Posted in From the Classroom

Memorization Matters: 3 Strategies That Work

Do me a favor, and if you haven’t already, watch this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live!  

Pretty sad, right?  I mean, if I’m going to be nuked by someone I would at least like to know where that someone lives.  Unfortunately for the future of American democracy, a basic knowledge of global geography is becoming increasingly rare, and Jimmy Kimmel isn’t the only one who’s noticed.  

Check out this map published by the New York Times this past July.  It shows where 1,746 Americans thought North Korea was in a recent survey. (The blue dots represent every wrong guess…all 64% of them.)

A little bit better than the people in the video, but not enough to make me encourage the general public to go vote in the next election.    

So why are Americans so geographically challenged?

Is it because Americans are so egocentric that they don’t think the other countries of the world are worth learning about?  Probably.  😉

But I also think part of the reason is that educational trends over the past several decades have focused so much on graduating students who can analyze, evaluate, and think critically, we forgot that they first need something to think about.  Higher order thinking skills are great…but not if our kids can only apply them to generic questions like, “Would you rather go to the beach or the mountains on your next vacation, and why?” or “What are the qualities of a good friend?” We need our future adults to be be able to discuss and tackle real world issues of substance, and I think the world of education sometimes forgets that before they can do that, they need to have mastered some pretty basic content knowledge.

Of course, as teachers, common sense should tell us we HAVE to teach students to identify and define before we can push them to analyze and apply.  But because so many of the “experts” have made us feel bad about teaching those “low-level” skills, we don’t spend enough time doing it – and doing it well.

For example, in my earlier years as a teacher, I was involved in writing curriculum and trying to determine how much emphasis to put on which skills and what content.  In the course of that discussion our (then) instructional facilitator, who was known for reading, and quoting, every best-selling educational book that hit the shelves, argued that students didn’t need to spend time learning the locations of various countries, cities, etc. because, “They can just Google it.”  It took me a minute to realize she wasn’t being sarcastic.  

Do we really think that’s true?  Do we really believe that our generals are sitting out there “Googling” the distance from North Korea’s missile silos to Japan or our west coast?  Do we really think our diplomats are relying on “Bing” to tell them how close Seoul is to the North Korean border, and how that might impact South Korea’s words and actions?  

“But these kids aren’t generals or diplomats!” you say.  “They can learn that later if they need to…”

Well…if you believe they will live to be 18 and might someday cast a vote – they ALL need to!  The very point the map from the New York Times was trying to make, was that Americans who could identify North Korea on a map were more likely to prefer dipl omacy over military force.  Why?  Maybe it’s because they understood the huge population centers within range of North Korean missiles, or just how close North Korea is to its bully big brother, China.  The point is…knowledge of geography impacted their deeper understanding of the world around them, as it almost always does and should!

Besides, who has time to consult the internet for basic facts when you’re trying to win an argument with your brother-in-law over Thanksgiving dinner?  Who can realistically tear themselves away from their Facebook feed every time they need to fact check a “fake news” article?  Our students should be able to think on the fly, and actively evaluate information as they hear and see it – and a solid mental map is essential for them to do that…and to live lives of awareness and involvement.  Without it, they may not even know what questions to ask!

In short, we geography teachers don’t make kids memorize maps just for the sake of watching them sweat when we hand them a fifty question matching map quiz.  (Although, I’m not gonna lie…it’s fun!  Kind of my own personal version of that Jimmy Kimmel video…)  We do it because we recognize how important that knowledge is in pushing them to those higher levels of thinking.  (P.S. We’re not alone!  Check out this article from the New York Times!)

As a geography teacher, I have done my best to make sure students leave my classroom with the ability to think critically about current events around the world without having to first Google their locations.  And I promise you – memorization doesn’t have to be boring, and it is NOT a waste of time.  In addition, when done correctly, it definitely doesn’t have to look like a bunch of matching worksheets or endless stacks of flashcards. 

Instead, the key is to get students to engage with the content willingly (or even enthusiastically!), and to do so in a way that takes into consideration how the brain retains knowledge and stores information.

So, if you are looking for some new ways to help your students memorize, check out the strategies described below.  They were created to aid with map memorization and both Mike and I have been using them in our geography classrooms for years.  We hope they might become a regular addition to your classroom too!  

After all, these kids can’t go out and change the world…if they don’t know how to get there!

Map Factory

This one might wear out your copy machine, but it’s highly effective, and students love it!  It steals the idea of peer-editing from ELA and combines it with repetition – one of the best methods for helping the brain remember information.

Tell students you are turning the classroom into a factory for the day.  You are the factory owner and you are hiring all of them to help you mass produce accurate maps of whatever region you are studying.  

First, make sure all students have their own correct map with the items you want them to know clearly labelled.  I have my students color detailed maps on the first day of each unit, so we use these.  You could also provide them yourself, or use atlases.

Then, “hire” 3 or 4 students as “quality control” experts and have them sit together at a centrally located table.  Choose students who are attentive to detail and proficient at reading maps quickly.  (I choose the students who did the best job on their own colored maps from the beginning of the unit.)  Give each quality control expert a marker or red pen, and a correct set of maps.  

