Looking for Better Retention? Spaced Repetition put to Practice with Color-Coded Tags

WhatsApp Image 2017-09-05 at 1.51.22 PM
Use colored tags


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;


Suggested Timetable

spaced repetition

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.


 Want more tips based on neuroscience? Check out these.


Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185
Karpicke, J, D. (2016). A powerful way to improve learning and memory. Psychological Science Agenda. Available at http://www.apa.org/science/about/ps…
Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychological Science, 19, 585–592.
Robert Bjork – The Benefits of Interleaving Practice
The Most Powerful Way to Remember What You Study
Are Teachers Giving You Too Much Homework?
A powerful way to improve learning and memory http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory.aspx

Neuroscience of Learning 4 – What a week!

My notes during Mirela Ramacciotti’s brilliant Mind, Brain, and Education course

Hello, folks!

Hope you’re all doing well and getting ready to start another great semester. I can tell you that I am! I apologize for not writing anything earlier this week, but I think I have the perfect excuse. I’ve been teaching and learning about neuroscience, psychology, and education. Here’s what I did:

-Went to Fortaleza to talk about the Neuroscience behind Second Language Acquisition at the National Geographic Learning Conference side by side with Katherine Stannett, one of the authors of Impact.


-Went to São Paulo to take the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) course given by Mirela Ramacciotti, my bright partner and head of the Braz-Tesol MBE SIG.


-Came back home to teach the Neuroscience and Learning course to nine teachers.



The purpose of this entry is to share some of the highlights and five more tips about neuroscience (psychology, and education are also included).

HIGHLIGHT #1: Mirela Ramacciotti is the best teacher I’ve ever had!

WOW! That’s how I would describe having class with the one and only Mirela Ramacciotti. The reason I say that is because of the way I felt after I left the course: inspired, with the sensation I had learned so much, even though I’m familiar with the topic, and longing for more after 8 hours of intense studying. Also, we (the other participants and I) couldn’t stop talking about it for a second.

Mirela not only talks about some key concepts of this young and exciting science, but she also walks the talk. She is funny, incredibly knowledgeable, affectionate, and delighting. We couldn’t take our eyes off of her! The way she moved in the classroom, sat by the door to tell us stories, came closer to establish eye contact and really listened to our comments and questions… well, I can only say everyone would learn much more if they had teachers like Mirela. Based on my experience, here are the two first tips:

  1. Showing and telling is better than just showing or just telling: Mirela walked the talk when she could’ve just talked. Use the principle of Dual Coding to make your lessons more memorable, that is, give practical examples and apply them in class instead of just telling the theory. Use both images and sound.

This video might help with the concept:

2. Don’t label your students, even when they have “learning difficulties/problems”. If there’s one thing neuroscience knows it’s that our brains are incredibly plastic and can change the wiring as they go. Mirela showed us the case of Nico and Brooke, two boys who underwent a hemispherectomy – THEY HAD HALF OF THEIR BRAINS REMOVED! But, despite some movement impairment, they have developed as normal kids (now grown-ups) with all their cognitive functions. Read their story here.

Don’t forget to attend one of Mirela’s lectures or courses if you happen to be in the area. Here’s her website with more information: http://neuroeducamente.com.br/

HIGHLIGHT #2: Most of us, teachers, have very little information about how our memories work!

If you are an engineer and want to build something, you must know how much weight the materials you are going to use can take, right? If you’re a baker and want to bake a cake, you must know how many ingredients you are going to use and how much of each you need, correct? If you’re a personal trainer and want to help someone get fit, you must know how much they can take in each training session, mustn’t you? Why isn’t the same principle applied to teaching/learning? I realize my analogies differ on many levels, but why do we teach much more than what our students can handle? Is it because there’s too much to cover or because we simply don’t know how learning occurs? Here are two more tips to think about that:

3. There’s a limit to the amount of information we can take in. Sweller et al. discussed that in 1988 and came up with the concept of Cognitive Load Theory. There are ways we, teachers, can reduce the load and help our students make the transition between working memory and long-term memory. Here’s a video to help you grasp the concept:

4. Our memory can be improved. Trying to recall things we did a long time ago, creating associations with bizarre images and solving puzzles are great ways to make our memory better. Watch this wonderful TED video with Joshua Foer:

HIGHLIGHT #3: Understanding how our brains work is a fascinating subject to basically everyone!

“What a fascinating talk!” – These were Katherine Stannett’s words to me after my presentation at the Nat Geo Learning Conference in Fortaleza. Back in Goiânia WONDERFUL, GREAT, AMAZING, INTERESTING, INCREDIBLE and other similar words were predominant in my attendees’ comments after my Neuroscience of Learning course. It is fascinating to learn about the brain indeed, but as Mirela mentioned in her amazing course, quoting an expert in neuroscience:

“How far have we gone into discovering how our brains work? If the distance were 1 meter, we’ve only covered 3cm so far”

However, the little we already know can make a huge difference in the way we teach. So here’s my last tip of the day:

5. Learn about how we learn: Don’t replicate ideas, ideologies, and methods in the classroom if they don’t make sense from an MBE perspective. Learn the basic concepts and share them with everybody. This is the only way we can make education even more lasting and powerful. Here are some online courses, websites, and texts you can try:









As I mentioned before, WHAT A WEEK! But it gave me more energy to carry on with my mission of spreading the word about this exciting new science. I can’t wait to deliver more talks, take more courses (hopefully with Mirela again) and teach more people. Why don’t you join me in this education revolution? I could really use your help!

Check out my other blog entries about neuroscience here, here, and here.

Don’t forget to leave your comments here! After all, with interaction, we can create more memorable moments and make learning even more effective!