HOW THE BRAIN REMEMBERS WHAT IT LEARNS AND HOW TO HELP CHILDREN WHO CAN’T REMEMBER
William R. Stixrud, Ph.D.
William R. Stixrud and Associates
8720 Georgia Avenue, Suite 300
Silver Spring, MD 20910
“Vastly more extensive and strenuous use of memory is required for school success than is needed in virtually any career you can name.” (Mel Levine)
“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” (Paul Simon)
INTRODUCTION: MEMORY AND SCHOOLING
I. Memory defined: Memory is the ability to encode, store, and retrieve information. (You
can’t separate memory and retrieval.)
II. School demands an enormous range of memory — from automatic memory
for very basic skills to memory for the defining features of the most abstract concepts.
A. Longer and longer textbooks.
B. Dramatically escalating rate of information explosion.
C. Tremendous pressure to “get through the curriculum”
D. Increased rate of forgetting (90 percent of learning two weeks after test)
III. Memory as the “forgotten R” (John Hartson)
A. Schools are not equipped to induce automaticity.
B. Schools have de-emphasized the importance of learning poems, etc. “by heart”.
C. Few teachers teach students strategies for remembering.
D. Few teachers give students the necessary daily practice with such strategies.
IV. There are dramatic individual differences in memory skills in equally bright students..
A. Acquisition of vocabulary and factual knowledge
B. Capacity for “automatizing” basic academic skills
C. Memory for spoken language
D. Active working memory
E. Ability to intentionally commit information to memory
V. Can memory be trained?
A. Ancient Greeks used mnemonic techniques extensively
B. Early psychologists found memory practice didn’t increase memory span much.
C. However, memory span is improved dramatically by strategies (e.g., 80+ digits).
D. Mnemonic instruction has produced the largest treatment effects in special ed.
E. Everyone has experienced the benefit of HOME, EGBDF, etc.
F. Working memory training
MODELS OF HUMAN MEMORY
I. Types of memory
A. Declarative memory (conscious, explicit, reflective memory)
1. Information that is independent of a given context such as facts, vocabulary, dates,
events, objects, faces
2. Episodes -- autobiographical memories imbedded in a specific context
B. Nondeclarative memory (implicit, reflexive, unconscious)
1. Procedural memories (e.g., motor skills, procedures)
2. Emotional memories
II. Stages of memory
A.. Short-term memory
1. Holds information for two or three seconds.
2. Because STM capacity is so short (e.g., 7 digits), information from
teachers needs to be recoded or abbreviated, condensed.
a. Paraphrasing is hugely important for academic success.
b. Using “visual scratch pad” (visualization) is also a useful tool.
B. Working memory (“RAM” - the memory needed for the program you are trying
1. “A processing resource of limited capacity involved in the preservation
of information while simultaneously processing the same or other information.” (holding information on line while processing, updating,
and/or manipulating it).
2. Brain structures and processes used for temporary storage/manipulation
of information in its absence and in the presence of distraction (Tannock).
3. It involves On-line processes: maintenance (span) and manipulation
4. Two key modalities in which we use working memory:
a. Spatial working memory (mental sketch pad; picturing relevant
b. Verbal working memory (e.g, manipulating, analyzing information)
C. Long-term memory (Hard drive)
1. A virtually limitless repository for knowledge, skills, and life
experiences. (We may never forget things in long-term memory
(although they may get lost there).
2. Consists of two stages: storage (consolidation) and retrieval
(access). Consolidation takes hours to months and
works most effectively during sleep, also with active
involvement with information (e.g., elaborating, changing).
3. The amount and form of information transferred to LTM is
primarily a function of control processes such as rehearsal.
How it is stored is determined by links, associations, and
general organizational plans.
4. Rehearsal as a major factor affecting comprehension
a. Rote rehearsal (for material that must be remembered
b. Elaborative rehearsal - in which student reprocesses the
c. Frontal lobe activation during rehearsal predicts degree of
5. Aspects of long-term memory and school performance
a. Memory for factual information
b. Memory for spelling, punctuation, grammar rules, and facts when writing.
c. Remembering math facts and procedures
II. Assessment of the key aspects of memory for school learning and performance:
A. Automaticity (automatic mastery of basic phonological associations, sequences, formulas, and rules). Measure through:
1. Automaticity with alphabet, days of week, months of year
2. Speed of naming/retrieval for names of letters, numbers, shapes, colors, objects
3. Mastery of math facts
4. Speed or fluency of very basic academic skills (doing very basic computations; reading and writing very simple sentences)
B. Working memory. Measure through tests of:
1. Digit span
2. Letter-number sequencing
3. Mental arithmetic
4. Sustained rule following
5. Visual sequences
C. Memory for meaningful spoken language. Measure through tests of:
1. Sentence memory
2. Narrative memory (short stories)
3. Memory for oral directions
D. Ease of acquiring (absorbing) verbally-encoded knowledge. Measure through tests of:
1. Vocabulary (importance of understanding individual differences)
2. Factual information
E. Deliberate memorization (intentional “cramming of information into memory). Measure through tests of word-list memorization. There are huge individual differences.
