Memories at work

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Michael Riley suggests some strategies for memorising history

"That question: 'Did the ancient Greeks use only natural approaches to medicine?' was easy," says Jake, smiling. "I remembered the lesson when we'd acted out the Temple of Asclepios. You know, when we'd turned off the lights and all pretended to be sick."

Jake had just taken his GCSE exam on the history of medicine. His comment reminded me of an important principle underpinning effective preparation for GCSE history: if we want all our students to do well we need to make history memorable through engaging and meaningful revision activities.

The need to remember masses of information and produce extended written answers makes GCSE history tough. However, strategies which help students to transform "inert" information into "active" knowledge can help them over the hurdles.

The use of practical demonstration and role-play is a particularly powerful transforming tool. Brief, simple and carefully planned role-play activities are an invaluable strategy in developing understanding and aiding recall.

Being part of a role-play of what happened at an Asclepion helps students understand the natural and supernatural beliefs that underpinned ancient Greek medicine.

Placing students in a role-play of "events leading to Hitler's dictatorship", and asking them to form a human timeline, helps them to remember the narrative. The students' timeline can then be used to develop analytical understanding: "Talk to the 'events' next to you and step forward if you think you are a significant event."

Another transforming strategy is the use of diagrams and drawings to organise information. Most of the words students write down when they make revision notes are not essential for recall purposes. Ask them to summarise and reorganise information into tables, grids, charts, flash-cards, living graphs, flick-books, timelines and memory maps. This will help them recall key points. When they enhance or replace written notes with their own symbols and cartoons, their understanding deepens and ideas stick in their minds.

James, a "visual learner" in my GCSE class, turned all his notes on the problems facing American Homesteaders into little colour images of a locust, fire, and pictures symbolising a lack of water and shortage of timber.

Another student transformed her notes on the Weimar years into a centipede (with different events in each segment of its body) about to be crushed by the big boot of dictatorship. Encourage students to see beyond the bullet point and to use drawing as an effective revision tool.

Transforming information to make it memorable is the starting point for effective revision. However, GCSE history requires students to select and arrange ideas in order to answer specific questions. They therefore need plenty of practice in choosing and using information to construct relevant, organised and substantiated chunks of extended writing.

Helping students to turn labels and ideas into sentences, showing them how to "build" a developed argument of their own, providing banks of useful starters and connectives and analysing the features of good responses will help them to apply their knowledge in response to particular questions.

Transforming information will trigger students' memories and will help them to target their writing.

* For a wide range of inspiring GCSErole-play ideas check out Ian Luff's work Teaching History, number 113

Dr Michael Riley is senior lecturer in history education at Bath Spa University College

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