Teachers spend a great deal of time preparing lesson plans and presenting them to teach students important information. However, it is not just the sending of information that is essential; it is also the receiving of the information. Learning relies on memory that consists of many different processes: encoding – getting information into memory, storage – retaining the information, and retrieval – gaining access to the desired material. As with every other skill, no two students are alike and when students have difficulties in their learning, an important place to assess for deficits are in their memory systems.
Short-Term Memory System
Information in our environment is received through our five senses and is processed in short-term memory. This memory storage can only hold about 5 to 9 items of information (Woolfolk, 2009). For example, a telephone number has 7 digits, which would technically be 7 items of information. The short-term memory storage system can only hold information for up to about 30 seconds without it fading away unless one actively processes the information further by repeating the 7 digits over and over or by connecting the digits to prior information (Woolfolk, 2009). In other words, the short-term memory system either discards the information, uses it right away, or stores it for long term use and all of this depends on the person processing the information. If students deem the material important and selectively attend to the information, then they are more likely to retain it. This is one reason why teachers find it incredulous that students remember sport statistics but cannot remember important dates or facts in American history.
Working Memory System
Working memory is a limited-capacity memory system that accesses information from short- or long-term memory, combines it with information perceived from the environment and then holds, manipulates and actively processes the information while a task is performed. Its purpose is to selectively attend to important information and ignore unimportant information (Melzer, 2010). It also allows us to inhibit impulses, shift attention from one stimulus to another, and to direct effortful thinking on a particular task. In the classroom, students employ their working memory to convert their thoughts into an accepted written format along with holding sequenced facts presented by the reading or the teacher as a means to comprehend. Therefore, it is clear that students with working memory deficits will have greater trouble in comprehending material to be retrieved later. For example, students with learning disabilities often have great difficulties in remembering the sequenced steps in solving complex math problems or remembering the sequence of a story to understand the plot correctly. These tasks require great cognitive demands. The person needs to selectively attend to the relevant details, while ignoring the unimportant ones that can easily have a negative impact on higher-level reasoning tasks that require the student to not only regurgitate facts but actively analyze or synthesize the academic material (Melzer, 2010). These higher-level reasoning tasks require much more cognitive demands than simple rote learning.
Long-term memory is a storage system that contains information that has been transferred from short-term memory. It is considered a relatively permanent storage system with an almost unlimited capacity (Woolfolk, 2009). All of our personal memories, general and specific facts about the world along with our knowledge of how to conduct tasks such as swimming, bicycling, writing an essay, reading are contained in this storage system. Attention and strategies are considered essential in encoding information in long-term memory along with retrieving them.
Helpful Tips For Teachers In Promoting Better Memory (adapted from Melzer, 2010)
1) Attending to details – teachers can help students with learning disabilities by helping them realize what details are important by drawing their attention to them. For example, directing students to take out their notebook to write the homework off the board, and monitoring to make sure that this task is completed before continuing onward with the lesson. PowerPoint presentations that are not too wordy with some animated displays and interesting images increase interest and therefore attention. Calling attention to important facts through the teacher’s use of emphasis and by students highlighting the important information in their books is vital.
2) Repetition, rehearsal, and review – copying material over from the visual modality of reading to the kinesthetic modality of writing can make the repetition more effective. Revisiting the information is essential in encoding the information into long-term memory and creating retrieval cues in order to call the information up from memory when needed.
3) Attaching meaning – making the information meaningful for the student is possibly the best strategy to ensure good encoding and retrieval of the information. Too often, facts presented in the classroom remain inert knowledge without any significance to students. When the teacher can create associations of the new material with students’ prior knowledge, students are more likely to retain the information. When students learn to do this themselves, the results are even better because they are the ones who are actively creating meaning that promotes good memory. For example, when discussing the topography of Bermuda, the teacher can ask students of experiences they had on a beach they are familiar with and then connect this information with specific facts about Bermuda such as pink sand and clear blue-green water.
4) Chunking information – combining items of information into a meaningful unit facilitates encoding and retrieval of information from long-term memory. Chunking can be done with visual images or through verbal cues. For example, remembering that important dates in American history can be chunked together with meaning attached to them can further facilitate learning. Grouping numbers so that the group can be thought of as one unit works for some pieces of information; phone numbers are divided into three-digit area code, three-digit prefix, and a four-digit locator number. Chunking enables the learner to hold more bits or items of information especially when combined with attaching meaning.
Implications for the classroom
Students have more control over their memory than they realize. It is incumbent upon teachers to educate and scaffold students with learning difficulties by actively teaching them about their different memory systems and the strategies they can utilize to improve them.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Woolfolk, A. (2009). Educational psychology. New York: Pearson Education.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at email@example.com.