic strategies” yields 1.5 million hits, how can students and their parents know which techniques are likely to be most helpful?

In the February 2008 issue of Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, Wolgemuth, Cobb, and Alwell examined the effectiveness of mnemonic training for high school students with learning disabilities, developmental delays, emotional disturbances, and behavioural difficulties. After analyzing 20 studies with a total of 669 participants, they found three interventions that resulted in substantial improvements in students’ memory performance, measured by improvements in their recall of historical information, science vocabulary, state capitals, vocabulary words, map locations, mineral hardness, or dinosaur facts.

The keyword method required students (and often the researchers) to use their imaginations to link a new word to an already-known word in two ways: by finding a word that sounds similar to the new word and creating a mental image of the two words together. Here’s an example from About Memory:

… the Spanish ‘carta’ sounds like the English cart‘carta’ means letter, so you could visualize a letter inside a cart.

The pegword method is meant to support recall of ordered lists; it involves thinking of words that rhyme with numbers (e.g., 1 is a bun, 2 is a shoe, etc.). Students must first learn the rhyming list, and then they can imagine the rhyming object combined with the list item to be remembered; if George Washington was the first name on a list, you would imagine him holding a bun. The keyword and pegword methods can be combined to help students recall new vocabulary in a particular order. Although Wogemuth and her colleagues found this technique to be helpful for high school students, About Memory noted that it may be less beneficial for senior citizens.

The final method that was found to be effective was “reconstructive elaboration.” These reconstructions involved the development of vivid images depicting abstract information to be recalled, in an effort to make it more concrete. One of the studies examining this strategy required students to learn information about World War I. The researchers wanted students to remember that soldiers in the trenches were more likely to die from disease than enemy fire; however, the pictures and illustrations in the textbook showed the soldiers but not their living conditions. Students who imagined the soldiers surrounded by rats (an image that reminded them of disease) were more likely to recall the information later.

Have you or your kids tried the keyword, pegword, or other memory strategies? We’d love to hear what worked best for you!

You can read the Learning Disabilities Research & Practice study here.

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