The new Mind, Brain, & Education (MBE) SIG will bring forward a series of texts to address this young science that brings together three areas: neuroscience, psychology, and education. In this post, let’s look at how to maximize memory retention.
It’s no secret to any of us that studying hours and hours every day can overload our memories leaving us with very little to recall after just a couple of minutes. It is almost like trying to water a vase of basil with 5 pints of water, one after the other. The poor plant has no chance in absorbing all that water, nor does it need to.
Our schools are filling our students’ heads with so much water that they’re practically having a water overdose. As if it were not enough, when it comes to their tests, they claim that they have forgotten most of what they learned. Is this how volatile our memories are? I’d like to argue here that it is not so much about forgetting what they should have learned as it is about actually learning and consolidating all that is passed to them. So here are three things to bear in mind when teaching our students:
1) Their memories are limited (and so are ours and everybody’s). Some studies show that too much information can cause Cognitive overload and decrease retention. How much is too much? Anywhere between 4 and 9 items at a time (Cowan, 2001; Miller, 1956);
2) The best way to study is to space out revision (in this case active retrieval) over a long period rather than cramming. Small doses of study here and there can go a long way when it comes to retention (Kornell & Bjork, 2008);
3) Memory consolidation occurs in our sleep. If we want to check if students really learned something, we must quiz them over the course of weeks rather than just ask them at the end of the lesson. Understanding and remembering are not the same as learning;
How to help our students then? Here’s a practical tip you can start implementing today and perhaps get your students to score higher grades on their tests!
My color-coded tags technique
I always carry some colored stickers with me. I ask some of my students to buy some as well. The main purpose of using the tags is quite simple: We want to tag the parts of our material (mainly our books) that we have to refer to when studying. I use a color code to help them know how many times to revise (or rehearse) the item and when to do so. RED or PINK means THE NEXT DAY (preferably in the morning); YELLOW means THREE to FOUR DAYS after we had the lesson; GREEN means 1 WEEK after we had the lesson. To help them keep track of the dates, I ask them to write them on the colored tags. Here are some important rules, though:
1) They cannot fill in the gaps or answer anything in their books. They must do it on a separate sheet of paper (or a notebook, tablet, cell phone) and keep it away when they revise. They cannot look at any grammar box or explanations they have copied before. This way they’ll have to quiz themselves. According to the American Psychological Association, in a study checking effective study practices, it was found that rereading is not too effective. What works best is active retrieval or quizzing oneself, which means that seeing your previous answers will only give you a false sensation that you know the topic when, in reality, maybe you just remember answering the exercise. Quiz first, check later! Not the opposite (Kornell & Bjork, 2008).
2) If they can remember things fairly easily the next day, they can remove the RED/PINK tag and place it below the GREEN TAG. If they can’t remember things fairly easily, they must keep the RED/PINK tag at the top and try again the following day. When the YELLOW tag is up, they have to do the same with the RED/PINK tag. Remembered? Move the YELLOW tag down, below the GREEN and the RED/PINK ones. Couldn’t remember? Rescue the RED/PINK tag and replace the YELLOW tag with it. Same thing for the GREEN tag.
3) If they are having too much trouble remembering something, they must look for additional examples in their books or other materials (magazines, websites, other books, etc) and share with their classmates. If they can provide a short explanation about it (audio or video), that’s even better. Trying to explain something can help you form the right connections in your brain and spot where you have difficulties (Kornell & Bjork, 2008). We normally use WhatsApp and Edmodo to communicate;
4) These revisions need to be quick. Students shouldn’t spend more than 15 minutes per revision, otherwise, they’ll get frustrated when things overlap and it’ll accumulate to a degree that doesn’t work so effectively any longer. They have too much homework as it is already;
Now, even with these tips we need to bear in mind that our students have too much to study on any given day. However, all of this is based on what neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education can share with us. If you want to get more interesting tips, keep tuned on our Mind, Brain, & Education SIG and our Facebook page. You won’t regret it!
If you water your basil correctly, I can guarantee it will thrive and help you make the best Margherita pizzas for a long time.
André Hedlund is a Chevening Scholar from Brazil, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in the UK, and a pedagogical consultant for National Geographic Learning. He has been an EFL teacher for over 15 years and has worked both as an academic coordinator and a CamLa (Cambridge and Michigan Language Assessments) examiner at a Brazilian Binational Center. Currently, he is the president of an ONG called Partners of the Americas Goiás and the representative of the Brazilian TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group in the Midwest.
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