Homework & study skills

Why Does My Child Remember Some Things but Not What She Studies?

By Nelson Dorta

Why is it that my daughter can remember some things so well but not what she studies for school? She knows every word to every Taylor Swift song. So why she can’t remember the facts she studies for her history tests?

Nelson Dorta

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Many things can affect our memory. But before I answer your question about why your daughter might struggle with recalling facts in history class, let me discuss briefly what memory is.

Memory is composed of three “storage” systems in the brain. These systems are not found in one area of the brain. They’re organized around three networks. Each plays a different role in memory. Here’s a quick look at what each one does.

Encoding: The first network is the encoding system. This is what takes in song lyrics and other information and holds it in short-term storage. The encoding system partly depends on how well you’re paying attention to the new information.

Long-term memory: The second network is best remembered—pun intended!—as the long-term warehouse. This warehouse stores two main kinds of memories:

  • Episodic memory: Important personal events and feelings you associate with those events are stored in what brain researchers call the “episodic memory system.” An example of this kind of memory is your last trip to a beach. I bet you can even smell the saltwater if you think about it hard.
  • Semantic memory: The long-term warehouse also holds all those silly facts we can recall when asked. When did Christopher Columbus sail to America? Most adults can quickly blurt out “1492.” This kind of general fact is stored in what’s called the “semantic memory system.” This system is the big one for storing school-related learning.

Recall: The third network is known as the recall system. It finds information that’s stored in our brain and “pulls it out” efficiently. Think about my Christopher Columbus question. The date 1492 probably popped into your head within a second or so. If it didn’t, you used different strategies to try to “find” the date in your memory.

For example, you might have recited the song about Columbus that you learned in grammar school. Or maybe you remembered just the line or phrase about him sailing “the ocean blue” and thought about what year would rhyme with that.

The recall system taps our higher-order thinking skills (also called executive functions) to “find” information. This includes things like:

  • Organizing what we know about a topic
  • Checking and forming associations (such as, in my beach example, considering if that was where you discovered your love for peppermint ice cream)
  • Holding and comparing information (for example, if the weather that day at the beach was unusual for that time of year)

I also want to mention one other type of memory system, which works with the networks I described above. When we actively hold and compare information (or see something and “think through it”), we’re also using our working memory.

Working memory plays a role in the encoding system. But it’s also used during the “comparison” process. Working memory can hold new and old memories in a short-term storage area.

Coming back to your original question: Why can your daughter remember Taylor Swift songs and not early U.S. history? The most likely answer is that your daughter is more interested in Ms. Swift than in Mr. Columbus. She’s paying better attention to the musical information as it is given to her. The better she pays attention, the better she encodes the information.

Also, as with most things in life, practice and repetition help. She probably listens to Ms. Swift far more than she listens to her history teacher. She’s getting more practice remembering those lyrics than at remembering the key dates from Mr. Columbus’s life.

Memory disorders in children are quite rare. Conditions like head injury or epilepsy can affect memory. Some learning and attention issues can affect memory, too:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD often have weakness in the encoding system. But here the problems are more about paying attention. They aren’t getting information in effectively because they have difficulty tuning out the unimportant stuff. They have trouble selecting what information they should pay attention to over time.
  • Executive functioning issues: Children with executive functioning issues do OK with encoding and storing memory. But they can struggle to recall information. This is because they tend to have difficulty organizing information well. This gets in way of developing good strategies for searching for information they’ve learned at some point in the past. It also explains why kids with executive functioning issues tend to learn or memorize information more slowly than their peers.
  • Language disorders: Children with language disorders can have a good visual memory. For example, they might remember lots of details from drawings they’ve seen of Columbus or of his three ships. But they have weaknesses in processing and understanding longer and more complex amounts of verbal information. They might have difficulty encoding or retrieving the words to that song about sailing the ocean blue.

If you suspect that any of these could be an issue, a thorough evaluation by an appropriate doctor, like a neuropsychologist, could help. There are different treatment options and educational strategies that can help with each of these issues. Understanding your child’s challenges can lead you to the most effective ways to help her.

About the Author

Portrait of Dr. Nelson Dorta

Nelson Dorta is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University.

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