If we agree that memorization is an important part of a classical pedagogy, what is the proper way to go about it? Now that brain researchers can show with surprising clarity what is happening in the human brain, brain science is beginning to support our classical pedagogy.  Brain science can give us insights into how our minds remember and how to support the student as they memorize.

Dr. Norman Doidge, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and researcher on the faculty at Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York and the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, suggests that memory capacity is to some extent neuroplastic, meaning that our brains continue to change throughout life, developing new neural connections with different areas growing and shrinking all the time.  It is use or disuse that determines what grows and what shrinks.  Children’s brains readily shape themselves in response to the world, developing neuropsychological structures, which include our pictures or representations of the world.

Dr. Doidge explains how slow, steady work and practice solidifies learning, where as “cramming” causes transient learning.  He reports on the work of Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Harvard Medical School, who uses transcranial magnetic stimulation to create brain maps before and after test subjects learn new material.  He shows that slow, permanent changes demonstrate the sprouting of new neural connections and synapses. Time allows the natural plastic mechanisms of our brains to create these new connections making learning permanent.  Repetition and time are required.

Mnemonic tricks help, too.  Mnemonic tricks include rhymes, jingles, acronyms, and dramatic mental pictures that relate new information to something already learned.  Teachers can suggest mnemonic tricks or have the children develop their own.

A kinesthetic aspect can help children remember more easily.  Children love thinking up motions to accompany songs and poems.  At Trinity Academy, we use A Grammar of History, which lists numerous historical events from the settlement of the Nile River Valley to the current year with detailed hand motions to illustrate each event.  We use these events as pegs on which to hang new information. They also provide a context for new information as it is presented in class.  The idea is to chant a few dates before and after any new historical event’s date to provide chronological context.  Children can use this technique to support their independent learning.

In The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Doidge explains the importance of novelty in making our brains attend and remember something.  This is helpful when creating mnemonic tricks or when visualizing.   Remember that novelty aids learning.  Our minds learn by repeating, but we need to keep the practices fresh by repeating in different ways.

At a conference of North Carolina Independent Schools, Bill Costello, M.Ed. spoke on Fidgety Boys: Activities for Improving Behavior and Learning in School.  He explained the importance of making some learning activities kinesthetic, but also competitive to support the particular learning needs of boys.  Be creative with games using memory work as fodder.

Have the students keep a memory notebook or copy material onto cards that can be laminated and clipped to a backpack for practice anywhere.  The children can be encouraged to illustrate their material.  As a cross-curricular activity that would engage different regions of the brain, students could turn their memory notebooks into art journals.  This would give students extended interaction with the material and exposure to a pleasurable art form.  Use the notebooks for fluency practice.  Have the children take turns reading from their notebooks or cards using happy, sad, excited, or angry voices.  This provides students with a chance to take in information in multiple modalities, the importance of which is supported by current brain research.  See it, say it, read it, write it!  Additionally, you will be helping your students to develop lifelong learning habits and techniques.

Here are a few additional techniques to share with the students to help them memorize material.

  • Read aloud as you study.
  • Form mental pictures of the material.
  • Put material to music.
  • Create hand motions, use sign language, or draw pictures.
  • Review while you are doing something else like showering, exercising, or cleaning. Put a copy of your work to memorize in a Ziploc bag and tape it to your shower wall, so that you can check yourself while showering.
  • Make connections to previously learned material.
  • Recite material on your iPad and listen to it.
  • Recite in the mirror.
  • Students can read aloud using a Toobaloo to support fluency and expression.
  • Be creative and get your students memorizing.

The most important thing to do is to give children time and practice with meaningful, purposefully selected material.  The end goals of a memorization curriculum are to form the affections of your students, give them access to a deep well of vital material, develop their moral compass, and instill techniques for becoming an autodidact.


Stephanie Knudsen
Lower School Teacher
Trinity Academy