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Friday, May 25, 2012

A Portal for On-line Memory Techniques

A reader of this blog, Bruce Hopkins, recently told me about his new web-site portal for web-sites on memorization techniques. This site ( is a wonderful resource. I just checked a few of the links and was pleased with what I found. Much of the information I already know, being the “Memory Medic,” but I learned some new things.
 For example, the site that explains the “phonetic system” for memorizing numbers ( convinced me that you don’t always have to create words that are nouns. I have always thought nouns were essential, because they can be represented in a visual image. For example, I represent the number one with “tie,” but this site also suggests “the, do, and it.” While the latter three words have no visual image, they can be used to construct acrostics. That brings me to the site’s supposed best feature: it claims you can type in any long number and get an acrostic. But I could not get the interactive part of the site to work either on IE or Chrome.
A few sites focus on specific topics, such as medicine or chemistry. The medical site ( has a browsing index that allows you find all their memory tips for a given body function. The chemistry site ( has some good acrostics for memorizing the periodic table.
Another site has an interesting approach to memorizing text verbatim, as in Bible verses, speeches, quotations, etc. ( The emphasis is on recalling not repeating. This fits nicely with my view that self-testing is the key to good memorization. In this site’s approach, you re-write the text’s first letter of each word, and then practice recalling the original words by looking at the letters. The site even has dialog boxes where you can type in the text to memorize and it will display the first letters of each word you typed.
Another interesting site generates the equivalent of flash cards (  The software is similar to common flashcard programs: knowledge is stored in question-answer pairs. You add the question-answer pairs yourself. In review mode you are presented the questions, one by one. To every question you'll think about an answer, and after a while you'll be confronted with the correct answer. After seeing the correct answer, you'll be asked for a grade that estimates how well you remembered the correct answer.
Another flashcard site ( is very robust. Each computer generated flash card can accept multiple images (remember images are easier to remember than words) and has a search tool for on-line images. It even has a score tracker.
Some of these sites have links to other sites. For example, I stumbled on Anki, a flash card system that synchronizes your cards across multiple computers, and has a smart-review algorithm that schedules the spacing of self-testing sessions based on how difficult you thought each given card was to answer. See
In addition, there are links to several mind map programs, dictionaries, repositories of synonyms and rhymes.
I look forward to seeing Bruce’s portal evolve as he finds and adds new memory sites.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More on Jazz-band Teaching & Learning

I probably need to explain a couple of learning principles mentioned in the original post on jazz-band teaching and learning. One principle is operant conditioning, which is inherent in band classes. It will truly pay off to find creative ways to employ operant conditioning in academic-course classes, because it is the most powerful teaching technique I know of. I assume they teach this in colleges of education, because kindergarten teachers do a version of it all the time with the “gold-star” reward paradigm. Fully implemented, the idea is that little successes bring little rewards, and as the desired behavior becomes established, the bar is raised for further reward, or positive reinforcement as the psychologists call it. A repeated process of “successive approximation” can lead to astonishing results in short order. I think that something like this is operating in band class.

The reward in jazz-band, and that includes orchestra band class, is the immediate gratification a student gets when playing a few new notes or chords, for example. In band, learning something new is usually done in small readily accomplished steps, and there is immediate feedback from hearing what is played and/or comments from classmates or the band director. Contributing successfully to the band effort is also rewarding, because all students know they are “on the team” and making a needed contribution. For emphasis, I repeat the four key elements of operant conditioned learning:

  • learning occurs in small successive steps
  • with each step the student DOES something
  • feedback is immediate
  • positive reinforcement follows.
The second key principle is “deliberate practice,” which is also an inherent feature of band class. The idea is not only to practice but to planning specific strategies and tactics for the practice. Teachers, of course, have a plan for teaching each given content item, but that is not the same as the student having a learning plan. Teaching and learning are not the same, and the problem in schools is usually traceable to inadequate learning.

The best learners bring conscious design, awareness, analysis, and correction of error to their learning efforts. This is exactly what has to be done in band class. For example, the learner, guided by the band director, has to develop an approach to move from each small step of mastery, such as playing a few new bars, to learning the whole sheet music score.

 “Memory athletes” use this kind of memory practice to rise above their own innate memory capability, which is usually not much better than anyone else’s capability. This is the kind of practice performed by superstars in any field: music, art, business, sports, science (and straight-A students and stellar jazz-band players).

Superstars reach that level of achievement by:
                     Having the passion, resources, and time to learn their craft. This means making a commitment to becoming a better learner.
                     Working hard at their craft with smart, intentional planning to improve their basic competencies in very specific ways. In the process of mastering a specific learning task, they are also “learning-to-learn.”
                     Raising their goals to new and more challenging goals. This includes identifying people to compete against.
                     Structuring practice in ways that provide constant and detailed feedback.
                     Continually expanding their knowledge base. This includes learning the tactics others use successfully in study.
                     Focusing on improving weaknesses.
                     Receiving encouragement and help from others. This means having access to a circle of friends and mentors who value achievement. 
The last bullet item comes from fellow students in the band, because they need each other to perform well and share in the applause when they perform in public. Peer support is central to success of athletic teams. Academic classes would surely benefit from finding ways to develop team spirit.
All of these things require students to be motivated. I emphasized this in the original post, in the context of the passions generated by jazz. Passion is harder to generate in academic classes, but it is no less important.