F. Remembering to remember (remembering to do what you’re supposed to do). Measure:
2. Behavioral rating measure of executive functioning (BRIEF)
3. Tests of ability to follow multiple-step directions
G. What about visual memory?
1. Role in math?
2. Related to visual-spatial scratch pad?
3. Tests of spatial location (“where” system); memory for objects (“what” system)
THE HUGE IMPORTANCE OF WORKING MEMORY
I. Why is working memory such a big deal (following Diamond)
A. Necessary for considering things from multiple perspectives
B. We need it to understand narratives.
C. Crucial for relating the present to the past and future
D. Necessary for retaining steps in a sequence (e.g., following complex directions)
E. Critical for making connections (relating one idea to another) and creativity
F. Is necessary for remembering something while we are doing something else
G. Has huge role in all aspects of academic learning and work production
1. Is highly correlated with sentence comprehension and reading comprehension, as poor readers don’t use “phonological loop” well (to maintain thread).
a. Reduced verbal memory span
b. Reduced memory for serial order
c. Less use of rehearsal
2. WM is also a major player in mathematics (e.g, mental arithmetic, multiple-step operations, solving complex problems) and in written language.
II. Working memory and its relationship to inattention (Tannock)
A. A substantial proportion of students with ADHD show working memory problems.
1. Particularly those with behavioral symptoms of inattention
2. Primary association in children is with visual-spatial working memory deficits.
B. Working memory capacity and mind wandering (study of undergraduates)
1. Students with low working memory capacity reported more mind wandering.
2. Individuals who can hold more information in working memory can also more efficiently exclude irrelevant information – and can pay attention.
3. Individuals with poor working memory will appear inattentive and distracted in situations where others will not.
C. Working memory and traditional treatments for ADHD
1. Behavioral interventions aren’t very effective in reducing symptoms because they don’t take working memory into account.
2. Stimulant medication has selective and modest effects on working memory.
III. Development of working memory
A. Typical trajectory (Gathercole)
B. Memory plateaus in middle childhood in students with ADHD (Klingberg)
THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF MEMORY
I. The process of Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) makes memories “stick”.
A. Defined: The cellular process through which synapses strengthen their connections to one another, coding an event, stimulus, idea, etc. as a series of connections.
B. Changing cell surface: When a neuron fires and sets off a neighboring cell, a chemical change takes place on the neighboring cell’s surface, leaving it more sensitive to stimulation from that same neighbor.
C. Recruiting other neurons: Each time two neurons fire together, the tendency to do so is increased, and their combined energy is enough to trigger any neighboring cell to which they are both weakly attached.
D. Permanent bonding: Eventually, the repeated synchronous firing permanently binds neurons together so that the slightest activity in one will trigger all those that have become associated with it to fire, too, consolidating a memory and making it more easily retrievable.
E. LTP in action: Even in just 60 minutes, electron microscopes show the branching contact points between nerves (dendrites) grow and form new extensions
II. Sleep is crucial for long-term memory formation
A. Robert Stickgold’s study of sleep deprivation:
1. A single night of sleep permanently short-circuits the memory consolidation process.
2. Participants kept awake for 30 hours after training showed no evidence of improved performance, even after two nights of restorative sleep.
B. A second study: Study of adults found that interrupting REM sleep 60 times in a night
completely blocked learning (blocking non-REM sleep did not have this effect).
III. The effects of emotions on memory
A. Positive feelings improve neurotransmitter conduction for efficient learning.
1. When excited, there is a surge of excitatory neurotransmitters that increases the
firing rate of neurons in certain parts of the brain.