The rest of the students are the factory workers.  Each starts with one blank map and a set of correct maps.  Their job is simply to hand copy all the required places from their correct map to their blank one.  This is done in pencil or pen – no color.  Sounds simple – and it is!  

When they complete a map, they take it to the quality control table and one quality control expert checks it to see if all the required items are labelled correctly.  If not, they send the student back to their seat to make corrections.  (I tell my quality control folks not to give them any guidance the first time a classmate comes to the table, but to give them hints on what they are missing if they are still struggling on their second trip.)  If the map  is correct, quality control “pays” the worker.  I use a standard roll of carnival tickets and pay students 1 ticket per map completed.  At the end of the activity, I draw tickets and the winner or winners get a small prize.  You could also buy a big bag of cheap candy – Jolly Ranchers are always popular – and pay one piece per map – just buy a lot of candy!  You’d be shocked at how many maps a kid can make in one class period when properly motivated!

By the end of the hour, each student has either checked or completed anywhere from 5-15 maps…and most of them tell me they don’t even have to study for the quiz outside of class.  By the time they label their sixth or seventh map – they’ve got it – because they were actively engaged in trying to learn quickly.

I pay each quality control expert an average of the number of maps their classmates completed, and I collect all the completed maps each hour.  We count them up and see which hour can make the most – yet another element of competition that motivates them to work even harder.

The “factory” analogy and the idea that they are getting “paid” for their labor is fun for students and the repetition and peer editing are excellent ways to engrain the information in students’ heads.  (This activity also pretty much runs itself once the kids understand how it works, which means some down time for you!  Bonus!)

Inside-Outside Circles

Give each student a blank map of the region you are studying.  On the back, copy a simple two-column table with each country, land form, city, etc. listed on the left side.  Have students, individually, assign each place a letter (They don’t have to go in alphabetical order) and then mark each place on the map with the matching letter. Make sure they write neatly and as large as possible without making the map difficult to read.  

Once these are complete, clear desks and tables out of the way so you have a large, open area to work with.  Arrange students in a large circle facing inward towards each other.  Choose two players to step inside the circle.  (These two won’t need their maps, so I usually have them hold them behind their backs or leave them at their desks.)  

Place the two players opposite from each other within the circle, each facing one of the students in the outer circle.  Students standing in the outer circle hold their papers up with the map facing inward and name a letter.  (They may also choose to point it out on the map, if they wish.)  The inside student must identify which place the letter represents on the map.  If they guess correctly, they step to their right and are quizzed by the next student in the outer circle.  If they guess incorrectly, they are given another letter, until they get an answer correct.  The goal is for the two players inside the circle to race to see who can catch up to the other by answering the questions the quickest.  Whoever passes up/catches the other wins, and gets to choose their next challenger who switches places with the loser. Or for fun, let the loser pick their replacement (usually the kid that snickered at them the loudest!)

If you have a large group and want to make things interesting, you can always put three or four students inside the circle and require them to eliminate all their challengers to win the round.

The key to this one is making the maps large and neat enough for a frazzled student in a rush to read them.  If this becomes an issue you can always make the maps yourself and even laminate them to reuse year after year.

This isn’t quite as effective as Map Factory because only the students inside the circle are actively engaged in memorizing the map.  But students in the outside circle do tend to pay attention to the questions they ask and retain more than you might think.  And the element of “catching” your competitor is always fun!

Crack the Code

While this is less of a “game” – it works great as a class starter activity to get kids’ brains warmed up.  It’s also a quick and easy way to end the class, and asking students to decode a few words on paper would make a great ticket out the door.  

First, create a blank map of the region you are studying with a different letter to indicate each place.  (see below) Project it so all students can see it.  

To start, recite aloud a series of places, in order, so that their letters spell out a word.  For example, using the map below, I might call out “Asia, North America, Europe.”  Have students raise their hand if they think they know the word you spelled (SAT) and call on an individual student to guess each word.  

Memorization Matters

Students may have a piece of scratch paper in front of them to jot down the letters as they listen, and of course you can make this as competitive as you like!  Eventually, the students themselves will want to try spelling their own words aloud for the class to guess.  And when they really have the hang of it, you can let them sit with partners and spell words back and forth to each other.  Depending on the number of places on your map…this could get interesting!  (I’m also fairly certain older kids might push the boundaries when choosing which words to spell….good luck with that!)  If you have enough letters on your map and you’re feeling ambitious, you could even have them write a couple sentences in “code” for their partner to decipher!

With this activity, students are engaged by the challenge of mentally transcribing something familiar (letters), onto something unfamiliar (locations on the map), and the fun of trying to come up with ever more interesting words.  My students love it!

In Conclusion…

Now, forgive me if I sound like one of those “educational experts” I was poking fun at before…but remember….none of this does any good if you stop after that fifty question map quiz!  Memorizing maps is an important first step, but it’s just that – the first step.  Once you’ve laid that very important foundation, you can bring out the big guns – the current news articles, the in-depth documentaries, the in-class debates – all of which will reference the places students have learned, solidifying their geography knowledge even further and allowing them to analyze and evaluate to their little hearts’ content!

DOK 4…here we come!