Memory work: the very name conjures up images of 19th-century schoolchildren hunched over their lesson books, or perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, engrossed in his mind palace. But memorization is essential to learning. In fact, some scholars have defined learning as “an alteration in long-term memory,” and this makes intuitive sense. If you can’t remember something, can you really be said to know it?
Classical education uses memory work to move information encountered in the course of study into long-term memory. Although some programs based on the ideas of Dorothy Sayers front-load memory work for young children, memory work without context is mere trivia, and memorization continues to be important throughout the student’s school career and beyond. The best approach to memory work ties it closely to the curriculum, and many classical or classically-inspired curricula include a memory work component.
Introducing New Memory Work
The most effective way to memorize is to apply the four basic language modalities to the task. Students should hear, say, read, and write the information you want them to remember. Most memory work can be presented in question-and-answer format, making recitation easy. To introduce memory work, follow these steps:
- Read the question and its answer aloud to your child.
- Ask the child to repeat the material back to you three times.
- Use the memory work answers for copywork and dictation.
- Create memory work flashcards and review them regularly.
- Play memory work games as desired.
Some types of memory work require students to recall an image, such as a map or diagram. In those cases, repeatedly drawing, coloring, or otherwise reproducing the image will move the information into long-term memory. For example, in the primary levels of my world literature program, Exploring the World through Story, students point to and color maps to help learn the locations of continents, oceans, lines of latitude and longitude, geographical regions, and countries.
Organizing and Reviewing Memory Work
The human brain is not like a computer hard drive that will record information reliably in an unchanging location and format, to be called up years later. It’s a “use it or lose it” system. Therefore, students need to review and refresh their memory work on a regular basis.
We know that spaced repetition is the most effective way to assure that information is stored in long-term memory. A simplified version of the Leitner system is an easy way to use spaced repetition in the homeschool. You will need the following items:
As each memory work item is introduced, create a flashcard for it by writing the question on one side of an index card and the answer on the other. (This makes a good copywork exercise for your child.) Place each new card card behind the numbered divider for the date of your next memory work session. I strongly recommend that families review memory work daily during the school week.
Students should review new memory work daily for a minimum of four weeks. Simply continue to move the cards to the next date after each review session.
After a month, if they are able to recite the answer quickly and accurately, you can begin to space the review out as follows:
- Every other day
- Every third day
- Once a week
- Once every two weeks
- Once a month
If at any point the child is unable to recite the answer quickly and accurately, move the card back into the daily review pile until the child is once again able to remember the information with ease. For the best results, continue to review old material monthly.
Use games like Memory Work Jeopardy and card matching to make review more fun. Memory work songs or chants are another time-tested method. (Can you recite the alphabet without hearing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in your head?)
The Method of Loci
One more mnemonic (memory) technique, appropriate for those with strong visual imaginations, has recently been given new life by competitive memory athletes―yes, there really is such a thing!―and the TV series Sherlock. It is called the method of loci (Latin for “places”). In this technique, which dates back to antiquity, students use a familiar physical space, such as a bedroom, house, backyard, or a walking path, as the backdrop for striking mnemonic images. By linking the desired words to images and images to places, the student creates a visual map of the information to be memorized. This map is sometimes referred to as a “memory palace.” This method is most useful for memorizing sequences (multi-step processes, timelines). There are many articles and books that describe the method of loci in detail.
Memorization is not just a sound educational practice. It provides learners with a sense of achievement and ownership of knowledge. In the words attributed to Bias of Priene, Omnia mea mecum porto: All that is mine, I carry with me. What you know by heart is yours forever.
Copyright 2021 by Andrew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.
Andrew Campbell is the author of The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.