Helping students’ memories – utilising elaborative retrieval

‘A heart whose love is innocent!’

This is the last line from George Gordon Lord Byron‘s poem “She Walks in Beauty”. It’s a significant line in the poem, emphasised by the imperative, because it tells us that his enchantment for the character in the poem, his cousin’s wife, is not simply physical, but derived from an admiration of her inner beauty. It’s the focus on her purity rather than any sexuality that separates this poem from many of Byron’s others; others loaded with overtones of lasciviousness, tones perhaps truer to his reputation. Byron was considered to be ‘mad bad and dangerous’, a title given to him by Caroline Lamb, a wealthy, elite, married socialite, who was much older than Byron, and whom he was having an affair with. His reputation was immortalised with the scandalous revelation that he had also had an affair with his half-sister Augusta, resulting in the birth of a child called Medora, who unfortunately died at the age of five.

Perhaps in a quest to curb the rampant infamy, he married Anne Milbanke. Things seemed to be going well for the young poet, especially when the couple conceived and introduced their first child to the world. The child was Ada Lovelace, who later went on to become one of the world’s first female prominent mathematicians, accredited with being the first computer programmer and writing the first computer algorithm, and algorithm used by Charles Babbage, the man credited with inventing the first computer. Charles Babbage by the way went to school in Totnes at King Edward the VI College, a cool fact to know especially when your daughters go to the school. Unfortunately however, they were unable to sustain the marriage, and after five years, the two separated. It was an acrimonious break, with Anne believing Byron to be morally corrupt, and her desire to ensure Ada did not manifest any of his ‘insane’ tendencies resulted in Ada not being allowed to see Byron after the age of 8. Nevertheless, she insisted on the relationship when she was older, and was buried next to Byron on her death.

When considering the aforementioned promiscuous nature of Byron the outcome is hardly surprising, but when we find out that Byron was sexually abused as a child, by both a male and a female, we start to understand more why he had such difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. The knowledge evokes a sense of empathy for Byron, and serves to make the last line of the poem, and indeed the poem’s central focus, which is the inner goodness and beauty that radiates from the character, an all the more admirable achievement, an achievement that tells us that there was more to Byron than his reputation: most people want to be good.

So how do I get students to remember this important quote from the poem? The first port of call is retrieval practice. I know that retrieving information regularly strengthens the memory, as it essentially adds a strengthening layer of myelin to the neural pathway that links to the desired information we want the students to remember.

Testing is probably the most efficient way to do this, whether it be providing students with short quizzes at some stage in a lesson, or the active promotion of and teaching of how to revise, by creating things like flashcards or self-quizzing resources. See some excellent ideas here by Rebecca Foster (@TLPMsF).

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, a horrific saying derived from the 1800s, when cats were actually used for their fur. Facilitating the creation of numerous pathways to be able to retrieve the information literally gives students more opportunities to be able to remember the content. This process is called elaborative retrieval.

Shana Carpenter is one of the leading researchers on elaborative retrieval, But while her focus is on how the strength of the related information affects the eventual retrieval of the key information, the foundational process is quite intuitive to us all. Take for example a memory from your childhood, say, your childhood home. When you remember the home, no doubt many other memories pop into your mind. These may consist of things like your first bike, or a tree house if you were lucky enough to have had one. Maybe you remember falling off your bike, or rather more seriously, out of the tree house, and breaking your leg. Each of these memories now allows you to think of your home. In fact, when you remember breaking your leg, it would be near impossible to not connect the memory to your home in some way. The reason for this is that your brain has created an elaborative semantic pathway between all of those pieces of information, and the cue of one thing triggers another. The same principle can be applied to helping students remember information.

The story quoted above about Byron and his background creates and elaborative semantic field in which students can access the key quote: “A heart whose love is innocent!” Students can now activate that key quote by following a number of neural pathways, including information about his affairs, famous people connected to those affairs, or even thinking of the abuse he went through as a child. The story facilitates the memory.

The strategy certainly works, with students being able to arrive at the desired quote with cues of any of the related pieces of information in testing. It is here that Carpenter’s work on cue strength becomes interesting, with weaker cues leading to stronger memories. But having set up the elaborative paths via storytelling, there is the possibility that the stories and the related information can actually serve as distraction from what you really want the students to remember – a form of cognitive overload. However, with explicit referral to what it is you want students to focus on, and by repeatedly mentioning and directing student attention towards that focus, students will prioritize the key information over the related information, and the memory of that information will be strengthened.

Added bonus

But the strategy doesn’t only strengthen student memory. It has two other rather wonderful by-products. Firstly, it forces the teacher to delve deep into their subject content, to delve into the back stories of why some of the incredible things that drive the subject have come to be. The enormous advantage of this is that the teacher becomes a brilliant source of information for their students, an expert in subject knowledge, and consequently an extremely powerful motivator for learning. Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, facilitating elaborative retrieval via the use of stories helps to reconnect the teacher with the love of teaching, as students soak up the details as they would modern day gossip. I’m yet to experience a class that has not been impressed when told a good story, or to see a teacher who hasn’t got a buzz out of their students’ delight from its telling. To enjoy stories seems to be an inherent ingredient to be a human, and students of today, with all their fascination with technology, are of no exception.

I’m @edmerger


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