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Helping learning stick

On top of their typical school curriculum learning, many students with learning disabilities may also be involved in remedial instruction (e.g., tutoring to build reading strategies). Despite the time and effort the children put in during their time with teachers and other professionals, they still require additional support from parents to consolidate the learning of information for later retrieval. Like a muscle in our bodies, memory needs to be continually exercised to ensure it stays in good shape.

Memory types

First of all, it is important to recognize that the memory system is very complex and involves different forms of memory. Although they are all interrelated, each memory type has a different function. Short-term memory involves brief retention of newly learned information. Working memory involves holding information in mind temporarily while manipulating it or carrying out an operation on it (e.g., completing mental arithmetic). It often works as a bridge between short-term memory and long-term memory. Long-term memory allows information to be remembered permanently or for a long period of time. In order for information to be recalled at a later point in time, it needs to make its way into long-term memory storage from short-term or working memory. To ensure this transfer, information needs to be processed deeply enough in short-term and/or working memory. This can be done through repeated practice. If certain information can be automatically retrieved from memory, more information can be remembered and the child can then engage in higher-thinking skills with that information (e.g., by making sight-word recognition and decoding skills more automatic, the child has more memory space available to engage in reading comprehension).

Tips for parents

Use rehearsal strategies such as rhymes or mnemonic devices (e.g., HOMES to remember the five Great Lakes - Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). Information that is “chunked” into smaller amounts is much more easily retrieved from memory later on. Having the child paraphrase what he has learned is also a great way to help the child remember information that  is typically too long to be stored.

Practice with and repeat the information to be remembered. Most new information cannot be learned in just one sitting. Parents can support the teachings of teachers/instructors by having their children tell the information to them. For example, prior to bedtime each night, the child can tell a parent the list of vowel sounds they learned during their reading tutorial or the 9 times table. Even when it appears that the child has learned the material, it is key to keep reviewing the material. Overlearning allows the child to strengthen the connections between what is already known and new material and consists of the child completing several error-free repetitions of the new material. Do not assume that the child will remember the 9 times table simply because they have recited it correctly one time.

Rote drilling is one way for children to practice and repeat information. Thankfully, this technique does not have to be boring! Use games for learning spelling words, definitions, and mathematical facts. For example, instead of using matching pictures in the game ‘Memory’, have matching spelling words to enhance memory of sight reading and spelling words. As the use of multiple sensory pathways assists with learning and remembering information, use physical movement to also enhance storage and retrieval. For example, while having your child recite the list of provinces/territories and their capital cities, throw a baseball with them.


Additional strategies

Elaborate. To further support the consolidation of material to be stored in long-term memory, parents can have their children elaborate on what they have learned in the classroom. Elaboration and application of what they have learned can often be easily incorporated into daily activities. For example, during the car ride home from school or over the dinner table, children can share and reflect on what they have learned. Parents can ask questions to help their child activate prior knowledge and further their understanding of the subject (e.g., how does that relate to what you’ve already learned in social studies class? What more do you want to know about this?). Discuss when the new information may be important in real life to put it into a broader context for the child. Having a better understanding of the information and why it is relevant enhances the ability to remember it and to subsequently retrieve it. In addition, through elaboration, more active learning occurs (rather than superficial learning) which assists in transferring the newly learned information from short-term memory to long-term memory storage.

Learn together. It is not uncommon for parents to feel daunted by the information their child is learning. If the subject is something you are unfamiliar with, have your child teach it to you. Then, learn more about it together (e.g., through research). Modeling is a great way to teach both memory strategies and general learning strategies, so show your child how you learn and remember new information.

Retrieval. Storage of information in memory is also enhanced by the retrieval of it. That is, students should practice retrieving what they have learned through practice tests. Engage the child by having them come up with the questions to be asked (i.e., constructing and completing self-tests). This process will also help parents to see what the child has focused their learning on and where the gaps in knowledge may be.

Sleep. Research suggests that the best way to consolidate information into memory is to sleep! As soon as the child has completed studying, they should go to bed and not allow other things such as playing a game, watching television, listening to music or texting a friend to interfere with this storage process. Upon awakening, the child should do a quick review of what was learned the night before. Parents can encourage this practice by doing a quick rote drill over the breakfast table or during the car ride to school.

It is important to keep in mind that there are some children who have significant memory deficits or other difficulties that interfere with memory (e.g., weak attention controls) who will experience ongoing memory struggles despite these recommendations. Strategies such as breaks, working at a slower pace, and the use of memory aids (e.g., calculator, thesaurus, notes) will assist here. Often, students with memory problems will do better on tests that require recognition (i.e., multiple choice) rather than recall of information (i.e., writing an essay). If this is still difficult, alternative methods of assessment may be used to allow the child to show their knowledge such as completing a project. 

It is also important for children to become aware of their memory strengths and weaknesses. This is known as metamemory. For example, knowing that they struggle with auditory/verbal memory but does well with visual memory will enable a student to develop strategies to assist in remembering information that they hear through verbal means. That is, they may choose to use serial chains and diagrams to help in remembering events and procedures (e.g., timeline to remember aspects of World War II) rather than a rhyme or mnemonic. Students should be engaged to figure out which strategy they will use to remember information to ensure they are studying intentionally, rather than passively.

By using these strategies, from rehearsal to elaboration to self-testing, children will be actively engaged in their learning and hopefully storing the information for later retrieval. As noted above, memory is like a muscle that needs to be continually exercised. Nobody has a perfect memory. Yet, similar to the Olympic athletes who practice their sport continuously until their bodies can rely on kinesthetic memory to complete their skills automatically, we can assist children in developing the tools to allow them to store and retrieve information in a more automatic manner so that they can best demonstrate what they learn.

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