TouchPaper Problem #3 – Effective Homeworks for Memorizing Things

This is the third blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #3 – If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?

One of the most frustrating moments as a teacher is when you ask students to recap something from a previous lesson and there is silence. “Come you!” you say, “We went over this yesterday! None of you remember the dates of WWI/Hamlet’s occupation/the word for salad in Spanish?!”

Thing is, human minds are not brilliant at remembering things from one point in time to another. We need to (a) pay attention to the item in the first place, and (b) turn it over in our minds enough that it moves from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. Classrooms are not always good for attention. I cannot be the only teacher who has had the experience of teaching a class packed full of knowledge for the students to only remember, often in precise detail, the part of the lesson when a bee came into the room. They can tell you which window it entered, who spotted it, the look on Miss’ face when she realised her lesson was shot, how the subsequent screams and chase sequence went, and even where mr bumblebee met his death. But the rest of the lesson – GONE.

One way to get around this is we set homework I used to set vocabulary tests all the time. “Here, learn these words I would say”, passing out a leaflet with information from our lesson and hoping that somehow the motivation to do well in a subsequent vocabulary test was enough. But: is “learn these words” really the best I could do?

Was there not, perhaps, something more specific I could have set students?

What if I had said: Every day between now and next week say these words every morning when you wake up and every night when you go to bed. Would that have been better?

On the one hand it is more specific, so students who don’t really know how to just “learn this” would at least have something to do. But on the other hand, would it actually motivate students? If I didn’t test them, would they really have learned it? And would it even have worked? Would it have actually increased their memory between the two?

I don’t know is the honest answer. It’s why I set this as one of the problems.

There’s also the additional factor that many people think rote learning isn’t enough. Some people will say that they can’t just say words every day, they need to do something with them. If so, might it be better if I get my students to select an activity – rewrite the words, say the words, or do actions for the words. [Yes, that’s the old visual-auditory-kinaesthetic idea that I know deeply divides people. Stick with me though, we’re just thinking through the possibilities….]

In the end, it is a puzzle. We have things we learn in one lesson and we will learn them through a variety of activities depending on the lesson plans, resources, textbooks, etc, that we have. And then we have homework. And then we have another lesson that builds on that original knowledge. The solution to the puzzle lies in figuring out how that homework part of the equation can most effectively bridge the other two parts.

Any answers? Let us have them in the comments!

14 thoughts on “TouchPaper Problem #3 – Effective Homeworks for Memorizing Things

  1. Just because it’s relevant, thought I’d share this. It comes from Cobbett’s English Grammar (Cobbett was v.much a self-educated man) and is advice given to the recipient of his letters on how best to remember the rules of grammar:

    “I have now given you a description of Grammar, and of its separate Branches, or Parts. I have shown you that the two first of these Branches may be dis missed without any further notice ; but, very different indeed is the case with regard to the two latter. Each of these will require several Letters ; and those Letters will contain matter which it will be impossible to under stand without the greatest attention. You must read soberly and slowly, and you must think as you read. You must not hurry on from one Letter to another, as if you were reading a history ; but you must have patience to get, if possible, at a clear comprehension of one part of the subject before you proceed to another part. When I was studying the French language, the manner in which I proceeded was this : when I had attentively read over, three times, a lesson, or other division of my Grammar, I wrote the lesson down upon a loose sheet of paper. Then I read it again several times in my own hand writing. Then I copied it, in a very plain hand, and without a blot, into a book, which I had made for the purpose. But if, in writing my lesson down on a loose sheet of paper, I committed one single error, however trifling, I used to tear the paper, and write the whole down again; and, frequently, this occurred three or four times in the writing down of one lesson. I, at first, found this labour very irksome ; but, having imposed it on myself as a duty, I faithfully discharged that duty ; and, long before I had proceeded half the way through my Grammar, I experienced all the benefits of my industry and perseverance.”

  2. I find the most effective home works were better thought of as prep… Rather than an end of something or last minute ‘finish your work’, or ‘busy’ work, prep connects & by getting into a ritual where kids know they are expected to prepare whether for tests or tasks that require participation or knowledge.

  3. I am going to write about two approaches that which I used as a student and that which my son used on his way through secondary, tertiary and higher education.

    The first is a simple note taking reduction of content exercise based on the more times the data passes through the pen the more likely the brain is to remember it. Mnemonics were often used but I didn’t know them as such until I started my teacher training for my PGCE. Whether this was effective is impossible to say because I didn’t revise for parallel exams either using a different system or no system at all but suffice it to say my revision sheets were very popular with my colleagues as were my lecture notes (for the benefit of those who were absent) as I had already begun the process at the inception of the data transfer exercise.

    The approach for my son was in essence the same but had an interesting introductory handle that he remembered from it’s first use. We used to talk about him about the revision problem being like a chocolate elephant that had to be eaten and asked him how he would go about trying to eat it. He said start with the tail which of course was the lead in to organising his revision into Bitesize chunks and still think to this day that he thinks we had contrived the elephant tale in an attempt to get him to access BBC’s admirable service.

    I introduce both ideas to my students and also make reference to the revision advice given in the appendix to ‘Physics for You’ Keith Johnson (ISBN:978-1-4085-0922-7) which I will not paraphrase.

    The whole thing comes together in a neat package but certain other important features need to be included. In the five minute break every 25 min. the activity should be as divorced from revision as possible but time constrained. parents must be co-opted into the revision process so that they can be discouraged from bringing a ‘cuppa and a biscuit’ just as the reviser gets into the zone and also to field calls to land-line (unlikely) and or friends calling round; who incidentally have to be informed as to when the sessions on the revision timetable are taking place and ask to respect it. This brings us to the most difficult point for our teenagers in that they must become media free during revision sessions. This is particularly difficult when using the PC, tablet etc. to access the plethora of useful revision sites and even the school/college VLE.


