Tag Archives: Concept Maps

Memory 102: Anchoring for Meaning-How you Think Determines How you Remember

Anchoring for Meaning

In the previous article to this one I wrote about how, in order to remember something new, it’s necessary to link new knowledge to existing knowledge. We called this existing knowledge ‘memory anchors’. There are two main ways that we can link new knowledge to old knowledge. The first is anchoring for meaning and the second is through using mnemonics. This article addresses the former. Anchoring for meaning is a much stronger way of building memory connections than mnemonics is. Anchoring for meaning means we logically connecting ideas in ways that reflect how those concepts are actually linked in the real world*. For example, if you’re trying to learn about derivatives by exploring how velocity is related to displacement, that’s great, because in real life velocity is the derivative of displacement. But if you’re trying to understand the derivative through a mnemonic that you’ve made up about tweedle dum and tweedle dee, it might not stick as well. Hyperphysics Example *The most effective way that I’ve come across of explicitly anchoring for meaning is through the use of concept maps. Above is an example of how the website Hyperphysics helps its visitors to anchor for meaning when learning about Quantum Physics. Hyperphysics is an amazing site and whenever I want to know anything about Physics (eg: Newton’s Laws) I usually just type into google  “Newton’s Laws Hyperphysics” and there’s a high chance of getting a great summary.  But it’s not just sticking power that makes it important to anchor for meaning when possible. It’s recollection power. In order to store your memories in a way that they’ll get cued at a relevant time, it’s really helpful to store them in a logical way, and the most logical way is by meaning and logical connections. To expand upon our derivative example above, if you learn about the derivative as linking displacement and velocity, then when you come across a question asking you to explore how velocity and acceleration are linked, you’re more likely to think that the derivative may have something to do with it (and you’d be right!), but if you’ve managed to get the derivative concept stuck into your brain via the tweedle dum and tweedle dee mnemonic, the ‘relate velocity to acceleration’ question will more likely leave you in wonderland… This fact, that anchoring for meaning means that your memories will be cued at the optimum times is part of a bigger principle. This principle is encapsulated by Daniel Willingham with the phrase “How You Think Determines How You Remember”

How You Think Determines How You Remember

Let’s play a game! Try to remember the objects in capitals (not bold) from the following 3 violinistsentences

  • The violin player lugged the heavy PIANO up the stairs.
  • The car salesman took a bite of a juicy APPLE.
  • The WALKING STICK was leant upon by the retired sword fighter.
  • The boy cracked the EGG when he fell off the fitness ball.
  • The vampire was passed right through by the GHOST.

Below I’ve provided 2 sets of clues to remind you of the key words in the list above. Scroll down so you can no longer see the above list and start by reading the first set of clues. Try to use them as a basis for remembering the 5 objects.

Clue set 1: An instrument, something red, something long and straight, something round, something scary

How did you go?  Maybe you got all 5? If you did, well done! If not, maybe this second list will help a little bit more…

Clue set 2: Something that’s heavy, Something that’s juicy, Something you lean on, Something that cracks, Something that can pass through other things.

If the above example 1 worked well then you will have found the second list much more helpful. Perhaps the first set of clues even made you remember a wrong word from the list! Whilst the first set of clues were all valid clues, the clues didn’t mirror the way that you thought about the objects in the first place (ie: the way the sentences described them such as a juicy apple rather than a red apple). This is because as anything makes its way from short term to long term memory, the way that it’s thought about whilst in that transition phase influences how it’s remembered/encoded and thus, what brings the memory back.

There is one key lesson in this for teachers. When we’re designing a lesson plan, and trying to spice it up for students it is VITAL that we ask ourselves ‘what is this activity actually going to make the students think about‘. If we try to teach students about the history of aviation by getting them to make model airplanes, chances are what they’ll remember from the lesson is who they managed to hit with their plane rather than who the Wright brothers were. As teachers, our goal is to get students to think about meaning. It’s important that, when we can, we introduce content in a way that emphasises its meaning.

