The missing ingredient: Helping struggling learners to remember
Monday, March 14, 2016
Struggling learners often suffer from a widespread problem that dramatically affects their learning: forgetting, forgetting and forgetting.
"Yesterday, when I taught it to Wilson, he knew it. Today he doesn't," teachers often lament. "It’s like he's never seen it. And this happens again and again." Unfortunately, this problem does happen again and again. Unless the countless numbers of Wilsons get the help they need, they and everyone who cares about them will suffer.
Too often, however, they don't get the help. It's a critical missing ingredient whose absence impedes the education of many struggling learners.
A major reason they don't get the help they need is many teachers and parents take memory for granted, believing "you have it or you don't." The good news is psychology has taught us a great deal about strengthening memory.
"You have it or you don't" is rarely true. For parents and teachers, the question becomes: How can you increase the odds of helping struggling learners, as well as most children, remember important information for a long time?
Positive motivational strategies
At the start, make sure the struggling learner understands why it's important to remember what you've emphasized. He needs to believe that remembering and understanding it will help him, but forgetting will disadvantage him.
If he appears unmotivated to remember it, focus on strengthening his motivation. Stress positive motivational strategies, such as creating opportunities for him to participate in relevant team games, earning reinforcers for remembering, and responding aptly to persuasive, supportive comments.
To persuade him, you might say, "Wilson, once you decide to work on remembering the password for your new tablet, I strongly believe you'll remember it. Yesterday you showed me how you remembered five tough multiplication facts. And you're a wiz at using chunking. How about using it with me to create and remember a strong password?"
Why is motivation important? Remembering can be hard work. Thus, to a large extent, the struggling learner's memory depends on his motivation: a combination of desire, effort and persistence.
The right steps
The reality, however, is that desire, effort and persistence alone are often insufficient. Struggling learners also need to take the right steps in the right ways. Wilson's use of chunking is one of many "right ways."
His home phone number starts with 436. His friend Raul's starts with 452. Wilson knows these numbers by heart. Remembering two pieces of information is easier than six. And so, with his new password, 436452, he has only to remember two well-known, easily retrieved pieces of information, 436 and 452.
But even this may prove insufficient. So, to help him better remember and retrieve his password, you encourage him to subvocally whisper "Wilson-Raul" whenever he boots his tablet. You also encourage him to draw a picture of himself and Raul playing soccer, their favorite game. Wilson's wearing jersey 436 and Raul 452. After he draws the picture, you ask him to describe it and explain how it can help him remember his password.
Wilson's story offers several important ideas for helping struggling learners strengthen their memory.
You've encouraged him to attend to what he wants or thinks is important to remember: a new password that's essential to boot his tablet. You've encouraged him to concentrate on it, to think about how it relates to what he already knows: his tablet, his friend and two phone numbers.
You helped him create something new, a six digit password — 436452 — from what he already knew: two seven-digit phone numbers totaling 14 digits. You helped him recognize how his new password differs from what he already knew: it uses only the first three digits of two phone numbers. And you've encouraged him to explain how his soccer picture holds the key to opening and running his tablet.
Overall, you've helped to teach Wilson a valuable lesson, no matter the strategy he uses to remember: Remembering something important takes work, but it's worthwhile.
Chunking can be an effective strategy for remembering straightforward information, like a password . But it's only one of many strategies that are easy to understand and use. Another effective one is the Keyword Method.
Margo Mastropieri and Thomas Scruggs, two outstanding scholars on helping struggling learners strengthen their memory, described how teachers (and parents) can use the Keyword Method to help struggling learners remember that a barrister is a lawyer.
Although the Keyword Method is best for remembering short, simple information, like basic vocabulary meanings, it illustrates the importance of four elements that can help struggling learners understand and remember both straightforward information and complex ideas: Focus, Effort, Motivation and Association, which form the acronym FEMA (which is also the acronym for the Federal Emergency Management Agency).
To use the Keyword Method to remember barrister's meaning, you first need to identify an easily pictured keyword that sounds similar to barrister. Bear is a good one. It initially sounds like barrister and is relatively easy to imagine, draw or find a picture of.
