In this article, dyslexia specialist and memory fanatic, Sarah Guest will talk you through some ways of making exam revision so much more effective by using ‘Multi-Sensory Learning.”
Understanding What Multi-Sensory Learning is.
“Multi-sensory learning” seems to be another one of those educational ‘buzz words’. As teachers, we’re always being told to make our teaching more “multi-sensory” and our students are being told to develop “multi-sensory” revision strategies…but what does that actually mean…and why is it so important?
In this article I’m going to break down the concept, compare it with how we process and store information and then offer some practical “multi-sensory” leaning strategies.
Let’s start by looking at how we process and store information, which can be broken down into 3 steps:
Step 1: sensory input. Our senses are constantly being bombarded, particularly in this fast-paced world we live in. Sights, sounds and smells. The touch and taste of things. This is collectively known as ‘sensory input’ and our minds will generally hold it for about 4 seconds. If we actively focus our attention on something it moves along in the chain to our short-term memory. Otherwise it’s discarded.
Step 2: short-term memory. This is like a ‘storage warehouse’ in your mind and it has different ‘shelves’ for different types of input - scholars have suggested that there are 2 – 3;
· A phonological shelf, which stores the things you hear (phonological comes from the word phonic, which is to do with hearing the sound of a word).
· A visual sketchpad, which stores the things you see.
· A spatial ‘film reel’, which stores movements/ actions.
· (I’d argue you could add a ‘semantic’ shelf, which stores the meaning of things/words.)
Step 3: The central executive. This is the part of the brain in charge of deciding what we’re doing at any one time. It controls the information coming in from our senses; controls our decision to focus on a task; if and when to switch attention to something else and what the rest of our body should be doing in the meantime. It also has its own ‘storage shelf’, which is used to ‘chunk’ information from the short-term memory shelves, to make some extra room. It’s like the warehouse manager checking and re-organising the stock to make room for more and is also the first step on the way to our long-term memory. If we reinforce and revisit this information it’ll become a stronger memory. Otherwise it will fade.
Now let’s go back to my original question; what is “Multi-sensory” learning and why is it so important?
In its simplest form, multi-sensory learning is about putting information onto as many of the short-term memory shelves as possible so that the central executive can make a bigger ‘chunk’ in Step 3. If we can ‘input’ our learning in a phonological, visual, spatial and semantic way we are engaging more of our senses and making a bigger memory chunk.
Scientists who have studied the brain have found that our memories actually physically change our brains. When we learn something, the cells/ neurons in the brain change and the synapses between them become stronger. The more we recall that information the more ‘well-trodden’ the connections become, meaning the electrical signal can travel quicker and easier along the path. This means we can collect/ recall information quicker and easier.
When we learn something using more of our senses we create multiple pathways to the same information; a visual pathway, a phonological pathway, a spatial pathway…then the brain has a choice. It can hop from pathway to pathway and find the quickest route to our information. This is why multi-sensory learning is so important!
Some Multi-Sensory Learning Revision Strategies.
Finally, I want to suggest a few multi-sensory revision strategies to show how you can combine multiple inputs within the same activity when revising.
Remember: ‘multi-sensory’ doesn’t mean all singing all dancing (unless that helps you…then go for it!) it just means engaging as many of your different senses as you can on a particular piece of information.
If I’m learning a character profile for a Shakespeare play then I might…
- Draw an outline of the character (or print one out) and use it as the central starting point of a mind map (visual).
- Add branches with relevant key words, e.g. ‘Description. Key quotes. Personality. Role in play.’ (the writing builds muscle memory and makes it ‘spatial/movement’)
- I might use my imagination to picture the character speaking the quotes to me (spatial…in my minds eye)
- Use colour to shade in the different branches and segment the ideas (visual).
- Photocopy and chop one up into pieces. I’m then forced to read and understand each piece as I connect it back together (semantic).
- Take a video of my mindmap with my voice reading and talking about each branch (phonological…and then the video can be played back again and again as reinforcement)
If I’m learning the spellings of some key words in Science then I might…
- Say the words out loud (phonological)
- Write them on separate bits of paper and group them into patterns, e.g. similar endings/same vowel pattern etc (visual…and writing them down builds memory muscle again)
- Draw a picture to represent the meaning of each word (semantic and visual). Tip: try and incorporate the letters of the word in your picture, e.g. for the word ‘light’ make the dot above the ‘i’ a lightbulb, rather than just drawing a lightbulb next to the word. This builds a stronger visual connection between the word and its meaning.
- Tap out the individual sounds in the word with my finger, e.g. light = ‘l…i…ght’ 3 sounds (spatial/ movement)
If I’m learning a case study for Geography I might…
- Connect it to its wider context by using colour, e.g. blue paper if it’s about water, or red paper if it’s about a volcano (semantic and visual)
- Write it vertically as a numbered ‘step-by-step’ flow chart or as a horizontal cartoon strip. This segments the case study into a series of “..and then…” statements, which can help a spatial memory to form (visual and spatial).
- Say key words out loud as I write them…and write them bigger than the rest of the text on the page (phonological and muscle memory).
- Connect rhythm/rhyme to some key dates/statistics by making little ‘couplet rhymes’ or using the first letter of each statistic to create an acronym (phonological)
I hope this article has given you a better understanding about what multi-sensory learning is and how useful it can be when trying to learn new information. The ideas I’ve given above are intended as a starting point to show how easily multi-sensory strategies can be incorporated into a revision task.
Got any questions? Contact Sarah by clicking here.