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Motivation and Memorization Techniques

This year I have tutored several students who did not know their addition, subtraction or multiplication facts, and who even had trouble remembering them when I drilled and quizzed them week after week. There comes a point when the tutor can only do so much heavy lifting, and the student needs to sincerely try and resolve to memorize, learn or retain something. This requires motivation and memorization techniques.

In some cases, with older kids especially, I have been able to reason with them and say, "Look. You know you need to know these. Not knowing them is affecting how well you can keep up in class, keep up with what your teacher is explaining, and focus on more complex problems or assignments. I want you to spend your spring break memorizing these." This worked in one case.

Sometimes I wonder if we as American students even have good memorization techniques - how does one properly use flashcards? My favorite technique is to keep small cards or a folded up paper in my pocket. Whenever I think of it during the day, I quiz myself mentally, and pull out the cards to check myself. The trick is to use them often, and for a sustained amount of time. Don't stop when you know it just barely, keep going until you know it cold; that is, immediately and every time. Be honest with yourself. You either know it immediately or you don't.

When my students succeed in memorizing a complete set of something, like the times tables up to 12 x 12, I usually give them a small prize. Do other tutors do this? What are people's opinions on giving prizes? Of course, I would prefer that students motivate themselves and work hard for the love of learning or pride of accomplishment. But barring that, what do you think? As with most things, it probably depends on the student. In the next post, I will discuss alternative motivations to prize motivation. Until then, happy studying!


I feel that prizes are a dual sword. At some point they will have to do things without awards. But some kids like Autistic kids need a goal and point where they know they made. My prizes weren't usually little toys but sometimes extra game time, play time, or visit a friend's class room.
Prizes are wonderful. However, the real prize is when the student fully understands the work and perform the task with ease and confidence. Sometimes, just acknowledging how much progress the child has made is a great prize too, words of encouragement.
Several studies have shown the long term effects of extrinsic motivation (rewards) vs. intrinsic motivation. The interesting thing is that when kids are extrinsically motivated for something that they might be motivated to do on their own, it actually decreases their desire/motivation to do the activity in the long run. For instance, if a child likes to draw but one day is told that she will be given candy for drawing a picture, she will then be less likely to want to draw in the future. I've only used rewards with younger kids and mainly for behavior/attention/effort rather than the work itself. While studying behaviorism in college, we learned about the Premack principal which is basically that a rewards are actually activities/behaviors and that the most rewarding thing is the behavior the person is most likely to engage in at that moment on his or her own. More likely activities reinforce less likely ones. Therefore, I've found the most worthwhile rewards to be spontaneous, small and geared towards the moment. In my experience, interactive things like hi-fives where you have them perform the action work really well for kids with ADHD and low self-confidence because they not only reward students for a right answer etc but a) keep them active and focused and b) by having them do the action help them learn to reward themselves. For older kids, I've found that creating an atmosphere of "being on their side" really helps. I show/explain to them how learning the material can make homework go faster so they have more time for the stuff they want to do. Furthermore, I talk as though I'm showing them the inside scoop - faster, easier ways of doing things than what they learn in class or the textbook. They are then willing to put the work in because they see it as a short cut in the long run.
Kathryn, as someone diagnosed with ADD as an adult, after spending most of elementary and junior high school moving all over the place, I spent a great deal of time confused, particularly in math.  If a child isn't allowed to stay with the same system of mathematical building blocks, covering all the basics subjects in an orderly and rational fashion, unless the child loves math and has genius ability to jump over the weird breaks, most children, ADD or not,are doomed to fail.  Both my sister and myself couldn't understand much past long division.  I never figured out fractions because I changed schools 3 times that year!
As an unknown ADD child, in the late 1950's/1960's, I simply gave up on understanding math at any higher level.
When I was 27, I decided to take an intensive summer course in Algebra, something I remembered liking in high school.  My high school, however, didn't have algebra I and then Geometry I.  We changed from one to the other halfway through each quarter!  Just as I THOUGHT something was making sense....
I went to school for 4 hours in the morning and spent 2-4 hours in the afternoon doing problems.  I did my assigned home work and all the rest of the problems, too.  It was very difficult, but as an adult learner, it was easier to synthesize concepts that I simply missed before.
I missed getting an A by 2 points.  That was a little sad, but I was delighted with my solid B!  For me, the intrinsic reward of NOT failing, but of succeeding was the best reward of all.  I agree with what you've observed with known ADD'ers.
Both my sister and I took math courses after college, as single classes so we could both put great effort into it.  She took Pre-calc,  Calculus and Trigonometry!  She got B's, but was so delighted to have finally figured out what was going on that like me, the B was Delightful.
Julia, is it possible that the child you were tutoring was a victim of moving too often and simply was missing the point of math?