As a memory researcher and teacher-educator, I sometimes get a negative reaction when I talk about improving teachers’ understanding of human memory. Am I suggesting that school learning is just a matter of memory? And isn’t memorisation a bad thing? I think that using memory effectively isn’t a bad thing at all, and in fact it’s inevitable – all learning involves memory on some level. In this article I explore what cognitive researchers mean when they talk about memory, as well as discussing some promising research findings that have begun to be applied to education.
Memory as viewed by cognitive science
Cognitive science explains learning in terms of thought processes and behaviour. When something new is learned, a memory is stored or altered in a way that will impact on a learner’s ability to think or act. For example, practising spelling can make mistakes less likely to occur in future, while studying a concept in class should make it easier for learners to understand examples of this concept that they might see in an exam or when reading.
Understanding and memory are closely intertwined. It’s very difficult to memorise something that you don’t understand at all – imagine trying to memorise a text in an unfamiliar language! Research dating back several decades has shown that the more meaningful a learning task and the more deeply we think about new information, the better we remember. For example, if people are shown a list of words and asked how much they like each item on the list, they are much more likely to remember them than if they are asked to do something superficial, such as state whether each word contains a letter ‘e’ (Hyde and Jenkins, 1973). This depth of processing principle can easily be applied to teaching, by providing learners with tasks that prompt them to respond to ideas, rather than simply copying them down.
Cognitive psychologists look at understanding in terms of interconnections between words, experiences and ideas. This helps us to see why learning facts in a single context does not lead to understanding – or to successful memorisation If a new concept is only connected to one other thing then the overall structure of what has been learned is fragile and prone to being forgotten, and provides a poor foundation for later learning.
In contrast, the key feature of something that is well learned and understood is that learning is connected to existing knowledge and can be used by learners in multiple situations. Understanding of a concept therefore includes more than just the abstract ‘fact’, and instead represents how this fact is linked to other things. Psychologists call a structure of interconnected knowledge a schema.
This relates to another issue – flexible, well-structured memories are necessary for transfer. By transfer, we mean how well a learner is able to apply their learning to new situations. For example, a learner who has studied the solar system may find out about the planetary system of another star, and make the (correct) inference that the planets of this new system revolve around the star.
Another implication of looking at learning in terms of schemas is that all new learning should connect to prior learning. This helps to explain why we, as teachers, can give a clear explanation of something, only to find that several members of the class are giving us blank looks. The problem is not always with what we do, but with what they currently know. We may need to find out more about the learners’ existing knowledge, and link content to their background and interests (Moll and Gonzalez, 1994).
It’s not enough just to know how memories are structured – researchers also want to find ways to help learning progress more effectively. Clearly, learning begins with new information being presented to learners – for example, via reading, a video, an experience or a lecture. However, it is now well understood that presentation of information is insufficient. As discussed above, the new tasks should involve a meaningful context where they can connect information to what they already know.
It’s also important to prevent learners from forgetting, and one way to do so is to prompt recall of concepts from memory. This retrieval practice (which could occur when answering a question or when writing or speaking about the concept) appears to significantly reduce forgetting, but the effect is only obvious over time delays of a few days or more (Karpicke et al., 2014). The benefits are greatest when the retrieval is spaced out over time, with gaps between study and revision (Dunlosky and Rawson, 2015) – a benefit usually termed the spacing effect.
When I was a school pupil myself, we were frequently asked to copy sections of text from a book or screen into jotters. This sort of task does not require retrieval practice, because pupils are not asked to remember anything for more than a few seconds. A better alternative would be to give them an explanation with their pens down, and at the end of the explanation, ask them to write down everything they can remember. To ensure accuracy, this could then be checked against a textbook or information sheet. Any review that took place could be done after a delay (e.g. the next day), making use of the spacing effect.
It might seem self-evident that looking at examples of the same type of thing (e.g. presenting several examples of industrialisation in history or economics) would aid learning. However, studying examples of different concepts mixed together results in better memory for those concepts, especially when the concepts are similar to each other and therefore easily confused (Carvalho and Goldstone, 2015). This technique is known as interleaving. In one experiment, researchers compared interleaving of real-world examples of social science concepts versus showing learners multiple examples of the same concept. They found that interleaving led to better memory for the examples, as well as a superior ability to correctly identify previously unseen examples (Rawson et al., 2015). It seems that comparing easily-confused concepts side by side makes it easier for learners to notice and remember key differences between them.
What is less useful?
While studying effective learning techniques, researchers have also scrutinised traditional teaching practices, and in some cases found them less effective than might be assumed. One example is overlearning – engaging in repeated practice of concepts beyond the point where a learner has already ‘got’ the key idea (often termed the point of mastery). Textbooks tend to use this approach – who hasn’t worked through a page of very similar arithmetic problems? However, it appears that overlearning has little value over the long term (Rohrer and Taylor, 2006).
Re-reading is another popular technique that seems to have limited benefits. By reading something two or more times, the learner acquires a sense of familiarity with the material, and therefore feels like they understand it. However, this feeling can be an illusion – it might not translate into better memory or transfer. A more effective strategy would be for the learner to summarise key points and then test themselves, thereby making use of retrieval practice and prompting deep, meaningful processing (Agarwal et al., 2014).
Memory plays a key role throughout learning, but can’t be reduced to the memorisation of isolated facts – our memories are interrelated and depend on deep and active processing. Cognitive scientists are now able to recommend educational techniques that can help with developing durable, well-structured memories that will last over the long term, and to discourage the use of more inefficient methods like re-reading and overlearning. Evidence-based teaching that makes use of retrieval practice, the spacing effect and interleaving can help with memory, as well as with transfer to new situations, helping pupils over the longer term.
A pack all about retrieval practice is available at: impact.chartered.college/article/retrieval-practice-cpd-pack.
Jonathan Firth is a psychology teacher, teacher-educator, author and researcher. Having taught psychology at secondary school level for many years, he now works in teacher education at the University of Strathclyde, as well as teaching part-time for e-Sgoil, the online school of the Outer Hebrides.