“Children, it’s almost time to go home. So please write down your homework, put your books away, and line up at the door.”
Sounds simple and straightforward. So why is Johnny already lined up at the door when his books are all over his desk? And where are the materials he must take home to do his homework?
You see, since Johnny has a learning difficulty, he only remembers to line up at the door.
Learning challenges and memory problems
There is a strong connection between learning challenges and memory problems. Children with learning challenges often have difficulty recalling information that they have seen or heard, or both.
In an article published in the Learning Disabilities Quarterly, Scruggs and Mastropieri (1990) state, “One of the most commonly described characteristics of learning-disabled students is their failure to remember important information.” In her book Learning Disabilities: There is a Cure, Addie Cusimano states: “Most learning-disabled students have serious deficiencies in the area of visual memory.”
According to researchers from Durham University, who surveyed over three thousand children, children who underachieve at school may have poor working memory rather than low intelligence. They found that ten percent of schoolchildren across all age ranges suffer from poor working memory, seriously affecting their learning.
Memory problems and mnemonic instruction
Mnemonic instruction is often recommended for children with learning challenges. According to Swanson (1999) and Forness, Kavale, Blum, and Lloyd (1997), using mnemonic strategies has helped students with learning disabilities significantly improve their academic achievement.
Chances are you have used a mnemonic device in the past. For example, do you remember that “A rat in the house might eat the ice cream?” If so, then you will recall that by memorizing the sentence, you also remember how to spell the word “arithmetic.”
There are a variety of mnemonic techniques, including keywords, peg words, acronyms, loci methods, spelling mnemonics, phonetic mnemonics, number-sound mnemonics, and Japanese “Yodai” methods. An example of an acronym is to remember the word HOMES to recall the names of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
The purpose of number-sound mnemonics is to recall strings of numbers, such as telephone numbers, addresses, locker combinations, or historical dates. To use them, learners must first learn the number-sound relationships: 0=s; 1=t; 2=n; 3=m; 4=r; 5=l; 6=sh, ch, or soft g, 7=k, hard c, or hard g; 8=f or v; and 9=p. To remember the date 1439, for example, the learner uses the associated consonant sounds, t, r, m, and p, and will insert vowels to create a meaningful word or words. In this case, the word “tramp” can be used.
Spelling mnemonics intend to help us remember the spelling of words. For example, to remember that the word “cemetery” is spelled with three e’s, one can picture a lady screaming ‘E-E-E’ as she walks past the cemetery.
It should be noted that there are at least two problems in teaching mnemonics to children with learning challenges. The first problem is that it overlooks the sequential fashion of learning. Mnemonics instruction is, to a large extent, instruction in memory techniques, which should be taught only after the skill of memory has been learned. It can be compared to a child being taught soccer tactics, such as the “wall pass,” while he has not yet adequately mastered the skill of passing the ball. As stated in Knowabout Soccer, “No matter how good your passing technique, if the quality of your passing is poor, your technique will not be effective.”
The second problem is that by teaching the child to use memory crutches, the result “on more complex applications, generalization attempts [are] less successful” (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1990).
Mnemonics do not solve memory problems
The experiment below, described in The Genius in All of Us by David Shenck, clearly demonstrates that while mnemonics might aid memory, they don’t improve memory ‘muscle’ and will, therefore, not solve memory problems:
Ericsson and Chase recruited an undistinguished college student for an epic experiment. The student, known by his initials, S.F., tested normal for intelligence and normal for short-term memory performance. Memory-wise, he was just like you or me. Then they began the training. It was grueling work. In one-hour sessions, three to five sessions per week, researchers read sequences of random numbers to S.F. at the rate of one digit per second: 2… 5… 3… 5… 4… 9… At intervals, they stopped and asked him to echo their list back. “If the sequence was reported correctly,” the researchers noted, “the next sequence was increased by one digit; otherwise it was decreased by one digit.” 2… 5… 3… 5… 4… 9… 7… At the end of every session, S.F. was asked to recall as many of that day’s numbers as possible. 2… 5… 3… 5… 4… 9… 7… 6…
Instead of jumping off a bridge or transferring to another college, S.F. kept returning to the memory lab. In fact, he continued to participate most days of the week for more than two years — more than 250 hours of lab time. Why? Perhaps because he was seeing results. Almost immediately, his short-term memory performance started to improve: from seven digits to ten after a handful of sessions, then to an amazing twenty digits after several more dozen training hours. Already he had clearly escaped the normal bounds of short-term memory. From there, the improvements continued unabated: to thirty digits, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, and finally to a staggering eighty-plus digits before the team concluded the experiment.
There was no indication as the sessions ended that he had reached any sort of boundary. “With practice,” Ericsson and Chase concluded, “there is seemingly no limit to memory performance.”
How did he do it? Through interviews with S.F., Ericsson and Chase realized that their subject had neither trapped into a hidden memory gift nor somehow transformed the brain circuitry of his short-term memory. Rather, he had simply employed clever strategies that enabled him to get around his — and all of our — natural limits.
S.F. happened to be a competitive runner. Early on, after trying in vain simply to remember as many random numbers as possible, he realized that when he pictured an unconnected string of three or four digits as one single race time — for example, converting the numbers 5 – 2 – 3 – 4 into five minutes and twenty-three point four seconds — the numbers would come back to him quite easily.
This was not a new technique; attaching disconnected pieces of information to older memories goes back all the way to the Greek “memory palaces” of the fourth century B.C. The trick is to assign new information to some system or image that’s already in your head. For example, a classroom teacher could mentally “place” the face and name of each new student in a different room in her home: Lucas in the dining room; Oscar in the pantry; Malcolm standing in the kitchen sink. The advantage of this technique, explained Ericsson and Chase in their report, “is that it relieves the burden on short-term memory because recall can be achieved through a single association with an already-existing code in long-term memory.” S.F., like every impressive mnemonist before him, had not transformed his natural memory limit; instead he had changed the way he formed new memories to take advantage of a different, less restrictive memory system.
But how did the researchers know for sure that S.F. had not actually altered his short-term memory capacity? Simple: between number sessions, they also tested him with random alphabet letters: U… Q… B… Y… D… X… Whenever they did this, his memory performance immediately reverted to normal. Without specific mnemonic tricks and lots of contextual practice, his short-term memory was again as ordinary as yours and mine.