Sunday, April 4, 2010

Learning and Memory

Children who underachieve in academic settings are often mis-diagnosed. Lazy? Immature? Bored or disinterested? Low intelligence? Perhaps the real problem is memory. Researchers from Durham University surveyed over three thousand students and, shockingly, results indicated that 10% of students had poor working memory. Nationally, this equates to nearly a half a million children in primary educational settings. Working memory is the ability to hold onto information long enough to use, store or organize it. Students with poor working memory may appear to have difficulty attending to lessons, following directions and comprehending material. They may have trouble solving multi-step math problems or calculating problems with multiple steps (e.g. long division or algebra). Writing may be an issue, as this requires retrieval of information as needed. Often memory problems are not noticed or are mistaken for other learning problems. This may be because they are often not identified without formal testing.

Young children may present with memory problems in several ways. They may forget or confuse names (both common or proper nouns, for example, calling Aunt Mary Aunt Sue or calling a dog a cat or a woof). Some youngsters seem to "know" the names of shapes, colors, numbers or letters one day and then the next day they "forgot." For some children, the colors or shapes come easily, but recalling names of numbers or other categories is more difficult. For yet other children they have difficulty finding words. Working memory may affect progress in learning to read, both the decoding stage and the comprehension aspects. This is because memory is required to hold sounds, syllables or words on the work table while the rest of the word, sentence or passage is decoded. For a child who struggles to get past the sound-it-out (/b/ /a/ /t/) stage of reading, comprehension can be slow to come.

Early identification of memory problems is key to improving educational outcomes for students. Teachers can adapt instructional methods and both teachers and parents can teach compensatory strategies that can help students, before they fall too far behind. Visual cues and task analysis check lists are strategies often employed in academic settings. For example, placing the initials "d m s b" (divide, multiply, subtract, bring down) on the top corner of a long division paper can serve as a reminder of the order of steps to employ when doing long division. A task analysis checklist can serve as a sequential and visual reminder of the steps involved in longer projects. Often, mnemonics and rehearsal strategies can be helpful for students with memory problems. Students may develop sentences or words that trigger recall (e.g. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally as used in the order of operations: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction). In addition, "chunking" or combining smaller bits of information is helpful. The average person can take in about 7 small bits of information at one time. Less is more for children with memory problems. It is important to be sure to give them only the essential information so they don't have to weed through and discard superficial information. For many children, embedding information within context is important. Whereas abstract, seemingly unconnected information cannot be retained. However, when it is embedded in context (e.g. the dog's name is "red" because of its red color) it is more easily sorted, stored and retrieved. For some children, songs, rhymes or rhythms word well. How many of us can "sing" the phone numbers we have heard repeatedly in TV commercials? This applies to educational learning as well.

Educational consultants and educational psychologists, particularly neuropsychologists, can assist students with memory concerns. As always, it is important to rule out alternate disorders and/or identify co-existing disorders in order to create a proper treatment plan.

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