Memory and Learning: How to Use the Right Strategies to Progress in Mathematics

Your child is struggling with math and you think it’s because

that he lacks skills,

that he lacks intelligence, or

that he’s just not “wired” for math?

What if it was something else?

Do you know that memory is an important factor in the development of math skills in school-aged children?

Indeed, a study conducted by two American researchers in cognitive psychology John Swanson and Edward Beebe-Frankenberger (2004) showed that memorization and in particular working memory was a significant indicator for predicting math skills in the order of:

  • 43% among primary school students,
  • 60% among college students

Memory and learning. It is therefore necessary to recognize the crucial role that memory plays in the learning of mathematics.

But as a parent, you can help her overcome her difficulties. For this, we will together explore the 4 types of memories and see how each can be used to progress in mathematics.

Thus, by understanding how memory works, you will acquire the right techniques to help your child memorize mathematical concepts and gain self-confidence.

“Libraries give us the power to go back in time, to touch history, to touch the past”. –  

Robin Williams

Memory is often referred to as a mental library where we store and retrieve information. But it’s actually a bit more complex than that.

Indeed, during our stroll through the shelves of this library, we encounter the dynamism of the 4 types of memory that work together to help us process, store and store the information we receive: these are working memories, episodic, semantics and procedural.

The working memory

The Office of Ephemeral Tasks in Our Brain

This is short-term memory. It doesn’t last more than a few seconds. It is thanks to her that we can keep in mind a telephone number just long enough to scribble it on a piece of paper.

If we stay on the analogy of the memory library, the working memory would be a table where the books and the documents being studied would be placed. Like working memory, this table is limited in capacity and can only hold a limited number of book information at a time.

In mathematics, working memory helps keep intermediate steps and numbers in mind when trying to solve complex problems.

For example, children who have cognitive impairments, and in particular difficulties with their working memory, have trouble:

  • Keep information or instructions in mind
  • do mental operations
  • Solve complex problems.

Working memory and learning techniques

In her 2014 study on working memory, researchers Sarah R. Powell, Amanda Van Der Meer, and Leanne T. Ketterlin-Geller offer the following approaches to improving children’s working memory:

  • Repetition and reinforcement techniques to help students consolidate their working memory.
  • Visualization or silent rehearsal, helps students manage their working memory more effectively.
  • Visual aids such as diagrams, charts or graphs to help students organize information more effectively.
  • Presenting information in small chunks to reduce cognitive load on learners so they can focus on the most important elements
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For parents, this translates into the following concrete actions:

  • Play board games together to help develop working memory and mathematical understanding.
  • Encourage to solve mathematical problems in daily life, such as calculating the price of food in the supermarket or determining how long of a car trip or baking etc. 
  • Use online resources such as educational videos or interactive math games to help strengthen their mathematical understanding.

Episodic memory

The books of our personal history

Episodic memory is the ability to remember past personal events and experiences. These memories are often very detailed (time, date, place, people…), such as a wedding or a graduation ceremony.

Using the metaphor of the libraryepisodic memory represents the books we read in that place, the people we met there, and under what circumstances.

Children with episodic memory problems have difficulty remembering or confusing important events in their lives.

In mathematics, this corresponds to difficulties in:

  • memorize mathematical concepts studied and learned in class
  • Recall specific situations in which the concepts were used

And as a result, these students find it difficult to apply mathematical formulas and theories and solve problems.

Episodic memory and learning techniques

Using metaphors and stories to teach children math can help improve their episodic memory and understanding of algebra or arithmetic concepts, according to a 2014 study by researchers Rafi Reznitsky and Dov Dori.

Indeed, children who learned to solve mathematical problems using metaphors showed significant improvements in their episodic memory and their understanding of mathematics.

For example :

  • It is his birthday! Multiplication can be compared to making packets of candy for his 5 friends. Each bag has the same number of sweets: 7 and all the sweets are identical. After all, it’s normal, you have to be fair. We must therefore have 35 candies in all.
  • Division is a bit like giving out an equal amount of candy to a group of people, where each person receives an equal amount.
  • Fractions, pizzas cut into equal parts, where each part represents a fraction of the total pizza.
  • For the functions, we can use the metaphor of a machine that transforms a pile of clay (input) into a magnificent vase (output).

Semantic memory

The encyclopedia of our knowledge of the world

Semantic memory is the memorization of general knowledge and abstract concepts.

