What will improve a student’s memory?

How does the mind work—and especially how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such gut knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind. In this regular American Educator column, we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit classroom application.

By Daniel T. Willingham

Question: I often have students tell me that they studied for a test, meaning that they reviewed their notes and the textbook, but they still did not do well. If they have reviewed the material, why don’t they remember it? Is there anything I can do to help them study more effectively?

Answer: Many of my students also tell me that they reviewed their notes and were quite surprised when they did not do well on the test. I’ve found that these students typically know little about how their memories work and, as a result, do not know how to study effectively. In this article, I’ll discuss what to tell your students about how memory works: how to commit things to memory, to avoid forgetting, and to know when they’ve studied enough. I’ll provide examples for classroom demonstrations to make the abstract ideas more vivid for your students, and I’ll describe how they can apply those abstract ideas when they study.

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