Memory and Effective Learning
An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of memory for effective learning.
The precise definition of learning is challenging to come by as many people have differing opinions about the causes, processes, and consequences of learning. The discrepancy may be because learning has been the subject of research in various disciplines, including psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, education, and anthropology. Each examines the phenomenon through the lens of their fields of study. However, most education professionals agree that learning is an “enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience” (Schunk, 2012). Further, learning involves change, endures over time, and occurs through experience. Effective learning is a complex process that involves several interconnected elements, chief among them is memory.
Most people associate learning with remembering content. Memory, therefore, plays a significant role in effective learning. The more we can get our students to remember, the better learners they are. There are two basic categories of memory, short-term and long-term. Short-term memory has a storage capacity of only about seven items and a duration of only a few dozen seconds. Techniques such as “chunking” information into small, easily learned groups, phrases, words, and numbers could help learners more readily recall information in short-term memory than unchunked information. For example, it may be challenging to memorize the sequence 78568956872, but if you chunk it to look like this 7856 895 6872, it becomes easier to do. Long-term memories, on the other hand, have an almost unlimited capacity and duration. These are the memories we hold onto from our earliest childhoods or other occurrences in our distant pasts. In healthy functioning brains, the constraint on recall of our distant memories is not the availability of those memories but accessibility to them. Effective learning involves moving short-term memory into long-term memory through a process known as memory consolidation. In other words, memory consolidation is the process of making learning “stick.” Memory consolidation involves structural and chemical changes in the nervous system, such as strengthening synaptic connections between neurons that connect various memories throughout the brain. These connections become more robust and faster over time, increasing the durability of long-term memory. Think of it as a path in the woods. The more often you walk down the trail, the easier it becomes to navigate. There are three critical strategies for moving short-term memories into long-term memory. They are repetition, imagery, and patterns, also known as RIP.
According to Larry Squire, neurologist, and professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, the best way to consolidate learning into long-term memory is through repeated rehearsal at regular intervals, commonly referred to as repetition. As most teachers know, repetition is an essential strategy for long-term learning, but it can also get boring for students and teachers. To keep learning fresh and exciting, effective teachers use various techniques to make the repetition palatable. Some successful approaches include using movement and dance, songs, raps, call and response, and games. These approaches are the sugar that helps make the medicine go down. They are great ways to learn effectively and have fun at the same time. In addition to teachers using these techniques with their classes, students should be taught how to use these techniques to help them become effective independent learners.
Using imagery is an excellent mnemonic to improve memory. In a recent study at Georgia State University, participants were told to create mental images that corresponded to conceptually related word lists. Those who made mental images representing the lists of words could recall more words than people that did not create images. For example, if a student is trying to remember the word ‘fulcrum,’ they could imagine a glass “full of crumbs” resting on a teeter-totter. Researchers have found that the more exaggerated and sillier the mental images, the more likely we will remember them. When something is novel and different, it stands out from the routine and mundane. You might have difficulty recalling what you had for dinner three weeks ago. Still, if that day was your birthday and you were surprised with a party, you might be more likely to remember other details, such as what was served for dinner (especially it was your favorite dish).
Graphic organizers are another helpful way to use visual information. Graphic organizers are a pedagogical tool that visually depicts relationships between facts, concepts, and ideas. Some examples of popular graphic organizers include concept mapping, sequence maps, Venn diagrams, and flow charts. For instance, in a lesson on the American Revolution, students could create a sequence map illustrating the significant events leading up to the Declaration of Independence, such as the Stamp Acts, the Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party. To further strengthen their memory, students could include clip art or other representations for each cause. One of my favorite graphic organizers is the Venn diagram. The Venn diagram consists of two circles that overlap, forming three distinct areas. The two central regions help students identify characteristics that are unique to that specific topic or subject. In contrast, the area of overlap is used to determine things the two topics have in common. Venn Diagrams are a valuable strategy to help students compare and contrast two disparate events or concepts while ‘seeing’ their similarities.
The brain is optimized to seek and make sense out of the world by identifying patterns. Patterns are observations that individuals organize into meaningful categories. Patterns exist everywhere in our daily life, including mathematics, music, language, and nature. When we receive information about the world from our five senses, we search our brains for prior knowledge about the topic, as well as a way to organize the information. If the information matches something we already know about, it strengthens already existing neural networks. This is called pattern recognition. Pattern recognition can significantly enhance learning because, as the old saying goes, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
As discussed earlier, there are several ways to present information to students using patterns. One of my favorite ways to use patterns in the classroom is through music. Music contains both rhythmic and melodic patterns. Further, using music enhances relational teaching and is an excellent way to boost motivation, creativity, and joy. For example, when I teach about the Civil Rights movement, I like to play Fannie Lou Hamer’s ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect,’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ Students are naturally pulled into the music, which helps them connect to the academic content emotionally. In addition to playing popular music, I have students create their own songs, raps, or spoken word as a way to learn and review academic content. Students love to engage in creative work, and it is an excellent way to change things up and keep the lesson exciting and engaging.
The acronym is another popular mnemonic that uses patterns. Acronyms use a letter to represent each word or phrase that needs to be remembered. For example, NFL stands for the National Football League. Acronyms can be used to remember all sorts of things, such as the MAIN causes of World War I- Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism. Or to determine if an organism is living or non-living, use the acronym MRS GREN to represent the seven life processes of Movement, Respiration, Sensation, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Nutrition. An acrostic is another valuable strategy to help students memorize content. In this approach, like the acronym, students associate letters with the concept to learn, but instead of creating a new word, students create a sentence. For example, music teachers can help their students remember the treble clef lines, EGBDF, by using the acrostic Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine. To remember the order of operations in algebra-parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction, students remember Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.
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