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learning retention

4 tips for learning retention


Tools to memorize and to benchmark references are both great for learning retention. And great teachers build their teaching on them.

Is there a secret to retaining what we learn? What about our children? Children, particularly those in grammar school, are extraordinarily able to learn and recall, but there are some tricks and techniques to make it happen.

Having been in education for more than thirty years, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked the question, “How can I help my children retain what they learned? It seems like they had it last night when we studied, but then they take the test and struggle to remember.” We might wonder how this can be, but it is a fairly common phenomenon.

Learning doesn’t happen by cramming. Our daily routines are rush, rush, rush. We want everything fast. We pick up lunch at a drive-through and get upset if it takes too long. We wonder who the 15th president was, so we put Google to work. We can look anything up we want in two seconds. Our brains don’t need to work too hard today. So, they get lazy.

Recall the Past

It wasn’t always so. Not long ago we exercised this muscle that gives us our recall. We trained it better. Why not have the best of both worlds? That is, the best of access to knowledge and the best of recall.

In 1886 John Milton Gregory wrote a book called The Seven Laws of Teaching. It is still used widely in education today in settings that value developing our minds. As you would expect, he focused on complete success in the learning process. Of course, his message aimed at making teachers great, believing that great teachers were the key to learned students. Gregory’s life was dominated by a deep desire to create excellence in teachers—anyone who was helping children. At the age of 17 he became a school teacher. In 1858 he became superintendent of education in Michigan. He would spend his life, teaching teachers how to become the best they could be.

And he practiced what he preached. With an elegance of simplicity he concisely articulated his thoughts into seven simple laws. He believed if teachers followed them, they would be great teachers and their students would become great learners—maybe even lifetime learners.

(Next page: 4 tips for learning retention)

4 tips for learning retention

I’m going to give you The Seven Laws of Teaching. For now though, let’s focus on one of them, “The Law of the Learning Process.” Another way to say it is that the “learner must reproduce in his own mind the truth to be acquired.” How this happens is through a variety of ways and depends on the age of the student. Young children are great at memorizing. Make it fun and interesting, and they’ll memorize much. And they’ll remember it when they’re older. Let me show you. I’ll start, you finish:

Baa baa, black sheep…

Rock-a-bye baby…

1. Music for Retention: You may not have said them for a decade but knew them perfectly. There are so many things in our minds like this, and they are there because we reviewed them and, maybe, because of the music that accompanied them. Music makes memorizing much easier.

2. Review for Retention: How many songs can you sing without thinking? You have heard them over and over again and can sing them perfectly. But you didn’t sing them just one night and never again.

3. Study Habits for Retention: If your children are studying for a spelling test and only study the word list the night before, their retention will not be great. They need to develop study habits where they start studying the day they receive the new words. Like learning, teaching with retention in mind requires spreading out the repetition.

4. Benchmarks for Retention: You know the significance of 1776 in American history. So, given the choice of what date the first state ratified the Constitution, you would know that it was some time after 1776—but not too much.

Tools to memorize and to benchmark references are both great for making learning stick. And great teachers build their teaching on them. It is so important to help children understand that they are not just studying to get a good grade, but to learn. As teachers and parents, we need to foster that love.

Oh, and the 15th president was James Buchanan, and Delaware ratified the Constitution in 1787—just in case your phone wasn’t handy.

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