What Did You Learn Today?

A study released this year by the University of Edinburgh has discovered some fascinating clues about how the brain processes memories, particularly how the brain determines which memories to keep and which to erase.

The term “erase” is significant because, according to the study’s findings, “forgetting can be the result of an active deletion process rather than a failure to remember.” 

Memory recall relies on chemical signaling between AMPA receptors located inside individual brain cells: the more AMPA receptors, the better the memory. 

Researchers discovered that the brain gradually removes AMPA receptors from brain cells, thus lessening the capacity to recall. If a given memory is not actively recalled by an individual to stimulate the remaining AMPA receptors, the brain will continue to reduce the number of receptors until the memory is lost. 

For teachers, parents, and students, the results of this study have applications for learned behavior and academic performance. During the course of K-12 education, children are immersed in a constant state of learning. While teachers work diligently to ensure their students commit lessons to memory, the findings of the Edinburgh study suggest students must continue to apply what they learn in school outside the classroom to commit key concepts to long-term memory and maintain their knowledge.

Here are a few ideas for parents looking to help their children better remember what they’ve learned in school.

Teach, Not Tell

When parents have opportunities to speak with their children—be it at home, over the phone, or through email—it’s important to avoid saying, “Tell me what you learned in school today.” Instead, a better approach is to say, “Teach me what you learned in school today.” By teaching rather than simply telling, students are forced to recall, engage with, and communicate more detail from the day’s teachings. This exercise helps students more easily commit these lessons to their long-term memory.

Read Actively

When it comes to reading, quality is more important than quantity. Rather than having your students race to the end of each chapter uninterrupted, encourage them to practice active reading: tell them to take breaks every few pages to ask questions about the book. Students may direct questions toward a parent or peer or ask themselves internally. This helps them engage with the material and cultivate long-term memory.

Apply Learning

Basic memorization exercises are great for short-term memory, but without application those memories won’t last. To create long-term memories, help students apply their knowledge to daily life. Chemistry students could identify compounds or base elements in everyday objects. Language students could look at common English words to identify their Latin or Greek roots. The possibilities are genuinely endless for every K-12 subject.

These are just a few of many techniques to improve memory recall and overall learning. As the Edinburgh study suggests, any type of frequent recall will help stimulate AMPA receptors in the brain, and those specific receptors could be the key to unlocking academic performance long-term.