By Ezra Werb, M.Ed., author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time remembering things. I have several calendars with upcoming engagements that I use on a daily basis. I have to-do lists everywhere. I’m drowning in sticky notes! It’s terribly frustrating to keep forgetting things. I can imagine that our students with learning challenges, or those who struggle with memory, might have a similar experience. They are challenged daily to remember so many pieces of information, new skills, and procedures.
Memory is a complex cognitive function that may include subfunctions like working memory, retrieval, sensory memory, and short- and long-term storage, among others. Despite the complexity of how memory works, it’s clear that it can affect learning in all subject areas. For example, students with weak long-term memory—let’s focus on that function for this blog post—may struggle with remembering themes in The Giver, how the water cycle works, and what steps to take to complete long division.
So how do we help our students remember what they’ve learned in our classrooms?
In my more than 14 years of working with students with learning challenges, I’ve seen how specific supports and strategies used in class can help students recall learned information days after a lesson. The three supports listed below all involve visual learning.
These visual frames are a well-researched method for improving student comprehension of written material. They include, among many others:
- simple T-charts
- Venn diagrams
- cause/effect charts
- story maps or plot charts
- KWL charts (what I Know, what I Want to know, what I’ve Learned)
These organizers lend meaning to information that might otherwise feel overwhelming to students. In a 2008 literature review, researchers found that by using graphic organizers, students with or without learning disabilities showed greater ability to recall information. I was once working with a student with attention challenges who was trying to study for an exam about the American colonies. He had printed out notes he’d typed, and they appeared like a two-page shopping list of facts. Using these notes, he was struggling to remember all the information, and honestly, they overwhelmed me as well. Together, we created a simple chart in PowerPoint where all the facts were organized into boxes with corresponding categories (religion, farming, economy). I instantly noticed how much easier it was for the student to recall the facts after we did this.
In a 2012 Psychology Today article, Haig Kouyoumdjian, Ph.D., writes, “Based upon research outcomes, the effective use of visuals can decrease learning time, improve comprehension, enhance retrieval, and increase retention.” So, often during my sessions with students, while we’re reading a novel or a nonfiction text, we look up images online that correspond directly to the content. For example, I was recently reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with a student with attention challenges. Knowing that sharecropping would be relevant to the story and that the student was unfamiliar with this new concept, we looked up pictures of sharecroppers in the ’30s before we began reading. The images led to so many questions about what life may have been like at that moment in history. Later, when sharecropping came up in the novel, the student was quick to remember what that meant.
We can also use images as symbols for complex ideas. For example, learning to make inferences while reading can be very challenging for some students. Making inferences requires that students learn to use clues in the text to read between the lines, so to speak. To help students remember how important this is and how to do it, I use the image of a detective while teaching them the skill and then keep that image posted nearby as a reminder. As another example, when I teach about decimals, I use money to show the meaning of the place values and then include images of bills and cents wherever I can.
Any image that may help clarify a complex idea or procedure can be printed out and put on the wall, added to worksheets or study guides, and/or sent home with students to help them move the information to their long-term memory.
Another way we can help students encode information into memory is by using color. Needing to remember large pieces of information can become overwhelming for students. In a 2013 review study, researchers concluded that “colors have the tendency to capture better attention level, and thus, better memory.”
We probably chunk information instinctively in our classrooms, but we can take this a step further by applying colors to represent specific chunks. For example, I’ve had students struggle greatly to recall all the facts about a certain course of history. I remember one student who had to remember all the countries involved in World War II and know which side they were on and what happened to each of them. We not only made flash cards, but also assigned a color to each country, using colored pencils to write the information on the cards.
Here are some other ways of using color-coding:
- making categories of information distinct (as in the World War II example above)
- emphasizing key pieces of information
- coloring different steps in multistep math processes
Graphic organizers, images, and color-coding involve visual learning, but certainly you have a diverse set of learners in your classroom. Some may learn better auditorily, some kinesthetically—not that the three visual supports wouldn’t benefit students with preferences for auditory or kinesthetic learning as well. However, all students may remember more information when it’s presented in their preferred domain.
For auditory learners, use mnemonic devices and acronyms (Dad Mother Sister Brother for long division, ROY G. BIV for the colors of the rainbow, etc.) to help them encode short bursts or lists of information, and try to find songs or rhymes to help them grasp concepts. Ever heard the state capitals song made famous by the Animaniacs? Schoolhouse Rock still holds up too!
For kinesthetic learners, include arm or body movements when teaching new concepts or operations. For example, if students need to cross multiply fractions, have them cross their arms before they do it on paper to help them remember the procedure. Have students act out scenes from novels to help them later remember characters’ motivations and plot details.
All right, I’m off to start my day. Lots of things to do. Time is ticking . . .
Now, if only I could remember where I put my sticky notes.
Ezra Werb, M.Ed., formerly a behavior interventionist and resource specialist teacher and currently an educational therapist, has been working with students with attention deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders in typical classroom settings, resource rooms, and one-on-one academic support scenarios for more than a dozen years. Ezra earned his master’s in special education with a concentration in educational therapy from Cal-State Northridge and is a member of the Association of Educational Therapists. He lives in Los Angeles, California, where he works in private practice with students with ADHD, spectrum disorders, dyslexia, anxiety, and other learning challenges.
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