Review of Cognitive Research

Bringing brain science to the classroom

Cognitive researchers have unraveled many of the mysteries concerning the brain's storage and retrieval systems, yet few educators use this information to enhance learning in the classroom. The student struggle with memorization of addition, subtraction, and multiplication has prompted some educators to suggest delaying instruction to a later grade or to simply give the students calculators as "they will be using them in the real world anyway". Discussing memory systems Robert J. Marzano notes:

"Cognitive psychologists have taught us a lot about storing information in long-term memory. In fact, we know more about how information can be stored for easy retrieval than we do about almost any other aspect of learning. Unfortunately, what we know is usually not taught in the classroom (p.48)."

According to O'Neil (1992, p.5) "not all types of learning are conducive to constructivist practice" and "memorizing basic facts is often essential".  "The learning of facts and procedures is a legitimate and important part of a student's education" (O'Daffer, 1993, p. 376). "At some point students must be encouraged to put away the manipulatives and function with symbols alone" (Bohan and Shawaker, 1994, p.247). Picture associations make bridging the gap between the concrete state to the symbolic easy. When the number components of a math fact are pictured as a character, memorization of that fact is easy.

Unlike the rote system of repetition this system is quick and easy to use. Zellman (1992) who teaches a course in memory enhancement techniques describes the rote system as, "a mechanical method based on repetition that takes up so much time it distracts us from the real purpose which is to understand information. It is a stressful way to learn and it is even more stressful when you try to access the information. "According to Zellman, "turning information into a silly picture is an easier and more pleasant way to study....the more silly or absurd the image the more likely you'll remember or recall it". He further states that we should learn this system and "make it our mission to teach it to the children in our lives."

Concrete manipulatives are used to foster understanding of mathematical process. Just because these manipulatives are "hands-on" and fun does not necessarily mean that students can make the symbolic connections necessary to become advanced mathematicians.Many students have trouble bridging the gap between the concrete manipulative stage and the symbolic number stage.

Students enjoy turning math facts into characters which can be taken apart in subtraction or built in addition. This is their way of constructing meaning to abstract symbols so that numbers can be as easily manipulated in problem solving as their concrete counterparts. Tie a rhyming word to describe the addition character and presto the child has a mnemonic for the multiplication fact.

Math is a sense making, problem solving mental activity. It's not rote memorization of isolated facts, nor is it typing a student to manipulatives because the child fails to grasp the symbolic connections of number components. Memory aids allow students to organize, structure, and use numbers mentally to become advanced problem solvers. On achievement tests students have scored extremely well on the high-order thinking and problem solving components of a test. This program has been used effectively, not only in my classroom, but in classrooms throughout Arkansas. This program was funded by the Arkansas Department of Education's School Recognition Exemplary Program Grant in 1988-89 and the U.S. Department of Education's Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program in 1990-91 for dissemination and research. Data analysis showed a highly significant gain in teachers' class summary scores after having used my memory aids in reading and math (Jones, 1991). This finding was consistent with an analysis of research by the authors of The Self Renewing School who found that the initiatives that produced the largest "dramatic" effect on school learning were those that used models to assist memorization. The authors went on to say that for "basic knowledge like....computation skills..we want, in fact, to have a very high degree to success for all students because anything less is terrible disadvantaging for them" (Joyce, Wolf, and Calhoun, 1993, p.74). Mnemonic aids make mastery of addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts quick and easy so that students can concentrate on the higher educational goal of critical thinking.

If I could modify our existing mathematics program, I would introduce mnemonics into the curriculum. If I could modify our existing educational system as a whole, I would teach all students how to use picture associations to learn on their own whatever they wanted to learn. After all no one can learn everything there is to know. What we do learn we tend to forget if it is not interesting or useful to us (Squire 1985). But more importantly, we do not know what students in the future will need to know to succeed. As Marzano states, "ultimately, it might be better to help students develop mental habits that will help them learn on their own whatever they need to want to know" (p.131).

That my memory aids for reading and math work is no surprise. I used memory aid associative techniques that experts in the field of memory enhancement have known about all along. It is my hope, that as teachers and students become more familiar with memory aid devices, there will be less talk about postponing or giving up on learning, and that students will actually embrace learning knowing that they will have the secret to unlocking the brain's mysterious storing system. 


Memory Enhancement Techniques

Applying the research

According to research, there are three main components to be considered in memory enhancement techniques:

  1. Teach to all the sensory modalities.
  2. Information is remembered best if it is interesting or useful.
  3. New information is easier to remember if it can be linked to something already stored in the memory bank.

Recent success in education can be traced to these components. Hands-on instruction, math manipulatives, graphing. recording data, and generally writing in all subject areas make learning easier for the visual and tactile learners.

The literature based approach to reading is effective because it is story based and interesting. (There is no need to throw out phonics because phonic instruction is dull. Add stories and make phonics story based.) Today's math instruction focusing on real problems make math meaningful and useful to students.According to research, educators are forgetting about the third main component in memory enhancement techniques - associations.

Information can be multi-sensory and interesting, but not stored for quick recall. Using well established pictures in the memory bank to link new information triggers a strong electrical impulse to help recall the new information. The same pattern that the brain uses to store information is activated to recall the information. The stronger the electrical impulse, the easier something is remembered. This is the reason memory aid systems use association type aids.

A word like "cat", "dog", "alligator", and "rhinoceros" is easier for a child to remember than a word like "the" because the brain usually has a stored picture of a dog or cat, etc in the memory bank. The picture triggers a strong electrical impulse to connect the word to be stored. The brain can not visualize a "the" or the number components of a math fact and memory aid associations help to provide a storage area for this new information. My memory aids for phonics and math are hands-on, tactile, story based aids that are also associative to help the brain store the new information thus using all three components of memory enhancement techniques.


Boham, Harry J. and Peggy Shawaker.  "Using Manipulatives Effectively: A Drive Down Rounding Road." Arithmetic Teacher 41 (January 1994) 246-248.

Frust, Bruno. You Can Remember. Chicago, Il: Memory and Concentration Studies (1963).

Jones, Susan C. "Memory Aids for Reading and Math." Final Report U.S. Department of Education's Christa McAuliffe Fellowship (1991)

Joyce, Bruce, James Wolf, and Emily Calhoun. The-Self Renewing School. Alexandria, VA ASCD (1992).

Marzano, Robert J. A different Kind of Classroom Teaching with Dimensions of Learning. Alexandra, VA ASCD (1992).

O'Daffer, Phares G. "Its Time to Use our "OOB" Detectors!" Arithmetic Teacher 40 (March 1993) p.376

O'Neil, John. "Wanted: Deep Understanding "Constructivism" Posits New Conception of Learning" Update. 34 Alexandria, VA ASCD (March 92) p5.

Squire, Larry R.  "Unlocking the Secrets of Memory." Science Year. Chicago: World Book (1985) 169-181.

Zellman, Anton J. Memory Magic. (Audio Tape) Burroughs Wellcome Co. (1992)

Wolfe, Patricia. BRAIN MATTERS Translating Research into Classroom Practice.  Alexandria, VA ASCD (2001)