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Learning requires the retention of material. 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 for a teacher or other school professional is to assess their memory strategies in learning.
Most people recognize the importance of repetition but fail to realize that repetition is often just not sufficient. When learning simple skills or subject matter, little repetition is required, and the learner effortlessly encodes the information or skill. However, on more complicated tasks or material, repeating the steps of the skill over and over again facilitates encoding. One must repeatedly go over material in order to learn it but this necessary step is not a guarantee that the material will be learned; repetition must be combined with other learning strategies (Higbee, 2001).
One such method that increases the effectiveness of repetition that is often not employed by students when learning in the classroom is the use of overlearning. Often students rely on the minimal effort to encode information through the use of repetition. Since they believe that they have succeeded in correctly recalling the information when studying for a test, there is no need to spend any more time on learning material that is already remembered, but this is an incorrect assumption. "Overlearning, which is continued learning beyond the point of bare mastery or of mere recall, has been shown to be effective in strengthening learning and improving retrieval speed' (Higbee, 2001, p. 63). The concept of overlearning explains very well why students who have crammed for an exam do not tend to retain the learning even for a short time after the exam has been completed. Since the material was barely learned it is often forgotten as quickly as it was learned to the utter shock and surprise of many teachers and parents. How is it that they did well on an exam two weeks ago and two weeks later it is as if the material is now new to them? Therefore, overlearning material past basic recall is a necessary step in the learning process (Higbee, 2001).
Many students with learning issues complain that they know the material but tend to blank out on the exams due to the stress of test taking. At least in some cases, these self-perceptions of mastery of material is fundamentally flawed and due to an error in self-reflection of the testing material. In other words, their self-evaluation of how much they know and are ready for the exam is just not accurate; faulty beliefs based on spending hours cramming for the exam the night before, misleads the student into believing they must have mastered the material without any evidence that tested their capabilities to recall the information and apply it correctly. Often this lack of self-monitoring and self-evaluation are ample explanations for why students who claim to have worked hard on learning the material do not do well on testing.
However, there are many cases in which students who have studied adequately for an exam find that their brain is fogged up and are unable to recall the correct information while taking an exam, but when the anxiety and stress abate after the exam, the information is recalled without any difficulties. Any situation that increases a stressful response, especially if it gives rise to negative emotions such as embarrassment, worry, anxiety, fear, etc. can have a negative impact on one's ability to learn and remember (Higbee, 2001). Interestingly, the relationship between stress and remembering is not as simple as many think. Research shows that a little anxiety or small amounts of stress can actually increase memory, but only up to a point (Butcher, Hooley, & Mineka, 2014). A moderate amount of stress often influences an individual to act and prepare for the event in question, while an excessive amount interferes with the encoding of the information through inadequate attention on the most important and salient aspects of the learning. High amounts of stress also interfere with encoding of the reading and organization of the information (Higbee, 2001).
Helpful Tips For Teachers In Promoting Better Memory (adapted from Higbee, 2001)
1) Relaxation techniques such as mediation for the mind and muscle relaxation for the body have been shown to reduce anxiety including during test taking. It is not enough to tell a person to relax. It is necessary to teach these meditative and muscle relaxation techniques when the person is not stressed so that they can concentrate adequately and teach them to employ these methods when they feel the stress response.
2) Overlearning of the material facilitates recall and mastery. It also increases confidence in one's capabilities and performance that reduces anxiety.
3) Teaching test-taking strategies, such as recognizing harder items on an exam that need to be marked for later attention when the easier questions have all been answered. This also reduces anxiety early on when taking the exam so that it does not interfere with answering the rest of the exam. Other examples of test-tasking strategies include focusing on only one test item at a time and/or employing self-instruction techniques, such as the students giving themselves instructions to read the questions carefully and not to rush.
4) When experiencing a mental block in failing to recall the information, students should be taught to move on to another question and to stop thinking or obsessing about the item. Oftentimes, when returning to this unanswered question, the answer may be recalled immediately due to lesser anxiety or the answer may come to the student when thinking about a different question.
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 memory strategies and providing opportunities to exercise these new found skills.
Butcher, J. N., Hooley, J. M. & Mineka, S. M. (2014). Abnormal psychology
(16th edition). New York: Pearson Publishers.
Higbee, K. L. (2001). Your memory: How it works and how to improve it. New York:
Marlowe & Company.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Abnormal Psychology, 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.