Memory Retention

Does your student seem to understand the material one day but can’t remember it the next? Memory retention is most often associated with “rote learning,” which is learning strictly through memorization.  However, memory retention issues surface in all areas of study.  Memory retention difficulties do not differentiate between difficult concepts and easy concepts: students struggle with all levels of difficulty.  This often leads to confusing assessments – students ace the hardest problems but continually miss easy ones.  This article outlines some tips for making learning stick. 

Students must make personal connections to what they are learning in order to lay the foundation for retaining information.

Making Connections: Prior Knowledge

Linking back to prior knowledge before a student attempts to learn something new is essential.  Before trying to learn how to write a good essay, it is wise to connect back and remember what makes up the structure of an essay.  Connecting to prior knowledge lays the foundation for the introduction of new information.

One of the keys to this strategy is to connect multiple lessons from the past before trying to learn a new concept.  In the essay analogy above, one could focus on how to create an outline, what are good supporting details, what makes a good thesis statement, and how to write a conclusion.  Thus, one connection has turned into four connections, which builds a stronger foundation for the student’s neural networks.

Making Connections: Personal Experience

One of the best connections a student can make is to unite different interests the student has had personal experience with.  Though it may seem cliché, tying learning to sports, arts, or other interests often helps learners understand the importance of various concepts.  For example, a student athlete in an art appreciation class may have trouble understanding the subject of ballet.  With no prior exposure, the student has no connection to it; simply reading the textbook or listening to a lecture does nothing.  However, when the student finds out that many professional athletes take dance lessons to improve coordination, the connection becomes personal.  The personal connection then lays the foundation for memory-retention (and potential success on the exam.)

Tips for creating good personal connections:

  1. While studying statistics, look up some football or baseball “stats” that the student might be interested in.  Let the student come up with situations that use these numbers and then analyze them as you would other problems.
  2.  Try making connections with daily routines.  Though routines may not be the “passion” that gets them fired up, they are very familiar with that peanut butter and jelly sandwich they have for school every day.  Ex: “The peanut butter particles in my sandwich were quite cohesive today!”  It’s easy to associate PB&J with sticky, a great synonym for cohesive. 
  3. Try making connections with emotions:  Ex: The Civil War was a long time ago, and it is difficult to establish a personal connection with an event outside of our time.  However, the war is famous for “pitting brother against brother, and father against son.”   Imagine how you might feel having to shoot your own brother, or seeing your dad wounded on the battlefield. 

Making Connections: Building on Foundation

Once the foundation is established and they are “setup” to accept new information, it is time to implement some other strategies. 

  1. Learning through repetition

This is generally considered good practice in all areas, whether or not memory issues are present.  Repeating information in various ways helps our brain process it.  Don’t just look over something once–look over it again in a different way.  Whether using a flash card, textbook, lecture notes, etc., utilize ALL your resources before you attempt to test yourself.

  1. Learn through different styles Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic (pick your style)

Visual learners learn by seeing things; auditory through hearing; and kinesthetic through touching or “doing.”  Information may be presented to you in a certain way (ex. your teacher loves PowerPoints) but you may process it better in a different way.  Try taking information presented to you and manipulate it into a form that suits you.  Here are some ideas:

  • Visual learning: draw, diagram, and timeline information. 
  • Auditory learning: discuss with a friend, read passages out loud, watch videos.  
  • Kinesthetic learning: use flash cards, role-play events, play games.
  1. “Oldies but goodies” – Many of the following have been used for quite some time but are nevertheless effective at helping memory.
  • Flash Cards – Quizzing on vocabulary, concepts, or facts can be a great way to learn through repetition.  But try raising it to the next level.  Make 2 sets of flash cards and play games like “Memory” with them. 
  • Outlines – Forcing yourself to go through the process of outlining information helps you think about how it was put together in the first place.  Once you are thinking about how it was put together, you are already learning it!
  • Mnemonics – You’ll probably remember ROY G. BIV for a very long time (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Indigo, Blue, Violet, indicate the colors of the rainbow.)  If you can think of one yourself or search for one on Google, you’re creating connections with something that is easier to remember.
  • Word Association/Connotation – Often used in conjunction with flash cards, this allows you to separate different words with different meanings in your mind.  When you think of “defenestrate” (to throw something or someone out of a window) you might associate that with window and have a larger chance of success in remembering what it means.  You might also assign a connotation to that word (probably a negative one in this case).
  • Artistic Outlets – Many teachers use vocabulary as the base for a poem, song, or rap.  If it is difficult to remember complicated pieces of information, try sorting them through your own artistic outlets.  Creativity often helps your brain weed through lots of information.

Note to parents: Given that one of the hallmarks of this problem is being able to perform well on some occasions and struggle on other occasions, do not count so much on one specific test.  Give your child multiple assessments on the same material on different days.  Assessments don’t have to be pen and paper.  Test them verbally in the car; ask them to redo a homework assignment just for review, etc.

Recommended reading: “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath (Many of the ideas in this INSIGHT come from their book and are expounded in detail if you are interested.)


  1. Understand that memory-retention is a specific learning issue but that the tools used to address it are universal for good studying.
  2. Make connections from what you’ve already learned.
  3. Make connections from your daily life.
  4. Once you’ve built the foundation and are able to accept the information, utilize all the tools you have at your disposal.
  5. Learning by repetition is the key to retention.  Allow enough time to go over concepts multiple times and in multiple different methods.

Study with your style – Understand what works best for you and make sure you include that method at some point in your studying.

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