Skip navigation Learning: It's a memory thing

POSTED 28 AUG, 2003

1. Brain: Watch me learn!

2. Eye on the neuron

3. Hip, hip, hippocampus!

4. Synapses: Watch 'em grow!

5. What babies remember


Photo: USDA.




Summer: Time for forgetting about school?


Back to school: What did you forget?
Each fall, as students return to school, a debate swirls about memory loss. How much hard-won learning have students forgotten over the summer? Teachers say plenty, and often spend precious weeks reviewing things their students knew in the spring. In fact, the details about summer learning loss -- or "summer slide," are murky, and many studies contradict each other.

Boy with pencil and book stares into space. The Why Files set out to write a story about summer slide, but (seriously) the researchers were apparently all on summer vacation -- or at least too busy to answer e-mail.

Instead, we'll sketch out some highlights of this important topic, then look at the exploding scientific study about how learning occurs -- about how making memories changes the brain.

Beneath the argument
Summer slide may seem simple, and obvious, but it turns out to be a confusing research topic, as it's affected by which subject is tested, which tests are used, how far into the school year the tests are administered, and the social characteristics of the students.

These limitations may explain the often-contradictory conclusions of 39 studies of the subject. In 1996, a large analysis of those studies found the clearest deficits in spelling and math computation, perhaps because students don't use those skills in the summer. In reading and other language arts, losses and even gains appear in the studies (see "The Effects of Summer Vacation..." in the bibliography).

More distinct, however, was the effect of social class. While middle-class students tend to maintain or even advance their reading skills, poor students lost up to three months proficiency in summer. (Math was distinguished by equal-opportunity forgetting.)

For that reason, the learning-loss debate should focus on poor students, writes Karl Alexander, a professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. Alexander, who continues to study students who entered Baltimore schools in 1982, says poor kids learn just as fast as others during the school year. Thus, he writes, the performance deficit in low-income students largely reflects the summer slide.

Summer slide blues
Summer school is the textbook approach to reversing summer slide, but remedial programs often don't help kids make up for last year's problems. Instead, the Hopkins Center for Summer Learning has cooked up a summer program aimed at helping disadvantaged kids prosper next year.

Men pile bales of hay on horse-driven cart. The U.S. school calendar was developed so farm kids could help with field work. Now that so few families work the farm, should we change the school calendar to avoid "summer slide"? Copyright Timothy J. Mallery, courtesy The Catskill Archive

That program has passed its first tests, the center reports.

Many solutions to "summer slide" would tinker with the school calendar -- which was crafted to accomodate the farm calendar more than a century ago. Proposals range from shortening the summer vacation to a year-round calendar with short, equal vacations. The politics are huge, and trust us: The Why Files will not get bogged down in this quagmire!

Instead, let's look at a related question: Learning is about memory. How does the brain change when we make a memory?

The Why Files

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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.