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Why can’t my students remember everything I say? Why can’t I remember either? How does memory work?

3 months ago

By Kevin M. Maher


Have you ever asked students to refresh your memory from the last class, “Did I talk about this already?” Are you the type of teacher who takes notes on what you covered, or didn’t cover, after each class? As for me, I need to. I jot down reminders to myself on a “to do” piece of paper. I review it while I prepare for their next class. 

Despite our note-taking habits, we expect our students to remember what we said. “How many times have I reminded you in class?” “Didn’t we cover this already?” “You should know this already!” 

Why does this happen? Why can’t any of us remember anything? How do we function despite this? “You’d forget your own head if it wasn’t attached to your own body!” The fact is, we’ve been designed this way. While we are awake, we subconsciously take in everything around us. You can imagine how immobilizing it would be if we consciously reflected on every sound, syllable, word, color, object, shape, or vibration. Instead, consciously, we rely on selective attention. We tune out many things so we can reflect on what is capturing our immediate focus. Within a classroom, that can be anything – the oddness of a question from another student, that lunch is coming and who we are going to eat with, the thing the teacher stresses might be on the exam in December, or how to improve our relationship with our roommate. All of those thoughts go into the temporary working memory, soon to be forgotten, unless something marks it for long-term storage. But isn’t the teacher going to mention what’s on the test again when it gets closer to December? 

Leonard (2009) defines working memory as follows: “This is a special tool headquartered in parts of the prefrontal cortex that allows us to hold a series of numbers or concepts in mind simultaneously in order to assess them, compare them, and if appropriate send the results elsewhere for establishment of more permanent sorts of memory. Working memory does not last long.” 

Let’s look at how working memory works. That special tool that Leonard talks about is the hippocampus. It’s of limited space and continually receives new information. Koch (2017) states that for students to put information into long-term memory requires either novelty, an increase of adrenaline, or some purpose for them to want to remember it. Those emotions are stored in the hippocampus, and the memory is connected with it. 

When we examine how the hippocampus works, we see that it fuses sight, sound, emotion, or thought onto the experience. To put this into simplistic terms, meaningful songs have the ability to transport us back to that high school dance, that first kiss, that school bus trip, those college friends we drank beer with, or that road trip we took with music blaring loudly. Certain smells can take us to grandma’s house, our first girlfriend’s perfume, those farmlands, or that bakery. 

Simultaneously that smell will transport us to the original memory along with its associated emotion. The way that grandma’s house smelled, the way kids approached the opposite gender to dance in the high school gymnasium, the way that we were so crazy on a school trip on a bus. Isn’t it sad to think that Grandma isn’t with us anymore? Wasn’t it awkward to ask a girl to dance? Wasn’t that exciting to be with friends on a bus without our parents? 

How can we remember those old events but we can’t recall our classroom lecture from last week? Even when we re-examine our notes, we might say, “My notes don’t make sense!” 

This is where we’re going to deviate into two different memory systems. The hippocampal memory system is based on episodic memory. What is episodic memory? Think of the brain recording every event that occurs. Certain memories are put into long-term storage because of some emotional impact they made. We can easily recall these events with the smallest of triggers. However, can we recall every cat we’ve ever encountered? No way. Our mind categorizes every cat into generic images and over time it’s impossible to recall every specific one. That being said, we certainly remember the few that remained special to us. These episodic connections are categorizing our images into their respective label. They tell us when we see a different type of dog for the first time, it is a dog, and not another type of animal. In short, the basic purpose of the hippocampus is to put aside the impactful and emotional events into long-term memory. The experience of seeing just another dog gets filed into the episodic “dog” file. Putting this into the students’ perspective – the teacher is just giving yet another vocabulary word, another lesson, another assignment. You get the idea. While the novelty created by a teacher might make some lessons memorable, is it reasonable that we can do this with every item we teach, every class? While this works with some lessons, we need other tools to work on students’ long-term language interests. 

