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The Bumpy Ride Down Memory Lane

Is it really that big of deal that you remember your 2nd grade teacher with brown hair, when she really was a blonde? Or that time you convinced your trivia team that the Michael Jackson hit, Billie Jean, came out in 1985 when it was actually released in 1982? No, not a big deal. But it is a BIG DEAL when your students have mixed up the correct uses of there, their, and they’re or don’t remember that compound interest is calculated on the sum of the principal and interest.

The reality is you almost NEVER remember something perfectly the first time. The same is true about your students. The trip down memory lane is a bumpy ride with more potholes than you would like. This is bad news for your students, who are constantly storing incorrect information in their memory banks.

The good news is there are simple, powerful tools you can use to smooth out the ride down memory lane to make sure their learning and memory is accurate and aligned with your learning goals.

The Research

Memory is based on the science of “neuroplasticity” which is the capacity to make new connections, reorganize itself and even map out changes in gray matter. That makes it dynamic and flexible.

“Dynamic” and “flexible” are two nice sounding words, especially if you are looking to be hired as a teacher. They are not, however, the most desirable words to describe your students’ memory. But it is true. Memories are not as static as you might wish. They are, by nature, dynamic, flexible, and thus prone to distortion (Schacter, Guerin, & Jacques, 2011).

To fully understand why your students (and you) regularly remember things incorrectly, it is important to review how the information got there in the first place.

It is a long and complicated road for new information to be consolidated into a memory. It involves the thalamus, amygdala, frontal lobe, hippocampus, as many sensory cortices as applicable, and a few other key parts of the brain. On a cellular level, electricity is fired along MANY different pathways related to the learning of new material with several important brain chemicals involved in binding new, related neurons together. With so many twists, turns, and forks in this neurological road it really isn’t surprising that some things get a little mixed up.

I’ll spare you the exciting details of how memories are formed and just remind you that in the end all of the details of an experience get dispersed to various parts of the brain – there is no one specific place in the brain where long-term memories are stored.

So, when it comes time to retrieve (aka remember) something, the frontal lobe works with several other parts of the brain, bringing bits and pieces from numerous brain regions together to reconstruct a memory. Although it is possible the wrong information gets consolidated in the first place, most scientists agree it is the reconstructive process that is susceptible to distortion (Schacter, Guerin, & Jacques, 2011; Lacy & Stark, 2013).

Why should you care? Because your students are almost NEVER learning something right the first time. Some of you probably already know this from experience. But the science that supports it points us to tools to help mitigate this neurological challenge. Keep reading to learn how you can ensure that your students get the most accurate learning the first time around AND how to quickly clarify any false memories or distortions BEFORE the distortion shows up on an assessment.

There also seems to be an “information overload” protection system in the memory process of the brain that leads people to only remember the general gist of what they experienced. The details get lost, forgotten, or just omitted in the reconsolidation process (Schacter, Guerin, & Jacques, 2011). Your students might remember that you learned about plant cells last week, but the details and distinctions between nucleoplasm and cytoplasm might end up more as a pot hole than a solid memory.

Surprisingly, this gist-based memory is even true when retrieving information regarding emotionally charged events like 9/11 or the Challenger Space Shuttle (Sharot, Delgado, & Phelps, 2004). Even though an emotional experience creates the subjective experience that you are remembering better, the presences of strong emotions doesn’t seem to improve the accuracy of the memory (Rimmele, Davachi, Petrov, Dougal, & Phelps, 2011).

In other words, it is still the desire of an exceptional teacher (you) to infuse positive emotions in the learning experience – emotions can strengthen the memory. But the presence of emotions simply strengthens THAT the event happened, not the DETAILS of the event. So that memory might still be a little off. Oops! In fact, the same hormones that help you recall something emotional (norepinephrine and cortisol) are the same ones that, in excess, can overload the hippocampus and invite distortion.

So, what do you do? How do you improve the accuracy of your students’ memories? Here are 4 simple tools to smooth out those false bumps on memory lane.

Practical Application

To clarify and correct memories, you have two main windows of opportunity: DURING the learning and AFTER the learning. Below are FIVE memory-saving strategies that can help ensure your students are encoding the right information.

