“You have the right idea, but I want you to use more powerful verbs. Look at the first sentence. What verb could you use instead that would be stronger?

“Ummmmm, which one is the verb again?”

“You know what a verb is. We’ve been talking about verbs for weeks.”

“Is it purple?”

“No, that’s an adjective.”


“No, that’s also an adjective.”

“Is it and?”

“Now you’re just guessing.”

Unfortunately, conversations like this are all too common. In a recent PLC meeting, we were reminded again about the importance of using formative assessments to determine if students have understood the material presented in class. I pointed out that, while in theory formative assessments are helpful, they only tell me if my students got the information I presented 15 minutes ago–not if they will be able to recall that information tomorrow or in a week or when they move on to the next grade. But I can tell you, they won’t–at least not enough of them.

Teachers everywhere report that students’ ability to retain and recall information is abysmal. This can make teaching feel, not only frustrating but sometimes even pointless. While there are likely many causes of poor retention and the root of the problem varies from student to student, these four factors are undoubtedly major contributors to the epidemic of forgetfulness that plagues American classrooms.

1. Memorization is no longer a priority.

In recent years, assignments and activities that focus on rote memorization have been replaced with ones that promise to promote higher-order thinking. So-called “choke and puke” learning (due to the idea that students choke down information only for the purpose of regurgitating it for a test) is often regarded as old-fashioned and meaningless.

Opponents of rote memorization argue that students don’t retain much of what they learn and that real-world learning should be more about problem-solving than about memorizing. Unfortunately, this way of thinking puts the educational cart before the horse. Memorization, far from being pointless busy work, is the foundation for later learning and critical thinking. Memorizing poems, multiplication tables, lists of presidents, state capitals, definitions, or anything else exercises the brain and makes children better able to focus and endure “boring” tasks. Memorization frees up space in the brain’s working memory and increases neuroplasticity in the brain. By reducing the amount of memorization required of children, we have left them ill-equipped to take on the rigors of critical thinking, and we’ve left them with a diminished capacity to retain information necessary to problem solve.

2. Too much screen time is negatively affecting learning. 

We cannot overstate the negative effects of too much screen time on the developing brain. Too much time spent playing games, scrolling social media, and watching 20-second video clips, literally alters the gray matter and white volumes in the brain and is known to impair the acquisition of memories and learning. Not only that, many young people are sleep-deprived because they are too addicted to their devices to turn them off and go to bed. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics called sleep deprivation among teens a public health problem. With the ever-increasing advances in technology and social media options, the problem has likely only increased in the last eight years.

3. We’ve allowed kids (and ourselves) to become overly reliant on technology.  

It’s as if they do not know how information really works–that it is natural for us to store it and not just “search it up.” My students seem to think that rather than committing anything to memory, all information is “findable” as needed. And I’m their Google.

If I’m being honest, I too am guilty of letting technology be my brain. I can still tell you the phone number of the boy I had a crush on in 7th grade, but I do not know the phone numbers of any of my own best friends today. Fortunately, my unwillingness to commit phone numbers to memory is more a function of convenience than ability. After all, my brain was already fully developed when I got my first smartphone. But kids today aren’t just choosing not to store or remember information – they don’t even realize that’s an option.

4. Mom to the rescue!

Our students don’t have to memorize anything for homework. Often, kids don’t even have to remember what homework they have. After all, Mom can always check their folder–or, better yet, email the teacher. And if they forget their lunch or their basketball shoes, no problem! Someone will drop everything and bring it to them.

This isn’t to say that parents should never bail their kids out. Life is busy and hectic (which might also be part of the problem) so it’s easy for any of us to drop the ball now and then. I’ve made more than one trip home during my own break to grab a forgotten lunchbox and drop it by my children’s school. But too many kids who are chronically forgetful are never expected to take responsibility for remembering what needs to be done and when. They don’t remember anything because they’ve never had to.

As parents and teachers, it can be tempting sometimes to simply throw up our hands and shrug off the inability of our kids to remember information, their scatter-brained tendencies, or their lack of executive functioning skills as just a sign of the times–the way things are with kids these days.

But helping a child’s brain to develop so that he can learn, remember, think, and create is actually a huge responsibility.

Fortunately, there are concrete things adults can do to promote healthy brain development. Encouraging and requiring memorization, limiting screen time, and holding kids more accountable for what they need to do and when will all go a long way toward helping our kids become the people they are meant to be. 

Why kids can't remember anything - and what to do about it.