To help struggling learners remember barrister's meaning, it's important that the picture show the bear dressed like a lawyer and acting like one. He might, for example, be pleading his client's case before a judge. If, however, the picture shows him standing stiffly in the woods, sniffing for odors, not looking and acting like a lawyer, it's unlikely to help struggling learners remember the meaning of barrister.
The Keyword Method, like many memory methods, can be effective. But like all memory methods, struggling learners need to work at remembering what they want to remember, or what they believe is important to remember. Like cooks, teachers and professors, they need to keep thinking about it and its meaning.
The more meaningful the information becomes to struggling learners and the more they identify with it, the more they're likely to remember it. And often, the more they repeat and rehearse it, the more they'll remember it.
Decades ago, when I worked at restaurant counters during busy lunch rushes, with little time to breathe let alone write everything down, I tried to picture what people ordered, and when time permitted, I'd subvocally repeat and picture it. This habit helped me tremendously: fewer errors, fewer returns, fewer complaints, less stress and better tips. Whew.
The ideas in this article can help many struggling learners, but not all. Much depends on how knowledgeably, systematically, insightfully and frequently they're implemented and reinforced, how progress is monitored, and how instruction is modified to reflect the results of monitoring. If progress is poor, it may well be possible to accelerate it.
Perhaps you need to encourage deeper verbal elaboration by forming problem solving groups of peers to discuss a topic of importance, or help struggling learners develop and master an acronym (e.g., FEMA) or acrostic sentence (e.g., Focus your Attention on what you want to remember and Think about it = FAT) that prompts more elaborate memories. Or perhaps you can have them form pairs to reorganize and discuss their notes or teach them to use and master the ancient Greek and Roman "mind place," commonly referred to as the Loci Method.
In a previous article, I described and discussed how I could use the Loci Method to remember the meaning of the acronym VIP. Though the slightly modified excerpt below details only the V, the steps to remember the meanings of I and P are similar.
I want to remember that struggling learners increase their odds of remembering something if they Verbalize what it means, create Images of what it looks like, and, if possible, Physically examine it or engage in relevant physical activity. Thus, the acronym VIP.
In my imagination, I'll visit three of the rooms in my house, associating each room with a VIP activity. The V activity will be associated with the first room, the I activity the second and the P activity the third. Because I've lived in the house for more than 20 years, it's easy for me to imagine the rooms. But for some struggling learners, it's better that they visit the real places to make the associations between the places and what they need to remember.
The verbal room
The first room my imagination visits is my office, at the top of the steps, on the left. It's full of books, books I often discuss. Discussion means that I, my friends and my colleagues use lots of words.
I can imagine one of the discussions now: My co-author and friend Gary Brannigan is discussing memory with me. We're exchanging lots of words — it's a verbal funfest about helping children use memory strategies. We're discussing the importance of verbalizing meanings, creating images and involving yourself physically. The room is flooded with words. It's verbal everywhere.
Because of all the discussions I'm imagining in this room, because of all the verbal interaction, I'll call it the Verbal Room.
Like the previous instructional ideas, successfully using the Loci Method requires struggling learners to "Focus your Attention on what you want to remember and Think about it" (FAT). Picturing it in their minds or on paper, and associating it with what they already know, like Wilson did with chunking, helps to strengthen their memory for what they're trying to remember.
When developing IEPs for struggling learners with memory problems, parents and teachers need to ensure the IEPs have goals (and in some states, objectives) for memory instruction. Here's a sample goal and objective:
Memory Goal 1: Ryan will explain and demonstrate how to successfully apply five memory methods to help him remember simple straightforward information (e.g., vocabulary definitions) or more complex concepts (e.g., the scientific method).
Memory Objective 1 of 4: By the end of the first marking period, Ryan will explain and demonstrate how he applied the Keyword Method to successfully remember the meaning of five new social studies vocabulary words assigned by his teacher.
Though your studying, mastering and adapting different memory strategies will take some work and require you to "Focus your Attention on what you want to remember and Think about it" (FAT), seeing satisfaction on the faces of students makes it all worthwhile. Not only have you helped them remember important information in the present, but you've taught them strategies that will help them succeed well into the future.
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