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Ask the Experts

My child forgets what she learns

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant


I have a daughter who is having a hard time learning. She tries hard, but it seems that she forgets whatever she learns. Then I have to show her again and again.


Your description of your child having a hard time learning implies that during the time you are working with her, she seems to understand the material but when quizzed or tested later, she has forgotten the material. It is hard to discern whether this is a memory problem, a learning problem or something else.

The first place to start is to find out what her primary method of learning is. There are basically three or four learning styles that are talked about in the literature. They are visual, auditory, kinetic and experiential. Kinetic refers to touch and experiential refers to physically and psychologically being involved in the process. Teachers most often use methods that work well for visual and auditory learners, but good teachers use techniques that work for all four learning styles.

Learning is attached to memory and it is broken down into the following sequence: Attention ----> Encoding ----> Storage ----> Retrieval. First, you select the information to which you will attend. You then code the information for storage (where it can be practiced and processed more deeply). Later, when needed, information is retrieved by using a search strategy that parallels how the information was coded and stored.

Some children forget what they have learned. Although information can be stored in long-term memory for extended periods of time, "memory decay" does take place. In other words, we can forget what we learn. In fact, we forget things quickest shortly after we learn them. This has two implications in terms of improving our memory. First, as disheartening as it is, you will often learn a great deal more than you can retain in the long run. But, before you lose heart entirely, keep in mind that the memories can be retained with a little effort. So, the second implication for improving memory involves maintaining memories with the least amount of effort.

To retain information in memory, you must practice, think about and sometimes relearn things. Every time you practice and relearn the information, you are reinforcing it in your memory. Taking a few moments to do frequent, but brief, reviews will save you time by helping you retain what you have learned. For example, it's a good idea to make rehearsal part of your reading and note-taking regimen. When you complete a reading assignment or a note-taking session with your child, take a few minutes to rehearse the material as a way of moving the information from short-term to long-term memory. Not that this practice alone is sufficient to prepare for most tests, but it will enhance understanding and recall of the material, facilitating serious study.

For kids, I like to make a game out of memory recall and reinforce their learning through positive reinforcement. If it is a memory problem, then utilizing memorization techniques might be useful. I found this useful Web site, Memory Techniques. There are great suggestions for memorization techniques for both visual and auditory learners. The art of memorization is referred to as mnemonics. Mnemonics are methods for remembering information that is otherwise quite difficult to recall.

According to this Web site, visual learners make up around 65% of the population; most mnemonic devices utilize visual images to aid memory. They suggest the key points to remember are:

  • Use positive, pleasant images.
  • Remember that vivid, colorful images are easier to remember.
  • Jot down every diagram, map or symbol written on the board by the instructor.

Even with printed course notes in front of them, visual learners still benefit from written information of their own, symbols and diagrams. Auditory learners relate most effectively to the spoken word. They will listen intently to a lecture, then rely on printed notes or their own notes. Often, summaries of ideas developed in a book or a series of lectures will help the auditory learner understand the material. Readily understanding material is essential to learning and remembering. Auditory learners make up about 30% of the population.

Another excellent manner for the auditory learner to remember is to teach the material to someone else. So have your child teach you what they have learned so far. As passive learners, we remember only 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and 30% of what we see. When you teach someone else, you retain 70 % of what you teach. When you tell and show someone you retain 90% of what you say and do! This approach utilizes all of the learning styles.

Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"okay, my child has similar issues, but here is our story (and another child in one of my groups). both are 10yo (one male, one female, different families). you can practice all week on a math concept. they get it:) they ace the test!:) the next week, you move onto a new concept. they learn that one too. they ace that test. that friday you decide to review what was learned the week before. 'huhh? we studied what!?' no memory at all. you're constantly 'reteaching' and not getting anywhere. keep in mind, however, there is no problem with memory whent hey 'want' to remember. my daughter loves dogs, and knows/can label every breed, and almost all in cats. she learned most of reading by directions on video games. so, it can be done. is there a reason for this? a label? she takes tests now, and i have to 'hold her hand' so to speak for each question thta wasn't practiced in the near past (sometimes yesterday) 'i forgot' 'i never studied that'. nothing is reatined. help! "
"Hi, my name is Krista Hawkins and I am an adult who dealt with a memory learning disability my whole life.I didnt know if I could get some insight to what I should do. It hasnt just affected me badly through my childhood but has followed me through getting jobs to people not understanding this problem. I faced humiliation growing up. Because of this I have a low self esteem. I was even let go at a job because they found out I had a learning problem. Only my immediate family understands me. Is there any help out there For us adults who suffered as a child and no one helped? If anyone can help or point me in the direction I would greatly appreciate it. Thank You Krista"