2. This increases the intensity of perception and boosts LTP.
B. Stress compromises memory
1. Stress diminishes selective and focused attention.
2. Stress limits ability to achieve automaticity.
3. Stress takes executive functions that are critical to memory offline.
4. Stress interferes with the cellular functioning of hippocampus.
5. Prolonged stress kills cells in hippocampus and shuts down neurogenesis.
6. Stress hastens aging, is best predictor of vulnerability to dementia.
IMPROVING THE MEMORY CAPACITIES OF STUDENTS
I. Improving the organism
A. Emphasize the importance of sleep, stress management, and exercise.
B. Activate memory systems through music, emotional involvement, novelty.
II. Helping children with short-term memory weaknesses
A. Help children learn to paraphrase (whisper under their breath).
B. Encourage them to quickly create mental snapshots or movies.
C. Slow down or repeat instruction.
D. Use digital camera to capture work on the board.
III. Facilitating long-term memory
A. Teach how to organize material (how can we remember this).
B. Teach to determine what is most important.
C. Teach mnemonics and tricks for retrieval.
D. Give more time for tests (if retrieval is a problem).
E. Give practice tests.
F. Encourage kids to memorize things they find interesting (e.g., jokes, sports statistics).
G. Allow for downtime, necessary for CREB (a protein necessary for memory).
H. Put information to music.
IV. Improving working memory – teaching suggestions:
A. Preview material (e.g., new words, concepts, procedures) to reduce WM load during instruction.
B. Present information in relatively small chunks (Levine)
1. Break instructional tasks into smaller tasks.
2. Limit steps in directions and provide written steps.
3. Teach associations and grouping of concepts and information as you go.
C. Emphasize post-listening strategies.
1. Review notes.
2. Connect today’s lesson with previous notes.
3. Self-question to determine if they need clarification.
4. Draw up a summary statemet (e.g., of a lecture).
D. Use electronic reminders (beepers to cue returning to task)
V. Improving working memory by teaching kids strategies:
A. FACT: Focus attention; Ask questions; Connect ideas; Try to picture important ideas.
B. Teach paraphrasing
1. Have kids put what they hear and read in their own words.
2. Do it every day. Make it a habit.
C. Teach visualization
1. Have kids make pictures in their head of what they hear and read.
2. Do it every day.
D. Teach other memory strategies
1. Link names/objects/events to rooms in the house and “walk around” (“loci”).
2. Teach pegword method (i.e., one-bun, two-shoe, etc.
3. Make acronyms
4. Draw cartoons or use clip art to make mnemonics.
5. Introduce idea of universal mnemonic.
E. Training independent use of memory strategies
1. See Mastropieri’s ‘Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies’ for steps.
2. Remember that students remember better with teacher-provided strategies than self-generated strategies.
3. The importance of modeling strategies cannot be overemphasized. Tell students what you are thinking and why you are doing it this way.
F. Use BrainCog Strategies (www.fablevision.com)
G. Practice working memory with:
1. Mental arithmetic, estimation
2. Simon Says
3. Thank You for Calling (software for following directions)
H. Emphasize underlining important points while reading.
1. Reviewing at the end of each page.
2. Dictate important points into a tape recorder.
VI. Improving working memory with medication
A. Stimulant medication has modest beneficial effects on spatial and verbal working memory (Bedard).
B. Stimulant medicine has no effect on verbal span (Bedard).
VII. Cogmed Working Memory Training
A. Significant improvement in working memory, attention, higher order thinking.
B. In preschoolers, improvement in working memory and inhibition
C. Increased prefrontal and parietal activation
D. Improved reading comprehension and math problem solving (but not phonological awareness)
VIII. Helping children with specific memory problems
A. Math facts
1. Repetition, drill (e.g., flash cards; Kumon math)
3. Mnemonics (City Creek Publishers, citycreek.com)
B. Reading fluency/automatically
1. Repeated oral reading (e.g., Read Naturally; Great Leaps)
3. Lexia (computer program)
1. Cast-A-Spell (uses NLP eye movements)
2. Seeing Stars (Lindamood-Bell)
D. Deliberate memoriztion
2. Organizational strategies
E. Remembering to remember
1. Note taking; assignment book
2. Electronic reminders
3. Universal mnemonic
F. Memory for language
1. Story grammar
2. Visualization (e.g., Visualizing and Verbalizing)
4. Thank You for Calling (following directions)
IX. BREAK: A combination strategy for middle and high school students (Minskoff and Allsopp). Includes five research-based strategies for memorizing school content.
A. Break memorizing into short time periods.
1. Use short, spaced practice, ideally over several days.
2. Rehearse before bedtime so information will replay during sleep.
3. Cramming may be ineffective for students with disabilities (because of anxiety and the high level of mastery of memory techniques required).
B. Recite the information aloud as you write it.
1. Use auditory and motor cues to reinforce learning.
2. Recite the information aloud from note cards or lecture notes.
3. Read to a tape recorder for review.
4. If reciting is insufficient, write the information too.
5. Test yourself by shutting your eyes and asking and answering questions.
6. When taking a test, writing out acronyms and acrostics in the margin.
C. Establish mnemonics (e.g., acronyms, acrostics, visualization, keyword method)
D. Always try to visualize information in your mind.
1. Picture the illustrations you want to remember.
2. Picture your graphic organizers.
3. Self-test the adequacy of your visual imagery.
E. Keywords help.
1. For terminology, find something in the word related to its meaning.
2. Combine keywords with visualization.
Carter, R. (1998). Mapping the Mind. University of California Press.
Clayton, J. Making Memories. www.brain.com
Dehn, M. Working Memory and Academic Learning: Assessment and Intervention
S. Gathercole. Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers
Hoover, A. “Memory Tips for Students”. ldonline.com
Levine, M. Developmental Variation and Learning Disorders (1999); Educational Care (1994); The Memory Factory (2000); One Mind at a Time (2004). All published by Educators Publishing Service (1-800-225-5750)
Mastroperi, M. Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies. ldonline.com
Minskoff, E., & Allsopp, D. Academic Success Strategies for Adolescents with ADHD and LD.
Springer, M. (1999). Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action. (ASCP)