by Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.
Anyone who’s ever pulled an all-night cram session before a big exam knows the difference between short-term and long-term memory. You might have been able to produce those French verbs in the morning, but by the next day’s dawn they were gone.
No matter what our age, genuine learning takes place only when we move short-term memories into the long-term memory areas of our brain.
Unfortunately for our children, the activities that develop long-term memory don’t always take place in school, especially with today’s increased focus on standardized testing and the narrowing of the curriculum to the testable aspects of reading and math. All too often, the most engaging school activities are being sacrificed to devote more time to rote memorization. And rote memorization is short-term memory.
Fortunately, enough is now known about how the brain learns so that parents can create long-term memory building activities at home. Creative learning strategies based on the latest neurological research give you a powerful new resource for parenting children. The brain changes in response to information processing. These changes can become permanent memories when you provide the bridges that link your children’s classroom studies to their interests and to experiential learning beyond the classroom walls.
Your goal is to bring your children’s classwork to life by engaging your children in learning enrichment and long-term, rather than short-term, memory building activities. Your tools are novelty and surprise, your children’s prior knowledge and personal interests, and emotional involvement in the subject matter.
Especially if your child’s school has fallen prey to factory-style, teach-to-the-test standardization, activities such as these are not optional enrichments. They’re as basic to learning as it gets.
Create novelty and surprise
Before children can make long-term memories or learn at a deeper level than rote memorization, something or someone must capture their attention. Two of the most effective ways to spark your children’s attention and curiosity are novelty and surprise.
One of the reasons the first day of school is exciting for most students is because there is novelty. It can be the new teacher, new classmates, different bulletin board, new textbook, or even a change of view out the classroom window.
When children are presented with novelty and find creative ways to explore the new material and are inspired by it, the result is enthusiasm. Whenever you can generate this awe and sense of wonder, your children will be pulled into the school lessons they bring home, and they will be motivated to connect with the information in a meaningful way.
Surprise and novelty light up your children’s brains and illuminate the pathways to memory storage. So, start a study or homework session with an unanticipated demonstration. Have something new or unusual in the study area. Go someplace unexpected for the homework or review session. Play a new song connected to the subject on the drive home. Stop at a museum, library, or used book store to browse through the subject area of a new unit of history or geography. In a study session at home, the surprise can even be your wearing a funny hat, cape, or costume.
If children sense novel experiences from new objects, places, or even a story you tell or photo you show about your past or their childhood, the novelty (and the enthusiasm in your voice) will make it more likely that they will form lasting memories of information that follows the surprise or novel experience.
To take advantage of their heightened state of alertness following a novel experience, give your children opportunities to interact with the information connected to the surprise. The goal is for them to actively discover, interpret, analyze, process, practice, and discuss the material—to go beyond the limited spoon-fed rote-memorization exposure they may have at school.
Make personal connections
Brain imaging studies have shown that memories of new information are stored more effectively when the information is related to prior knowledge, personal interest, and positive emotional experiences.
When your children’s units of study or homework are passive, such as reading a section of a textbook, it makes the reading more active if you discuss the topic together. You can select some of the text’s more thought-provoking end-of-the-chapter questions, the more open-ended ones that prompt connections to things you know your children are interested in or things they have done or seen, places they’ve been, or people they know. You can use these questions as well as any pictures or timelines in the book to stimulate your children’s personal connections to the material they read and promote their curiosity and interest.
For example, if the science book asks, “What is the difference between a solution and a mixture?” your children can read the definitions and then predict which items in your refrigerator are mixtures and which are solutions. Then, they can investigate which salad dressings fit the definition of mixtures (oil and vinegar mixtures that need to be shaken) and which are solutions (ranch, Thousand Island, and others that don’t separate out after standing so they don’t have to be shaken to recreate the solution state).
Journals are notebooks with soul
Even though children may be required to keep notebooks at school, your children can go beyond what are often “rote” books. They can create and decorate historian journals, science detective casebooks, or ship captain’s logs to add interest and depth to what they are studying at school.
After a learning experience—at school, with you, from reading a school text or a literature book—the information will be more emotionally significant and therefore form more permanent memory associations if it is recorded in a personally meaningful way.
The idea is for them to log or journal the facts about new information they learned and include their personal responses, from poetry, sketches, internet downloads, or pictures cut from magazines. This is much more fun, meaningful, and therefore memorable than regimented note taking. They can respond like a scientist, reporter, archeologist, detective, or historian, and journal their notes to questions such as “What did I see/hear/smell? What did I learn? What surprised me? What do I want to know more about? What did this remind me of?”
You can ask your children’s teachers if they can substitute these logs or journals for assigned notes.
The power of visual imagery
Suggest that your children visualize the information in a wildly exaggerated manner or visualize themselves in the action. They can visualize the historic event, scientific discovery, or literature book chapter, with themselves in the scene playing a big role in the movie of their mind’s eye as the historical or scientific event occurs.
Just as athletes may visualize a move before they execute it, children can be encouraged to visualize a biological process as it is explained in the textbook.
After giving imagination free rein, even more of their brains can be engaged if they put their visualization into words, diagrams, or pictures. They can describe their images to you, write them in words, or draw sketches.
When children draw diagrams, create models, and engage their sight, hearing, smell, touch or movement, they are making connections between the new information and something they already know. They are engaging multiple brain pathways and increasing the likelihood of memory storage and effective retrieval.
Long-term learning is vital
When memory and retention brain research-based strategies are applied to your children’s learning, these strategies not only drive the learning process, but also allow you to energize and enliven your children’s minds.
You can help bring water to the dry sponges of your children’s texts and worksheets so that the information they study will move beyond short-term memory into the long-term relational memory centers of their brains. And if our children are going to graduate with more than a few random facts, and have the ability to think and the strategies to learn, we have to help their brains make that move.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE STRATEGIES
Windows Into the Learning Brain
Brain cells—nerve cells called neurons—do their job by sending electrical signals to each other. Physically, learning consists of creating new connections and reinforcing connections that link neurons in the brain to each other.
Neuroimaging and brain mapping studies reveal the structural changes in the brain that occur when newly learned information is retained in memory storage areas. The tools that allow us to see these images of what physically happens in our brains when we learn include PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. PET and fMRI scans show brain metabolism in real time as the brain actively processes information.
It was once believed that new brain cells did not grow after birth. But PET and fMRI scans now show that the growth of brain cell connections, such as dendrites, occurs in all the lobes of the brain throughout life as long as learning is sustained. A recent study demonstrated increased growth of brain cell networks in the centers of vision and visual memory—the occipital lobes—after subjects learned and practiced juggling.
Similar imaging studies demonstrate that memory storage is more efficient when the new information is related to prior knowledge, personal interest, and positive emotional experiences. These relationships of new information to brain cell circuits that already exist build “relational memories”—the longest lasting of new memories. The more memories in the storage bank, the more neuron circuits there are to connect with the new information.
Relational memory takes place when children learn something that adds to what they have already stored in memory. They attach the new information onto “maps” or circuits already present in their brains.
PET scans actually show that when children are given new information, their brains activate their stored memory banks. Their brains are seeking relationships or connections between the new information and stored memories of past knowledge or experience.
A similar process takes place when children pay close attention to something. Every time children focus their attention, they are activating the brain’s alerting and focusing pathways. This repeated stimulation of these pathways makes the neural circuits stronger and increases their ability to actively direct their attention where it is needed.
The author of five books including How Your Child Learns Best, Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., practiced neurology for 15 years before receiving her Master of Education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She currently teaches at Santa Barbara Middle School.