Giving students the skills to learn better, to take charge of their own learning, is critical to their development. That’s why cognitive strategies are so important. In a previous blog, we discussed chunking and rehearsal strategies. This time we will look at elaboration methods that you can use to help students understand and remember.
Where rehearsal strategies use exact words, elaboration strategies use different words or methods as associations for learning. In a sense, they provide alternate pathways to retrieve information from memory. Another name for these strategies is memory aids. There are five different types of elaboration strategies—mnemonics, rewriting, note-making, comparisons, and self-questioning. We’ll examine each one and provide examples.
A mnemonic device is any learning technique that aids information retention. Mnemonics translates information into a form that the human brain can retain easier. This can be lists, sounds, images, or even gestures. This is based on the observation that the human mind often remembers spatial, physical, humorous, ‘relatable’ information, rather than more abstract information.
For school use, DataWORKS has identified nine types of mnemonic devices:
- Keywords. Remember word pairs, either verbal or visual. For example, verbally you can associate sounds. (Mississippi = miss; Jackson = Jack; I will miss you, Jack will remind you of the capital of Mississippi.) Or, visually you can associate images. (Thomas Edison = TreE – an image with his initials; light bulb= light; a tree with light bulb will remind you of who invented the light bulb.)
- Chains. Remember strings or chains of items in order. For example, to recall the five rights of the first amendment, students could remember the chain: The Press was given a Speech about Religion at church where people had Assembled to Petition the government.
- Rhyme. Use rhyming words to recall key facts. For example, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.”
- Acronyms. Use the first letters of each word to create another word. For example, ROY G BIV will give you the colors of the rainbow, or HOMES will give you the names of the Great Lakes.
- Word and Picture. Use a picture to remind you of a word, phrase or date. For example, the high sails of two old galleon ships could remind you of two 8’s and refer to the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
- Sequence. Connect to the order of the alphabet or numbers with the new information. For example, the word ‘decimal’ has d before the m, so you know that dividing decimals you move the point to the left, and multiplying decimals you move the point to the right.
$100 .00 / 10 = $10.00 (decimal point moved to the left)
$100 x 10 – $1000.00 (decimal point moved to the right
- Gestures. Use a motion of body or hand to help remember. For example, touch your head (beginning of story), touch your middle (middle), and touch your feet (end).
- Words to Numbers. Substitute words of different lengths to represent each digit. For example, in the phrase “How I wish I could calculate Pi!” the words have 3 digits, 1 digit, 4 digits, etc. which is the sequence of pi (3.14592).
- Word Parts. Use word parts inside the word to remember. For example, Longitude is like LONG hair, so the lines go down.
Rewriting includes paraphrasing and summarizing. Rewriting information in a student’s own words makes it more meaningful to them. To paraphrase means to restate the ideas in a text in your own words. It includes all the same information as the original source but is reworded. Summarize means to describe only the main ideas of the text. It avoids specific details or examples, and should be shorter than the original. Students should be explicitly taught how to do each of these methods.
Note-taking means copying word for word, but note-making refers to organizing your notes in your own words, usually after reading or listening to a talk. Note-making has three purposes: 1) to help students make sense of information; 2) to help them plan for an assignment; and 3) to refresh their memory for assessments. Research indicates that, without notes, 75% of communicated information is lost after one week and 95% after three weeks.
There are five different methods of note-making that you can teach your students:
- Outlining. General points are flush left. More specific points are indented to the right. Levels of importance are indicated by the distance away from the major points.
- Mapping. This is a graphic way to relate ideas to each other. It is also called concept mapping, topic mapping, or mind mapping. There are subtle differences between each one.
- Charting. This can be a timeline, flowchart, cycle chart, or some similar graphic way of representing data.
- Sentence Method. Write every new thought, fact, or topic on a separate line, and number them as you progress.
- Cornell Method. Write key points from a talk or text in a 6-inch area on the right of your paper. Skip a few lines, where you can complete thoughts and sentences after the talk. Put some kind of cue in the left margin for significant points or questions. Review by covering the notes and looking at your cues.
The fourth type of elaboration strategy is the use of comparisons—that is, metaphors, analogies, and similes. As a memory technique, comparisons provide familiar images to connect ideas to. They explain something unfamiliar by showing similarities to something familiar. For example, you could say “a plant stem is a drinking straw for the plant.” Comparisons also serve as a bridge between prior knowledge and new knowledge, and they create imagery for long-term retention.
To use this in class, it’s best to select a metaphor that is known but will relate to something new you want the students to learn. Be sure to point out the need to use the metaphor and what it means. Then show similarities and differences, and ask process checking for understanding questions. For the example above, we could ask “How is this passage promoting understanding of a glacier?”
The last type of elaboration strategy is probably the most important. It is teaching the students to do their own self-questioning as they study. I have long believed that the key to thinking is asking questions. The better questions one asks, the better thinking results. So, teaching students to actively think or question a text is critical. Eventually, this needs to become an ingrained skill, and then they will be a lifelong learner.
One way to teach this is to model the process for them and provide specific questions to get them started. For example, you could give them a base of four questions: 1) What was the main point of the lesson or text? 2) What in the lesson or text did I find most interesting? 3) What is one probable test question or application that will come out of this lesson or text? 4) What one question do I most want to ask my teacher?
Elaboration strategies are battery chargers for the memory. All you have to do is plug your students into these techniques and their brains will be working much better. Pick a few of these and start today. Your students will thank you, not only for teaching them content, but also for teaching them how to learn better!
Next post will look at cognitive strategies that involve organization.