How does learning happen? You are probably aware that knowledge and technical skills may be acquired through several different ways. However, which mechanisms exactly make a child become a dinosaur’s expert (able to recognize all the different species and their characteristics!), or improve his or her technique at playing tennis? What is happening in our brain as we learn a new language? And most importantly, how could we use the Science behind Memory to improve ourselves as learners?
We parents aim to help our children learn efficiently and acquire new skills: from getting dressed by themselves to mastering math, through swimming with confidence and developing critical thinking!
That’s why we would like to share with you useful resources so you have the tools to make the best of your child’s (or of your!) memory.
After discovering how memory works, then take our quiz and determine one’s main type of memory, before you read our advice to make learning a much quicker process!
1- The Science behind the process of learning
Learning is the process through which someone gains knowledge, acquires new skills and understands new concepts. It’s different from memory which is the capacity to record, store, and retrieve information, as long as the biological processes involved.
Which biological mechanisms make us memorize ?
Memory mostly happens in the brain and involves some of its billions of neurons. These nerve cells communicate with others (including other neurons) via synapses.
The process actually starts with neurons located inside a sense organ, which are able to encode new information (for example you read a new word in French), and to create a message that will be transmitted through a network of neurons to some precise regions of the brain. Every time you learn something, the neural pathways are altered in your brain!
What happens exactly when I learn new vocabulary in French, or any historical facts?
New vocabulary in a foreign language and historic events for instance, belong to the declarative memory, the memory of everything we can describe with words. When you read or listen, the original message generated by your eyes or ears travels through a particular network of neurons to your brain, where the information is first stored in the short-term memory. But if you want the information to be stored permanently, it must be transferred in the long-term memory, where everything you need for your everyday life (like your name, address, how to drive, to lace your shoes…) is stored for many years!
Is the same pathway activated when I learn to play a musical instrument?
Playing a musical instrument does not involve your declarative memory but your implicit memory (things you don’t express with words). But again, the technical gestures are first stored in your short-term memory and need to be transferred in your long-term memory to be efficiently memorized and easily remembered after days, months or years!
What should I do to transfer the message to the long-term memory?
Any information is transmitted through a unique pathway of neurons. A different piece of information will use a different neural circuit.
Every time you review the information, a nerve impulse will travel through the very same network. The synapses involved will be engaged and these connections will get stronger. Now, when you have to recall the information, the very same network of neurons must be reactivated. The stronger the connections are at this point, the easier it will be to reactivate the network and to recall the vocabulary!
So any other tip than reading again and again my lesson, or practicing my instrument?
Use the fact that our memory is associative: it will be easier to learn something new when you can link it to any knowledge already strongly stored in your long-term memory.
Motivation is also a factor that enhances memory. It is easier to learn when you are interested in the subject, or when the new skills lead to new interesting opportunities.
Moreover, when affective values are associated with the material to be memorized, or when you are in a particularly good or bad mood, it may have an impact on your ability to learn.
And to make the best of your learning capacity, why don’t you figure out which type of memory is the most efficient for you?
2- Discover which is your main type of memory
While learning, we use one or several forms of memory, depending on the sense(s) used to record a new information:
- You are using your visual memory when your eyes are involved, by reading a text, observing pictures, diagrams or photographs.
- You are using your acoustic memory when you are listening to your teacher, a podcast, a radio program, etc…
- You are using your kinesthetic memory when your taste, smell or touch to encode a new material.
Whether you already have some idea about what kind of memory works best for you or your children, or you just have no clue, take the quiz!
Whichever memory is the most developed, you have probably found out that this is a main type, meaning that you are also using the 2 other ones!
Therefore, we suggest you read the tips that fit your profile, but also the other ones, so you develop and take advantage of the part of your memory that has not been performing so well so far!
3- Strategies to make the best of your main type of memory… and to strengthen the others!
Tips to optimize learning through your visual memory:
- During the class, focus on the lesson plan and keep your notes clear and well-organized (choose a color code: pick one color for all titles, another one for the subtitles, a third one for questions, etc.) Use white spaces to break up the text and do not hesitate to add some interesting details on the margin (they may help you recall the important facts by using the associativity of memory)
- Make sure you understand any document studied during the class
- Draw a mind map at the end of a chapter, or prepare a crib sheet, using your own words and following your individual intellectual approach. Include any date, keyword or definition that seems important! Also, try to be clear, concise and precise!
- Assess your knowledge by drafting what you remember or answering some pre-written questions. Don’t forget to check afterwards for any mistake or any important idea you may have forgotten.
- To remember historical dates, draw an arrow of time with them along with useful facts or names if any, to exploit your associative memory! Choose a color code and add visual appeal to your document
- Find pictures, diagrams, photos… to match any idea or concept you will have to remember. One more time, work with your memory’s associativity!
Tips to optimize learning through your acoustic memory :
- Be as focused as possible during the class, and get involved anytime it is appropriate. Ask questions whenever something is not perfectly clear or to make sure you understood a concept perfectly
- Retell your lesson and any definition (loud if possible) with your own words
- Ask someone to listen to you while explaining the subject, and to assess you on the key facts you will have to remember
- Record yourself recalling your lesson, then listen and check for any mistake or forgotten idea. If someone is available to help you, turn the lesson into a podcast!
- Sing your lesson on your favorite melody, imagine a poem or a slam with the important dates, names, places and characteristics… Be creative! Again recording-listening to your production may be useful.
Tips to optimize learning through your kinesthetic memory:
- Try to be as organized as possible during the class and to take notes as clear and reader-friendly as possible.
- Find a color code and a presentation you like, and stick to it!
- During the class, try to think about something you like, to connect with any main idea. Write a clue about these links in the margin of your notes and try to remember them (your associative memory will help you recall the ideas)
- Also, write some positive details about how you feel at the time of the lesson, or about the classroom, your classmates, your teachers (you will associate them with the material to be memorized)
- Be as involved as possible during the class: ask questions, be active in any experiment, offer to speak up for your group, build a model to understand better a complex concept…
- To make learning easier at home, why don’t you mime your lesson, turn it into a theater play, a radio show, a dance… or a series of movements that you will remember and associate with the lesson. You may ask somebody to take a video of your production and watch it over and over
- If allowed, use a computer to prepare a crib sheet of your lesson. It should be clear, complete, concise and precise.
- Draw a mind map, using your own intellectual approach to connect the main ideas
- Find links between the new notions and some knowledge you already have, and between the different ideas to be memorized. In a word, be responsible and proactive about your learning!
We hope you’ve found new ideas to make learning easier and more efficient. Time to practice: what do you remember about what you just read?