2 ways to improve the correctness of memories DURING initial learning:

Although it is true your brain rarely remembers something perfectly the first time, there are things you can proactively do to help your students get the most correct learning the first time around. Here are two worth your time and focus:

  • Make learning relevant AND meaningful: Students will create a more accurate memory the first time learning something if they find the information meaningful (Oudiette, Antony, Creery, & Paller, 2013). Is your content not naturally interesting to your students? Honestly, most isn’t.Here is your challenge – connect new learning to a current event, pop culture, a popular video game … anything that is meaningful to your student population. “Borrow” meaning from something your students care about and use it to improve the quality of their memory.
  • Multi-sensory instruction: Since memories are stored in different areas of the brain, we need to input new learning in different parts of the brain to improve the memory consolidation process. Aim to activate as many sensory cortices as possible within each lesson. The more you involve, the clearer the picture will be when the brain retrieves the information and reconsolidates it back down memory lane from the corresponding cortices (Schneider, Beege, Nebel, & Rey, 2018).
    • Use visual aids, colors, mind maps, short video clips, or visual language (“picture this”; “imagine”) to involve the visual cortex.
    • Use callbacks, vocal variation (whisper, accents, shout a key word, etc.), music, rhymes, to involve the auditory cortex.
    • Use body motions, note-taking, gestures, and short skits to involve the motor cortex.

3 ways to improve the correctness of memory AFTER the initial learning:

  • Summarization: With an effect size of 0.79, summarizing new learning should be a part of your daily teaching practice (Hattie, 2017). Sure, you just taught them but spending the last 3-5 minutes of the day summarizing the learning will clarify and reinforce any information your students didn’t get right the first time around.
    • Restate the main learning points from the day
    • Post them in the room for easy visual recall
    • Have students repeat them to a neighbor
    • Have students create a learning journal where they write down the main learning points each day (note-taking effect size = 0.50)
    • Begin each lesson summarizing the previous lesson

All of these summarization strategies will smooth out any gaps left from the initial learning experience.

  • Constant Feedback: Formative assessment, is feedback DURING the learning process. This type of feedback benefits BOTH the teacher and the student. To ensure students are constantly making minor corrections to their memory, students should be receiving feedback DAILY. Formative assessments can happen through:
    • Tickets in (or out) the door
    • Think-pair-share strategies (with the teacher roaming to listen in on conversations)
    • Strategic questions that foster classroom dialogue. Focus your questions more on “how” and “why” rather than lower-order right/wrong questions. Remember to give proper wait time to allow students to think before responding.

It is NOT in the completion of these tasks that students correct their memories. It is through receiving teacher FEEDBACK on these tasks that learning and memory can improve.

  • Retrieval: Much different (and better) than reviewing or studying, retrieval is any exercise that challenges the learner to retrieve information from memory. This is almost always done WITHOUT the help of their book, notes, digital device, etc. An occasional prompt may be useful to get the retrieval process a jumpstart. Consider retrieval a way for students to “test” their memory. Be careful to NOT assume that every retrieval exercise needs to count towards a grade – it can simply be to improve their learning (Karpicke, 2012; Barber, Rajaram, & Marsh, 2008). Retrieval practices should happen the DAY new information is learning AND in intervals for two weeks afterward (Roediger & Butler, 2011).
    • Practice tests – a much better use of time for students than repeatedly studying (Butler, 2010).
    • Flash cards – with correct answers on the back to support accurate memory formation
    • Partner quizzing – remember to establish a system to “error-correct” to ensure students avoid reinforcing incorrect information
    • Learning Stations – have students travel around the room to different stations completing practice test style questions. Again, be sure the “correct” answers are readily available for them

The simple truth is, we don’t learn everything perfect the first time. Our brain makes a rough draft and holds it until it you decide to either upgrade the details or delete it. New learning will get distorted. Take on the challenge to prevent and correct those errors. With as much effort as you and your students give to learning, you deserve a smooth ride down memory lane. Happy travels, and enjoy the ride!


Barber, S. J., Rajaram, S., & Marsh, E. J. (2008). Fact learning: How information accuracy, delay, and repeated testing change retention and retrieval experience. Memory, 16(8), 934-946.

Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118-1133.

Hattie, J. (December 2017). Hattie’s 2018 updated list of factors related to student achievement: 252 influences and effect sizes (Cohen’s d). Retrieved from http://www.visiblelearning.org

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163.

Lacy, J. W., & Stark, C. E. (2013). The neuroscience of memory: Implications for the courtroom. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(9), 649-658.

Oudiette, D., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., & Paller, K. A. (2013). The Role of Memory Reactivation during Wakefulness and Sleep in Determining Which Memories Endure. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(15), 6672-6678.

Rimmele, U., Davachi, L., Petrov, R., Dougal, S., & Phelps, E. A. (2011). Emotion enhances the subjective feeling of remembering, despite lower accuracy for contextual details. Emotion, 11(3), 553-562.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27.

Schacter, D. L., Guerin, S. A., & Jacques, P. L. (2011). Memory distortion: An adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(10), 467-474.

Schneider, S., Beege, M., Nebel, S., & Rey, G. D. (2018). A meta-analysis of how signaling affects learning with media. Educational Research Review, 23, 1-24.

Sharot, T., Delgado, M. R., & Phelps, E. A. (2004). How emotion enhances the feeling of remembering. Nature Neuroscience, 7(12), 1376-1380.

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