Let’s look at procedural memory. This is stored by the basal ganglia, a different area of the brain altogether. Because this is not stored in the hippocampus, people with Alzheimer’s Disease might forget who is their husband, but still know how to wash the laundry, drive a car, and pick up a 7-10 split in the bowling alley. Procedural memory continually receives input, much like the episodic memory in the hippocampus, but it refines and enhances skills. To work on skills, we need to strengthen the neural pathways through practice. You can’t replicate someone’s song played on a banjo simply by watching them play. But if you knew the banjo as well as you know how to write in your native language, you might. 

I want to deviate momentarily to a researcher named Robert Stickgold. He and his team (2000) conducted dream research using the infamously popular 1990s computer game, Tetris. For those who don’t know, Tetris is a rather addictive video game where shapes fell from the top of the screen and you moved them to fit into the gaps at the bottom. Like many addictive video games, people have a tendency to continually visualize themselves playing it after they’ve closed their eyes for bed, and sometimes in their dreams. Stickgold’s participants included twelve experts, ten novices, and five amnesiacs with damaged hippocampi, unable to form episodic memories (p. 350). Stockgold was quoted as saying “I knew we had a good study when I woke one of the amnesiacs and he said, “I keep recalling these descending shapes, I wish I knew what they were.” 15 

Stickgold’s team found that while we sleep, our brain not only processes the input of the day from episodic memory, but it recalls procedural memories that help strengthen neural patterns to acquire skills. According to the Tetris studies, as we sleep, we continue to practice our newly-acquired skiing technique or video game playing skills that we did throughout the day. 

With these two styles of memory, let’s put them into teacher takeaways. One is that episodic memory marks anything of emotional content so that students don’t tend to forget it. Novelty fits into the category of emotional content, and the most unusual things can create a memory for a student. This may include smells, sights, or things they hear. For example, those strange sounds that the teacher made in class to help students remember a new word. On the other hand, rather than recalling those new words, the student might only remember that they had an unorthodox teacher who had a repertoire of peculiar sounds when they taught. 

Then we have procedural memory. This is when we work with skills, constantly improving language through practice. You might give them techniques to improve their public speaking by first teaching them terminology. They might learn “eye contact” and “vocal pauses” and associate the English words with specific actions they did or didn’t do while practicing their speeches. For a different example, a teacher might work with reading skills where they teach students how to infer the meaning of words or passages without resorting to dictionaries. These are skills they can acquire. 

Two things are for certain. First, skills can always be refined through practice. Secondly, novelty can potentially activate emotion to move things into the long-term memory. Maybe this piece you are reading now is something you knew already, or knew nothing about, so you only recall that someone at Brain SIG wrote something about it. Maybe you know something about the author, Kevin Maher, and you’ll remember that he wrote something about something in one of those Brain SIG Think Tanks. Maybe you never knew there were two different types of memory systems in the brain, and you’ll reflect on that the next time someone asks, “But how can people with Alzheimer’s Disease remember how to wash dishes?” Maybe you’ll recall the Tetris story and associate the video games you used to play with how your brain seemed to continue to practice them in your sleep. 

Or, just maybe, you’ll forget everything you’ve read here, much like the author might himself. It might be one of those things someone will mention to him years later, and he’ll say, “I wrote that? I remember writing it, but I don’t recall all the words I wrote. How’d you remember that from it? Interesting! Of all things to recall!” 


Kevin M. Maher is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Macau. He has also taught at universities in Japan and South Korea, and enjoys researching/writing/presenting about topics such as NeuroELT, Public Speaking, and Creative Writing.



Koch, S. (2017, October 25). MultiBriefs: Our brains are wired to forget: How does that affect language learning? Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

Leonard, J. A. (2009). Dreamworld: How your brain dreams and why. Sandwich, MA: Box Bush Press.

Stickgold, R., James, L., & Hobson, J. A. (2000). Visual discrimination learning requires sleep after training. Nature Neuroscience, 3(12), 1237-1238. doi:10.1038/81756




The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG

Volume 5, Issue 3, ISSN-2434-1002, March 1, 2019

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