The SAR Method

Sense → Attend → Rehearse 

A more accessible understanding of memory and learning for the classroom and studying.

I’ve been talking this week with my students about memory and learning. And, while I firmly believe this is a topic worthy of studying by all students in all subject areas, I am lucky enough to teach a course (AP Psychology) where this is part of the curriculum. Understanding how we learn via memory processing and understanding what this means for how we study is, in my opinion, of utmost importance to all learners and teachers. It seems criminal that so many students and teachers (especially in the US) complete their careers and/or schooling without coming into contact with this vital information. 

As I’ve taught this material over the past decade or so to students and teachers alike, I’ve come to wonder if it is perhaps too technical for easy dissemination and use in the classroom? Is there a more applicable way to talk about memory, at least for the teacher/student who may not have time to have a full dive into the limitations of working memory, cognitive load theory, element interactivity, et cetera? Developing something that is more easily approachable and easily applicable could be quite advantageous for the spreading of sound cognitive psychology. Now, to be clear, I definitely believe it to be more instructional and impactful for teachers and students to have a go with the more technical aspects of memory processing and its applications with respect to studying/learning…but, again, I realize not everyone has the time, ability, or access to resources that expand on ideas like choke points and pitfalls in studying and Atkinson-Shiffrin’s three stage model of memory:

Those of us who are quite familiar with the image above have no problem understanding and thinking through its applications for learning…but, let’s not fall into the curse of knowledge and assume others understand information simply because we do. And, at least for me, it took quite a while reading several blogs and research articles on that image above to feel like I could really apply it to the classroom and learning. This is why I think, if we want a larger audience of teachers and students to steer their instruction and studying based upon aspects of cognitive psychology, we need a more accessible entry to these topics.

So, I propose this:

Sense → Attend → Rehearse

It’s simple, easy to remember, and I believe it covers major aspects of memory and learning in the classroom.


Without a doubt, the first step is sensation. One must sense the information to have any chance of continuing through the memory process. If you do not sense the material (in the classroom, this usually means hearing it and/or seeing it), there is no chance of perceiving the material; unless you have ESP…and you don’t. But, of course, just sensing the information isn’t enough. We are constantly sensing a plethora of stimuli every second of our life and there is no chance we remember all of it. For instance, right now, wherever you are reading this, there are numerous sources of auditory stimuli. Just stop reading for a second and consider all of the different sounds you’re hearing. And, while all of those sound waves are making their way through the air, into your ear, and eventually to your brain, that is not enough for remembering explicit information…and the content you come into contact with in the classroom is almost exclusively explicit. This means it requires effortful processing. And that means it requires your selective attention. 


Attention is the next step. Once you sense, you must attend to the information. By choosing to pay attention to the information presented in class, you are giving your brain a chance to understand and encode that information for better understanding. This includes relating the content to other information you already know and, perhaps, relating it to other memories you have. But attention is a limited resource. We cannot pay attention to all things. In fact, from a cognitive perspective, you can only consciously attend to one source of information at a time. 

Do. Not. Multitask. No, you’re not good at it. You’re fibbing to yourself if you believe you are. I teach students daily who believe they can listen to music and watch Netflix while also studying. They can’t. You can’t. Simplify your ‘space’ for learning as much as possible. Limit the extraneous distractions as much as possible. Put the cell phone somewhere else. Turn off the television. I tell my students, if they’re going to spend time studying, they might as well get the most out of it. A complex/complicated space is a distracting space. Simplify. 

Sorry for the small rant. Back to your regularly scheduled blog:

All of this increases your chances of long-term retention, but, in many cases this is still not enough. For instance, I’ll have students listen to the lecture and sincerely attend to the material presented. They will ask questions and indicate to me they have comprehended the information. Then, the next day during class, they struggle to answer questions at the beginning of class utilizing the content. The memory of yesterday’s lesson is weak. It needs something to strengthen and increase the likelihood it can be used when required.


So, you’ve sensed the material. You’ve attended to the material. The next necessary step is rehearsal of that material. You’ve got to use it to remember it…most of the time. If you’re not, you’re taking a massive risk. Rehearsing can take many different forms. It can look like answering a multiple-choice question, it can sound like a discussion, and it can even take the form of some sort of project. The important aspect is that the material that needs to be remembered is used. This is why I begin many lessons with retrieval of information from previous classes. Make the students apply the concepts and terms in several different scenarios. Generally speaking, when a particular concept is retrieved from memory and rehearsed over a period of class meetings or study sessions (spaced practice), the memory is more likely to be ‘found’ the next time the brain goes looking for it. Now, every teacher knows it would be pretty impossible to rehearse all content. Time is always of the essence in the classroom and what should be rehearsed and retrieved has to be prioritized. Here’s something I’ve written on what material I prioritize in my classroom.

So, to be certain, this isn’t a comprehensive understanding of memory, but I do believe it provides an entry point for students and teachers alike to improve their classroom and/or studying. I can envision this information (the Harvard SAR method…no, that sounds weird) being packaged for a 30 minute professional development, a classroom poster, or maybe even a quick lesson in class. The great thing about this information is that it isn’t content or age specific. Whether it’s a 7th grade science class or a 12th grade language arts class, this information is valid and important. 

If you are looking to take a deeper, and maybe a bit more technical, dive into memory, I suggest having a read of the articles I’ve linked to above and my series, Psychology in the Classroom.


One thought on “The SAR Method

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  1. This was great! I’ve been preparing some material for a study skills workshop I’ll be taking at a college soon; would love to include this in the list of resources. Thank you for sharing this!

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