With the library analogy, it represents the shelves in which books of general information about the world have been categorized according to a well-oiled system.

Children with limited semantic memory may struggle with reading, writing, text comprehension, math, and science, as these areas require accurate understanding and use of general knowledge.

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In mathematics, therefore, the learner may encounter difficulties in:

  • Understand fundamental concepts, such as numbers, basic operations, fractions and proportions
  • Grasp abstract concepts such as fractions and negative numbers.
  • Memorize important math facts, such as times tables

Semantic memory and learning techniques

How to help him develop his semantic understanding of numbers and mathematical operations?

Here are some examples of teaching tools and approaches  :

  • Use concrete materials: such as toys, blocks or vegetables to help your child visualize quantities and spatial relationships.
  • Play board games : including chess, go, but also cards and Monopoly… to practice manipulating and exploring mathematical notions while having fun.
  • Doing math every day : encouraging him to solve arithmetic, logic or geometry problems every day, such as calculating the price of a discount on an item of clothing he wants to buy, cinema outing plus McDonalds that he wants to treat himself with his friends etc.

Procedural memory

The manuals of our mental library for automatic tasks

Procedural memory is a form of long-term memory that helps store motor skills and cognitive routines . These routines have been acquired through experience and practice and are now performed automatically and unconsciously.

This is why procedural memory is also called skill memory or implicit memory because it concerns knowledge that is not necessarily conscious.

In a way, it’s our ability to navigate the shelves of the library in an optimal way, to use the catalogs, to find our way around the different sections in order to find the books.

It is metaphorically the section of the library that collects works on practical skills and cognitive routines. In each of these books are detailed instructions for performing specific tasks that we now do automatically such as driving a carriding a bicyclecookingplaying an instrument, etc.

Impaired procedural memory can cause difficulty learning new skills or performing tasks that require precise and well-coordinated movement sequences such as walking, driving, typing on a computer, etc.

In mathematics, this translates into the learner who “ often trips up ” at:

  • Remember procedures and algorithms.
  • Perform common procedures such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
  • Apply more advanced techniques such as factorization, integration and derivation.
  • Solving math problems due to inability to remember the procedures needed to solve them.
  • Learn new concepts because these rely on previously unlearned skills and procedures.

Procedural memory and learning techniques

It will be understood, repetition is the key.

In practice, you can help him strengthen his procedural memory by offering him the possibility of:

  • Use educational games: They allow for repeated practice while motivating your child to engage in fun tasks and activities.
  • Divide the skills into steps“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! » Divide a complex procedure into simpler steps and teach each step separately.
  • Give constructive feedback: You can provide constructive feedback immediately after performing an exercise. Tests see p 280 Dehaene book. Indeed, the frequency of feedback provided during the learning of a motor task can have an impact on the quality of learning and the retention of the skill.
  • Use memorization techniques: Like spaced repetition and mnemonic association.
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To recap – from memory to learning

There are therefore 4 types of memory that your child can use to progress in mathematics:

  • working memory,
  • episodic memory,
  • semantic memory, and
  • procedural memory. _

Among them, working memory is particularly important in predicting math skills in learners.

But how to identify what type of memory it lacks?

Here are 4 key questions to ask yourself:

  • Working memory – Does he have difficulty remembering instructions given by your teacher? Look at working memory
  • Episodic memory – Does he have trouble remembering important dates or events in math history? maybe it’s episodic memory
  • Semantic memory – Does he have problems remembering the definitions of certain mathematical terms?
  • Procedural memory – Complications in applying mathematical formulas to concrete problems?

But with proper techniques for each type of memory, your support, and your encouragement, you can help your child memorize math concepts effectively and build confidence.

Don’t hesitate to consult an education specialist for additional tips and strategies to improve your child’s memory.


“Working memory and mathematics: A review of developmental, individual difference, and cognitive approaches” by Sarah R. Powell, Amanda Van Der Meer, and Leanne T. Ketterlin-Geller, published in Educational Psychology Review in 2014 – Volume 6 – Number 2 – pages 145 to 178.

“Using Metaphors to Enhance the Episodic Memory of Students in Mathematics” by Rafi Reznitsky and Dov Dori, published in International Journal for Mathematics Teaching and Learning in 2014 – Volume 15 – Number 1 – pages 1 to 11.

“The role of semantic memory in numerical cognition” by Véronique Izard and Elizabeth S. Spelke, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2009 – Volume 13 – Number 7 – pages 293 to 299.

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