TouchPaper Problem #7 – Memorising information (for up to 6 months)

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

Question #7 – What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?

Of all  the TouchPaper Problems I’ll admit this is the most populist. It somewhat derives from the debates by Joe Kirby, over at PragmaticEducation, and his quest to have students be masters of knowledge. The blogs themselves derive from a broader debate about the importance of knowledge in education (sometimes seen as being in opposition to skils, but really – let’s not get into that).

Joe writes a lot about the concept of mastery, and while I don’t wish to reduce it too much, a big part of that is remembering content. I can understand why Joe thinks this important. Having taught students in examined subjects, I never had the luxury of thinking “weeellll…. even if my students don’t remember what we did, they had a nice time, and I think they are motivated towards x now, so they will come back to it in the future”. Instead, I used to think “aaaaagh – I taught you the central nervous system last November and now you don’t remember it?! Yes, I know it’s May and that’s a long time ago, but you neeeed this…” And so on and so on.

Hence, I got to thinking. How often must students interact with a concept before they retain it? Is there a magic formulae by which I can get students to repeat a word 6 times, write it 10 and play it once, loudly, on a youtube vid once which will then mean they never forget?

I suspect there isn’t, and yet…

If we unpack this question there is the possibility of getting some rules of thumb out of it, not least because memory has been a very frequently studied area of psychology. Now, answers here may depend on what someone is learning. Perhaps it is easy to memorise ten french words but really difficult to remember how an author symbolises melancholy. Maybe I can say outloud certain things, but need to see others. And is there a difference in the time between learning and remembering? I purposely picked 1, 3 and 6 months in the problem because they are all, quite firmly, in the long-term memory box. If you are memorising something at 1 month then it must be in your long-term memory. But I pondered if there might be a difference (equally there might not) and if we could find out what it is that may save us all the many drawn-out summer revision classes where we beat ourselves and our charges up for not remembering what we did last September.

We can but hope.

5 thoughts on “TouchPaper Problem #7 – Memorising information (for up to 6 months)

  1. If I attempt to memorise a random 6 digit number by reading it 15 times quickly right now, that will probably not be the same as if I do so on 15 consecutive days.

    If instead of a random 6 digit number I try to memorise 6 random words, I think the number of repetitions needed will be different.

    If I read my random 6 digit number and use a proven technique for assisting memorisation at the same time, the number of repetitions will change again.

    If I try changing the time of day for reading this number 15 times, that may make a difference too.

    If I the number is useful to me I will need fewer repetitions than if it’s not.

    If I try hard, maybe that’s better than if I don’t.

    If I’m slightly miserable, I may remember better than if I’m tremendously happy.

    If I am also trying to remember half-a-dozen other things at the same time, that could make a difference.

    If I have already memorised lots of things, particularly other numbers, maybe I will do good.

    I suspect the answer, as so often in education, is ‘it depends”, or maybe “as many times as it takes”. Each of the suggestions above would make a good little study for a cognitive psychologist; if they don’t know the answer yet, I should think they at least can tell you the answer for rats. I wonder if a better question for teachers to be able to answer is “what are the best techniques for helping pupils retain information for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months?”

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