From education to employment

MANAGING MEMORY: We all learn – and remember – in different ways

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

A good number of student summative assessments are still closed book, and rely therefore to a significant extent on the student, or learner, having a ‘good memory’. Yet to what extent is that a skill taught in your college?

I would definitely prefer there to be less reliance on memory – since such assessments favour learners who are well equipped in that skill, rather than other perhaps more important skills such as analysis, evaluation or synthesis.

Yet, on the other hand, memory is certainly a ‘real world’ skill, and perhaps more importantly, any improvement in a learner’s ability to remember what’s required will almost certainly improve their self-confidence – with knock on benefits to the development of other, perhaps more important, skills.

Improving memory is something of a specialist interest of mine, so I thought I’d share some of the principles and techniques – briefly – that I think could improve anyone’s memory, and thus their performance in memory-based assessments.

I have 9 separate techniques to offer – and that’s because learners, as we know, are highly differentiated, so one technique might work really well for one learner, and not another. So having access to these 9 techniques provides variety, and (to an extent) equality of opportunity: whatever works, works.

Before looking briefly at the techniques, which I’ll do over two separate articles, it’s worth making one key point: everyone – everyone – has a good memory.

Surprising, but true. Can you remember the first names of your family members? Your home address? The make of your car? I could go on.

Perhaps more convincingly, identify a hobby or interest of yours. Can you remember anything pertinent to that interest? I was once teaching a 14-year old who told me, in class, he was “useless at remembering things”. He was wearing a West Ham United soccer shirt, so at a later break, I sat with him, and asked if he’d been to last weekend’s match.

In the conversation that followed, he told me the result, who scored, when, and the names and positions of the starting 11. I asked him if he was actually the same lad I’d been teaching earlier who said “I can’t remember anything” – and he looked at me, and then said: “that’s different”.

And, of course, it is. We tend to remember best what we are interested in – so we invest in memory – probably subconsciously.

But the story represents something fundamental: the power and ability to memorise is there, in everyone. So if the student is learning something they have to learn – and remember – and (for whatever reason) it doesn’t grab their interest – then can we give them some techniques that will help them, anyway?

For most of us, ‘easy’ learning is unconscious, unstructured, automatic -through interest and repetition. So any good teacher will use these two factors – interest and repetition – to help the learner remember.

But if the learner isn’t engaged, and there is less opportunity for embedding through repetition, what then? The trouble is, most of us, and most learners, do not have structured techniques to help them memorise what needs to be remembered. It is simply left to chance, rather than technique. Hence this article.

Here they are the 9 techniques I’m going to cover, in list form.

In this first article, I’ll look at:

  1. Storytelling
  2. Chunking
  3. A room with a view
  4. clocking in

And in the second article:

  1. Learning by numbers
  2. Acrostics
  3. Patterns
  4. Translations
  5. Learning names

1. Storytelling

People remember stories more easily than disconnected facts and figures. So encourage the learner to make up a memorable story that connects the individual facts they need to learn.

Think of some of the stories you know. You know them – remember them – precisely because they are a story – they are in narrative form.

You know who does what, and what happens, next. As humans, we’re hard wired to tell and remember stories, narratives.

So if the learner has to remember 5 random words – for example, rose, formula, suitcase, satin, mountain – then get them to simply make up a story that uses and connects them – and the more bizarre and visual the connection, the better.

So for example: “I had to smuggle a rose containing a secret formula, hidden in a suitcase containing satin clothes, over the mountains”. (You may not remember MY story: but the chances are you’ll remember yours…)

(PS – and stories are not only good at recalling the words you want to recall – but good too for recalling them in a particular order…)

2. Chunking

This is particularly good for numbers. It requires the learner to break the number to be memorised down into smaller, component parts.

Then – and this is the crucial bit – these smaller chunks need to be associated with something that is already in the learner’s memory bank!

As noted earlier, everyone remembers things. I call this your personal memory bank. If I asked you to write down everything you know without looking it up (ie everything you can remember) – you’d never stop writing.

You know loads – and can recall it, easily. Effortlessly. This is your personal memory bank. So the trick here – and in many memory techniques – is to create ASSOCIATIONS – link what you a trying to remember with something you already know.

Here’s an example. Try to remember this number: 2412365. Got it? If you have, you may of course just be good at numbers. But did you see some familiar sub-sets in the number? For me, it would be 24, 12, and 365. 24 is the number of hours in a day; 12 is the number of months in a year; and 365 is the number of days in a year. You know this.

So attaching sub-units of the number – the chunks – to something you already easily know, makes the long number easy to recall.

3. A room with a view

Ask the learner to imagine a favourite room. Get them to visualise its contents, by looking round the room in a full circle clockwise from their immediate left.

Get them to dentify (say) 10 items – objects or furnishings, such as a standard lamp, a chair, a bookcase, a picture on the wall, and so on.

These are then their anchors, with which they will visually associate whatever it is they are trying to remember.

So suppose your learner is trying to memorise 6 characters in a play – then they can visualise each character, or their name, by placing each one on one of the objects.

Oberon hanging from the lampshade, Titania lounging in a chair, Bottom browsing through a bookcase, and so on.

The first time anyone uses this technique, or any that rely on anchors, then they are having to remember 2 sets of information: the anchor, and the word, number or whatever.

This is taxing. But – if they persist, and always use the same anchor, the memory of the anchor becomes automatic, and part of the personal memory bank. More about that in the 2nd article…

4. Clocking in

This is really an amalgam of storytelling and a room with a view. As with storytelling, the learner has to create a story of whatever it is they are trying to remember.

But instead of a random story, this technique requires the learner to place the story within a timeline, as represented by a clock face.

For example, if the learner has to remember 5 items of clothing – in order: shirt, scarf, trainers, glove, hat – the story might be time lined like this: “I got up, and put on my favourite shirt. On the way into college I saw Mary, wearing her favourite scarf. After lunch is was sport, and I realised I’d left my trainers at home. On the way out of college I noticed a glove someone had dropped on the floor, so I handed it in at reception. Closer to home there was a busker playing a neat solo on his guitar, so I put 50p in his hat”

So now you’ve read about 4 of the techniques – does any one of them stand out?

Can you recall any of the examples more than others?

  • What was the initial story linking 5 words?
  • What was the 7-digit number?
  • Which characters of a play can you recall, and what object or furnishing are they associated with, or anchored to?
  • What were the 5 items of clothing, in order?

If any have stuck, while others have not – then that’s the beauty of having a range of techniques. We all learn – and remember – in different ways.

More in article 2, next month, when we look at the remaining 5 techniques.

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

Copyright © 2018 FE News

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