    Also resist the temptation to do those jobs that one has put off for months that suddenly become more interesting when the prospect of revision rears its ugly head.

    Involved parents are happier and de-stressed; a vital component of exam success.

    The final point is the thorny issue of background music. My own view is that this is a positive thing with the following conditions, continuous music ( the radio is a no no because it talks to you every third minute and has distracting news sound bites etc.

    Hope that you find this helpful


  4. My subject is Maths so the approach I use may not be appropriate for all (or any?) other subjects.

    Over time I’ve found that when new content is learned it’s not like riding a bike for students, in that once done it’s there forever, but rather it needs frequent and consistent practice over time for the skills to be embedded.I use homeworks for directing this practicing.

    Each,and every, homework, is made up of a mix questions on topics they have studied before – whether last week, last month, last year or whatever. These questions are straight forward applications of core skills – I use my lesson time for exploring some of the more ‘quirky’ uses of the skills – what I am aiming for is fluency in using the mathematical toolkit that students possess.

    I take the homework in and mark it – I provide written feedback to all students on any errors etc. add to this verbal feedback to the class, groups or individuals where the questions are flagging up something that needs explaining in more detail.

    I then use this information to write the next homework – if a skill was largely done well then it might not appear for a few weeks, if more hit/miss it might well be on the next week – perhaps the same question with numbers just changed or a subtle change.

    In the end students are fluent in many more of the core skills than when I, previously, set homeworks largely on the topic we were in the midst of (or had just completed) studying. This is true of all abilities and ages (KS3,4 or 5) that I have taught.

  5. I’m fairly sure in one of Richard Wiseman’s books, he discusses matching something rote to learning something – certainly some actors learn lines not by sitting rereading, but by walking around and practising the lines. I wonder if homework is ever given a physical context to achieve as well as the task itself? Just some idle thoughts!

    1. Whilst learning lines it is a good idea to learn them in the context of physicality, gesture, voice, movement in space that the character undertakes… Learning lines is sometimes, I think most successfully, done in this way… I always tell actors that the words should come from the physicality… A gesture, for example, should lead the words rather than the other way round. This becomes ‘movement memory’, yet it’s not just mechanical, it all ties in with the emotional state of the character too. The harnessing of the memory is not just repeating lines it is physical, emotional & thoughtful… Could all three be brought to bear in a homework context I wonder?

  6. Memory works best at the beginning and end of the lesson. We also tend to recall things in threes. Therefore start and end each lesson with three key points. They could be words or bullet points. It is also true that if you have to teach someone else these key points then you will reinforce your own learning. So homework is to teach another student, family member, or facebook friend your three key points. Test – just ask them to write them down at the start of the next lesson. Make sure your key points build sequentially through your lessons and gradually they get the whole picture.

  7. Interesting problem; depends upon age and motivation of child. When I was teaching A level computing, in the run in to exams I would produce one side of A4 with entire paper knowledge content in notes/mind map/memo. This method also taught the student how to learn a body of work as an image gestalt – each section becoming a memory hook for later recall.
    Students would relearn by unpacking the sheet, and so by learning in 3 different ways seemed to gain rapid secure knowledge.
    For 13 year olds back in the seventies/eighties I would produce idiots guides, to assist parents with pupils. Both methods identified the step required to dissociate knowledge from previous teaching and then ressociate. Learning in the same way as previously covered takes 7 steps, whereas research highlights 3 different ways reaps similar rewards.

  8. I think there is a very important component to remembering here, namely what I would loosely call ‘pupil intent’. Some things are very easy to remember, essentially something that has a personal value attached or ascribed to it. We can recall thousands of stories and personal interactions with little or no effort (although the fidelity of the memory may be questioned – my understanding is that the memory is essentially reconstructed each time rather than strictly recalled). Each of these stories though concerns a key component; the person remembering has a personal interest in the story. There are plenty of stories that we have encountered that are never remembered because we have placed no value in it. I’ve taught plenty of boys with an impressive knowledge of Premier League tables and players who are unable to remember three words of a formula because they don’t judge it to be relevant to them personally.
    So for me the question of remembering something abstract, for example spelling the word “receive” correctly contains more than just the mechanical act of rote learning, there has to be an intent to remember it. It may come from the desire to not feel shame of misspelling a word. It may come from the desire to satisfy a parent or teacher, in a nebulous ‘do well at school’ way. In the case of homework, it may be the intent to avoid punishment. It may be that the pupil ascribes a value to ‘learning’ and that is enough. My point is, without an intent to learn something that is perceived as being unrelated to a pupil the technique becomes secondary. The difficulty is finding a way to get the students to generate the interest for themselves.
    I suggest that the pupils who are better at these techniques either have internal or external motivators for learning that are masking the utility of these approaches. In classes where the motivation is clear many techniques will work because the pupil intent to learn is there. The same approach will not necessarily work for a class that are going through the motions or have switched off. When Year 11 last-two-term-anxiety appears in the Spring pupils are a lot more conducive to these techniques because they see a purpose to learning.
    I have some pupils who will absorb content like a sponge, presumably because they believe that the knowledge has a long term pay-off. I suspect this attitude is more common in high performing schools and even countries. It may not work in the time scales we have for other students. Which is not to say don’t try it, but be prepared for a never-ending task.

    tl;dr Rote learning works if pupil has a motivation (internal or external) to learn the content.

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