What to do when Anchoring for Meaning isn’t Possible

There are times when it simply isn’t practical to anchor for meaning. This could be if:

  • You’re starting a learning project into an area where you don’t know anything at all yet – eg: If you start to learn a language that seems extremely detached from you own, like Chinese.
  • You haven’t built up the required background knowledge to make links in a logical way yet, and/or you simply don’t have time to do it – maybe you’ve been slacking off all semester and the test is coming up!**
  • If there simply isn’t a logical reason why the piece of information is the way that it is – eg: you meet someone and you want to remember their name. (There’s usually no logical reason why a person has a certain name, and even if there was one for their parents, there’s no guarantee that it will seem logical to you!)

In cases like these we need to revert to a secondary way of anchoring. Mnemonics! Mnemonics refers to a whole suite of memory techniques that can be used when, for whatever reason, you can’t manage to Anchor for Meaning. Learn about mnemonics in the next article in the memory series, here.

**BEWARE. Often we can use mnemonics to cut logical-learning corners, but in the long run this only serves to handicap us. The more genuine facts you know about a topic, the easier it is for you to learn more about that topic. If you get into the habit of linking things that you learn to your prior knowledge in abstract ways, you’re rate of learning is going to be compromised further on down the track. When you’re dealing with subjects where there are logical connections to be made (Maths, Physics, etc)  it really is in your best interests to take the time to lay down solid foundations and to REMEMBER those foundations.


  1. Inspired by the example in Why Students don’t Like School by Daniel Willingham. Kindle location 1092.
  2. From Why Students don’t Like School by Daniel Willingham. Kindle location 969.

Learning in the Fast Lane-Suzy Pepper Rollins, Book Summary

This is an experimental post format. I’m using a story as a memory device to generate a solid ‘memory anchor’ on which to attach the following information. Hopefully the content of this article will stick in your head better than it would if it was just in text format!

I came across Learning in the Fast Lane when I attended an online webinar with the author, Suzy Pepper Rollins (read about that webinar here).  I got so much out of the hour that I thought I’d make the time investment to read her whole book.

No regrets.

Here’s what I got. ..

The LITFL methodology consists of 6 steps that the books walks you through. Here’s an image and associated short story that I’ve put together to help me to remember the methodology.

Screen shot 2014-08-12 at 2.03.40 PM

So, this is the LITFL methodology.

  1. Generate Curiosity: “curiosity killed the cat”. A cat walks into a room
  2. Map Learning Goals: “the cat sat on the mat” The cat sits down on a mat, it’s one of those map-mats that kids sometimes play on
  3. Scaffold: The kids on the mat are building stuff
  4. Vocabulary: As you look closer, they’re building a taxi rank (cabs are in vogue… vogue-cab-ulary ; )
  5. Apply:  One of the kids applies pressure to the cat’s tail!
  6. Feedback: A parent comes in and provides some feedback to that child!

Now look back up at the picture and link all of the concepts to the images, play the story over in your minds eye, and see if you can recall all of the 6 steps with ease. 

Here’s those same points in Suzy’s words.

  1. Generate thinking, purpose, relevance and curiosity
  2. Clearly articulate learning goals and expectations
  3. Scaffold and practice pre-requisite skills
  4. Introduce and practice key vocabulary
  5. Apply the new concept to a task
  6. Regularly assess and provide feedback (ie: formative assessment)

Chapter Layout

LITFL cover

In Chapter 1 Suzy outlines this methodology and each of the chapters thereafter delves into detail about each of these elements, and more.

This is one of those books where it’s obvious that the author actually thought about what it would be like to use their book as a resource. Let’s take chapter 5 (on Vocab) as an example. Each chapter begins with a justification of why that chapter exists. Suzy tells us the following at the beginning of Chapter 5 (numbers refer to kindle locations, information paraphrased)

  • 1157:  3-year-olds from welfare families typically have 70%of the vocab of children living in working-class homes (Hart and Risley, 1995)
  • 1164: kids in grades 4–12 who score at the 50th percentile know 6,000 more words than 25th percentilers. (Nagy & Herman) 1984)
  • 1184: students need multiple exposures—typically, six—to new words to be able to grasp, retain, and use them (Jenkins et al, 1984)
  • 1194: there is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension.  (Vacca & Vacca, 2002)
  • 1204:  students have just a 7 percent chance of understanding new words from dense text (Swanborn & de Glopper, 1999)
  • 1220: all students who received direct vocab instruction outperformed those who didn’t. (Nagy and Townsend, 2012)

