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The Science Behind Memory

07 mei 2015

Chris Share, Head of Secondary: Memory is something we are either proud of or need to work on constantly. At this time of year, with students cramming for exams, memory is of course a vital skill needed for success. 

While we always encourage students to learn and use flexible thinking skills, there are times when there is no substitute for having learned and remembered key information. This blog post follows on from my previous posts which have covered exam skills, stress busting and focusing skills.

Students are taught memory skills in school in a variety of different ways, ranging from mnemonics (remembering key words that have associated meanings), chunking (breaking big problems into smaller more digestible pieces - think of how you remember a phone number), or by smell, touch, taste, hearing and seeing.

Aiding and training your brain to improve its ability to remember things is something we can all do. I have listed below some key tips to help improve memory.  

  1. We simply don’t need our brains to remember every single piece of information about what happens every day. If it did, your head would explode! The key to memory is to transfer the details of what you want to remember from what is known as short term memory, to long term memory. It is better to build up memory with repetition and by checking the learning over longer and longer periods of time. First, focus on remembering something, then test yourself 10 minutes later.  If you forgot anything, test yourself again in an hour and then again a day later. This is known as the spacing effect. The bigger the gaps between information being retrieved the stronger the ability to remember it. This is an evolution of the repetitious learning that is still necessary today and has been practised in traditional schooling through the centuries.
  2. A key part of how our memory works is that we remember what we find difficult. This is a well-respected piece of research underlined by the psychologist Daniel Willingham, who researched and wrote the book ‘Why don’t students like school?’  His analysis of brain and memory concluded that anything that is too easy to understand, the brain effectively does not bother to store into long term memory, as there is no need. This is important for revision, as simply re-reading notes is too easy, there needs to be an element of challenge and thought that goes into ‘working’ things into memory. A favourite quote often heard from Daniel Willingham is “memory is the residue of thought”. Being made to think about something helps you to remember it.
  3. A lot of memory tips seem to contradict what you might think is the best way of doing things. When trying to remember information it is best to interweave content from different areas. Instead of having a day simply studying history, it is actually better for students to have 50 minutes on history, 50 minutes on biology and 50 minutes on English. In the midst of these chunks it is also acceptable at times to completely change tack and test yourself on something else, Therefore 20 minutes into revising geography set yourself a 5 challenge based on maths. This way of learning is slower, but deeper. In other words, it lasts.
  4. A simple and successful motto for successful people is related to asking ‘Why?’. Getting yourself to explain why things happen helps to create a chain of understanding in memory. Asking your children to explain why something is as it is, challenges and reinforces the understanding of a piece of knowledge.

It is a well-worn school and management technique to reflect, review and plan ahead. Reviewing regularly the things that you find critical to remember or know, will ensure that in the long run you will remember these key things.

For us adults, in the realms of everyday life we have email reminders, alarms and calendars to help us be in the right place doing the right things. For our students in exams this is not an option.  Also do remember the simplest of memory rules, especially in the hot weather that has arrived, is to stay hydrated. There is undeniable scientific proof that your brain being hydrated increases brain function and boosts memory. Therefore, drinking plenty of water helps you and your child to function more effectively.

Have a great weekend and good luck with the revision!

- Chris Share, Head of Secondary

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