teaching-1They help put information into context

Napoleon invaded Russia. The Marshall Plan saved Europe. The Sumerians wrote on cuneiform. George Washington stopped the Whiskey Rebellion. W.E.B. Du Bois was a founder of the NAACP. Charles I was executed during the English Civil War. The Mormons settled in Utah.

Facts – students reading history textbooks encounter a dizzying and seemingly endless array of factual information. And for many, learning history soon defaults into a short-term memorization of factual snippets.

The larger context of historical themes and ideas remains murky at best, and after the test is over information is promptly jettisoned from their memories, as the students begin anew with the next chapter.

In contrast, successful learners in history search for connections and relationships among information as they study. Instead of being engulfed by a torrent of disjointed facts, they look for the “flow” of the information. In history textbooks, that “flow” tends to follow a problem/solution orientation.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Memory Bubbles are a structured form of concept mapping that emphasize problem/solution relationships in history. Teaching this study strategy to students involves the following steps:

Step 1: Introduce problem/solution thinking to students through the use of a familiar metaphor, such as a football game. List a series of facts to be identified on the chalkboard: Mike Holmgren, Denver Broncos, John Elway, 31-24, San Diego, January 25, 1998.

Ask students to identify each fact. “Coach of the Packers,” “Super Bowl opponent,” “score of the game,” and so on will be quickly offered. Then comment on how “boring” football is, that it is just a series of facts: names, dates, events, and the like.

Students will likely challenge you by elaborating on these facts and recounting the story of the game. As they talk, point out how the storyline of the game revolves around problems and solutions – the problem of Packer turnovers, unsuccessful solutions for stopping Denver’s rushing attack, changes due to injuries, and so on.

Likewise emphasize that information in history fits into a problem/solution storyline, that the textbook does not consist of isolated facts, but instead tells stories of various groups of people, who cope with problems and changes.

Step 2: Next, identify key terms or facts from a textbook chapter. For example, the following are central to understanding the corrupt post-Civil War era in American politics: Gilded Age, Tweed Ring, Political Patronage, Graft, Civil Service Act. Be careful to avoid “Trivial Pursuit”-type items often favored by textbook editors, and have the students concentrate solely on information that focuses attention on key themes and ideas.

Many students would typically approach learning these historical facts by scanning the chapter to locate minimal details that can be affixed to each term and memorized. “The Gilded Age was a book by Mark Twain.” “The Tweed Ring was dishonest elected officials in New York City.” “Political Patronage was jobs politicians gave their supporters.”

Instead, introduce Memory Bubbles as an alternative study activity for mastering key information. The activity requires students to analyze each item in terms of its connection to a problem/solution storyline: What is this item? What does it have to do with problems discussed in the chapter? What does it have to do with solving these problems? What does it have to do with changes in this chapter?

Place a transparency of a blank Memory Bubble on the overhead projector, and model this process with one of the key terms. (see “Tweed Ring” example). In addition to “ID-ing” (identifying) the Tweed Ring, ask the students to consider what it had to do with the problems emphasized in this section.

Election fraud, robbing the city treasury, exchanging jobs and contracts for votes, bribes – all can be placed in the problems category. The Tweed Ring caused reformers to emerge who prosecuted these crimes. Civil Service reform that mandated awarding of jobs based on merit was a major change that resulted from activities like the Tweed Ring.

Step 3: Have students work with a partner to create Memory Bubbles for the rest of the targeted terms. When they finish, invite volunteers to share their bubbles with the entire class. As part of this process, students will discover that for a particular term or fact, corresponding information may not be available to fill all four of the bubbles.

After practicing using this activity, students can be asked to create Memory Bubbles independently as they learn new material.


Memory Bubbles help students see connections and guide them toward remembering information in the context of larger issues and ideas. In addition:

  • Students are engaged in establishing the significance of key factual material they encounter in their history textbooks.
  • Memory Bubbles may be assigned as a homework activity and for study preparation for chapter exams.