Great, now we know that vocab matters! Suzy then goes on to the section ‘Strategies to Develop Strong Vocabularies’ and lists 9 different methods of introducing new vocab, she also lets us know that learning with pictures is 37% more effective than just learning off definitions (that’s why I included pics at the start of this blog post!). My favourite one of these 9 methods is the TIP (A poster with Term, Information, Picture on it), which I wrote a bit more about here.

The chapter concludes with a “Checklist for vocabulary development” to ensure that you’re on track and for quick reference.

Every chapter is like this, it covers the Why, How and the What in a way that’s both practical and engaging. I got a lot out of this book and will continue to use it as a resource. I loved getting the whole picture from a front-to-back read but I think it would also be great as a quick reference guide for the educator who’s looking for ‘apply in class tomorrow’ kind of ideas.

See below for my summary notes. There’s a lot of them, it was a super info dense book and excellently referenced. Good stuff!

note:  numbers refer to Kindle locations, click the  Screen shot 2014-08-12 at 3.14.04 PM image top right to make the display bigger in another page.




How to make and use Concept Maps to improve your understanding and comprehension

This article is part of the ongoing #edupaper series that provides classroom-applicable conclusions sourced from academic papers.

The Conclusion: Encouraging students to build concept maps greatly increases their understanding and problem solving ability. Concept maps can be build using the software Cmap (free) found here: http://cmap.ihmc.us/

EDIT: The two best concept mapping platforms that I have found (I no longer use CMap) are VUE and mindmeister. They are both good for different reasons. Mindmeister is better for quicker maps, but VUE offers a lot more options.

The Paper: Novak, J.D. (2003), “The Promise of New Ideas and New Technology for Improving Teaching and Learning”, Cell Biology Education, Vol. 2, Summer, American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD, pp. 122-132.

The Details: I often find myself a bit confused. I’ll work through a concept with a student then, to test comprehension, I’ll pose a question that directly relies upon the concept just worked on. I’m surprised at how often the student isn’t able to bring the concept just explained into play in answering the new question. This challenge is exacerbated when  the student is in a test situation and has to bring together multiple concepts learnt weeks ago in order to solve a problem.

Could the reason for these challenges be that the student hasn’t yet integrated the new concept in with what they’ve already learnt?

Research from Joseph Novak definitely suggests so. In order to explore the effects of getting students to explicitly explore how concepts fit together, the following study was performed.  The study took high school physics students and split them (via a popular intelligence test) into three different achievement groups, low, middle and high. They then took half of each group and taught them physics by standard methods, and for the other half of each group they incorporated student construction of Concept Maps into the curriculum. This required the students to construct maps (like the one shown below) of their course to demonstrate (and aid) their understanding of how the concepts fit together.

Cmap-Maths Applied, Calculus

This was done for 8 consecutive study units throughout semester. The results are shown below.

Screen shot 2014-04-26 at 9.34.38 AM

Essentially, in all categories (low, medium and high) the students who undertook the concept-map construction exercise outperformed their peers who didn’t and in almost every unit the “low” category students who constructed concept maps outperformed the “high” category students  who didn’t*.

If you’re keen to try out concept mapping in the classroom I suggest using the Cmap software which is free and can be found at  http://cmap.ihmc.us/. I have experimented with multiple softwares for making concept maps and this is by far the best to date. I was able to put together the concept map found above in approximately 30 minutes using Cmap.

*note: The anomaly (similar performance between Cmapping and non-Cmapping students) at Unit 4 was associated with a switch from kinematics and forces to electricity.  It can be seen that the benefits of concept maps increase as students get further into a topic. From units 4 to 8 (all dealing with electricity) show an increase in benefits of concept mapping (upper trendline) as concepts become more complex and integrated whereas those who didn’t concept map see a levelling off of performance (lower trendline) as the greater number of concepts and greater complexity leads to confusion.