THIS WEEK I HAVE A GUEST BLOGGER!

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As teachers, we are in the business of making memories. We need our students to remember the facts and procedures we teach them, so they can use this information to solve larger problems. To help our students make stronger memories, it is helpful to understand how the brain stores information.

Our brains hold information in neural networks. Neural networks are groups of neurons that share information through connections called synapses. Our brains have over 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion synaptic connections. Everything we learn is stored in these connections.

We get information from our senses. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is sent to the brain as chemical signals. The thalamus receives these signals and either passes the information to the cerebral cortex or the amygdala. If the thalamus believes the information is threatening, it sends it to the amygdala to begin the fight, flight, or freeze response. We can’t learn once the amygdala takes over.

If the information is non-threatening, the thalamus sends it to the cerebral cortex for processing. We hold our short-term memories in our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain dedicated to problem-solving and thinking. We also call this our working memory. Adults can hold about seven items in their working memories. Children can hold about three. Unless we take steps to remember something, we can only keep it in our working memories for about twenty seconds.

If we need to remember information from our working memory, it is sent to the hippocampus, where it is encoded. We can encode information visually, acoustically, elaboratively, or semantically. Visual encoding means we create a picture. Acoustic encoding means we hear something. Elaboration encoding means we connect new information to existing information, and semantic encoding means making sense of the information. We remember things better when we can use elaboration and semantic encoding.

Our hippocampus is incredibly busy, so it prioritizes what it encodes and how strongly it encodes it. If information is tied to strong emotions, the hippocampus will focus on it because it believes it is vital to survival. Information that is confusing or difficult to understand is not as encoded as well.

The information moves into long-term memory after being encoded, but it isn’t a strong memory yet. Every time we remember something, the neurons related to it fire. The more times we remember, the more the neurons fire and the stronger the neural network grows. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together. Imagine memories as paths through a forest. If we don’t travel down the path very often, the forest will encroach on it, and the trail will disappear. If we travel the path every day, it will become more prominent.

Remembering takes effort. We forget so much more than we remember. After an hour, we forget around 50% of what we learned. After twenty-four hours, that number climbs to 70%. Two weeks later, we have forgotten more than 90% of the new information.

We can help our students remember more of what they learn in school by teaching them how the brains make memories. Being aware of the process will help them connect what they learn in class to what they remember. We can also use activities that help students remember by activating their neural networks.

Giving a short quiz at the end of a lecture will help students strengthen their new memories because the quiz forces them to actively remember the new information. Rereading notes or a passage doesn’t require active remembering, so it doesn’t help build new memories.

Another way you can help your students remember what they learn is to encourage them to get plenty of sleep at night. When we sleep, our brains consolidate our learning from the day. Neurons actually fire backward when we sleep, which makes our neural networks stronger. Sleep is an important part of remembering.

By knowing how our brains store information, we can plan lessons that help our students remember. Repetition is key for making memories, so instead of working on a topic for thirty minutes on one day, we can split the learning into five or ten-minute sessions over multiple days so that students have time to build strong memories.

Making sense of what they are learning and connecting new information to old information are also vital for students making new memories. We can plan our lessons so that students see these connections right away, so they can make stronger memories.

About the Author: Cate O’Donnell has taught in a variety of classroom settings from third grade to middle school. When she took a break from teaching four years ago to take care of her four kids and two dogs, she became obsessed with understanding how the brain works to make learning as efficient as possible. She now writes blog posts about brain science in education and creates education resources that apply what she has learned about how we learn. You can learn more about Cate and her resources at www.TheProductiveTeacher.org.

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