Human Learning and Memory

Remembering information is an important part of education. Not as important as education would lead us to believe, but it is still important. With the development of technology, memorization has declined in importance. However, education has not changed in any way to accommodate these developments and memorization is becoming more and more a central part of education.

When we think of memory, our naïve model is brilliantly illustrated by Bjork (1994):

…past experiences of differing duration and intensity leave impressions or traces in the brain that are like footprints of differing depths in the sand. And such traces or footprints are subject to blurring over time, becoming harder to read as a function of retention interval and intervening event.

Subjectively, this is how our memory works. Memories are recorded just like information is digitized. These digitized bits are stored in the brain and slowly fade over time. The footprints are slowly washed away.

This subjective memory experience is the understanding of memory that forms the core of education. The problem is that this is not how memory actually works. Memories in the brain are living things, forming subjective experiences, and being constantly updated in response to every internal and external stimulus.

Memories are found in the brain in several stages or processes.

Sensory memory is the memory of sensory experiences (visual, auditory, etc.) that lasts only long enough for the sensation to be transferred to short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also called working memory under a different model and with different parameters, is the memory that is active in the brain at any one moment in time. I think of short-term and working memory are two different forms of memory because the evidence clearly points to a memory that is of small capacity (5±2 items) and short in duration while working memory encompasses everything that is active in the brain at any one time.

A third form that memory takes is what I refer to as temporary memory (my own term). This is memory for the recent past. I don’t believe that this is a part of our permanent store of memories, but is a longer-term temporary memory. As an example, we don’t typically remember what we ate for lunch a week ago last Tuesday. There is no reason for us to make that memory a permanent store. However, we can usually remember what we ate for lunch yesterday. The capacity is very large but the duration is not very long.

The final form that memories take is our permanent store of memories: long-term memory. Long-term memory is where we store information that has been transformed into knowledge and where our knowledge has been transformed into understanding. This is where our episodic memory (memory about events), semantic memory (memory of knowledge about the world), and procedural (memory of how to do something) is kept.

If you think about the worthwhile goals of any real learning, according to Bjork (1994), these goals are long term in nature, and so information needs to be moved through whatever process is necessary for the information (episodic, semantic, or procedural) to end up stored in long-term memory. There are three formal learning goals that should be considered.

The first of these goals should be that the knowledge and skills acquired during the learning process should be stable and durable. This information or knowledge (information that has been transformed into a usable form) should be available at the end of the learning cycle (pass the test kind of memory). However, it should also be available long afterward when what has been learned in the formal setting might be useful in some real-world setting. Knowing how to multiply using fractions in a kitchen when altering a recipe is important, however formal education is usually focussed exclusively on a learner’s ability to pass a test (the problem of transference, or goal three – having the information available in another time, setting, or circumstance when it is needed).

A secondary (but vitally important) long-term goal of learning is that knowledge and skills learned should be able to survive long periods of time when the knowledge or skills are not used, and be able to be recalled in a useful state when needed. Like riding a bike. Once you learn, you can (usually) do it again after a long period of time when you have not ridden a bike. It is frustrating to know that you once knew how to do something, but can’t really remember how to use that knowledge to solve your present problem. Although this should be a goal in formal learning, it is a very difficult one to manage.

The final long-term memory goal that we have is the need to produce and have available a mental representation of the knowledge or skill that allows for flexible access to that information in different settings. The problem of transference – being able to recognize that something you learned in a different context might be useful in the context you currently find yourself. Having a theoretical understanding of a lever doesn’t help if you don’t recognize when it might be useful to have that knowledge. Transference is one of the most difficult challenges for any kind of formal learning. Educators can (and should) provide examples of when what has been learned might be useful, but it would be impossible to provide a list (to be memorized and tested – of course) of every instance when a person might need to add some numbers together. Instead, what is hoped, is that a learner will master the skill of addition with the application of this knowledge in a variety of settings and circumstances, and also recognize every instance in their lives when addition will help solve a current problem. Seems simple enough, but transference is one of the most challenging aspects of formal education.

Unfortunately, through the evolution of formal education, the primary goal of education – in practice, not in desire – has become passing tests to get grades in order to receive a qualification. The requirement for putting much information into long-term memory has dropped out of most of higher education. There are procedural memories that become long-term in some fields (nursing, engineering, laboratory work, etc.), but the theoretical underpinnings do not become a part of long-term memory. The theory is stored in temporary memory in order to get through an exam. The transference of knowledge from temporary memory to long-term memory isn’t necessary to meet current educational goals. And, as memory consolidation in long-term memory takes work, it is avoided if it isn’t needed. The brain is a conservative organ and avoids burning energy when possible.

Cognitive Enablers

Memory for cognitive enablers is not theoretical. These memories are procedural. Learning basic numeracy is a procedure. If we look at addition, the theoretical underpinnings are simple enough for a child to grasp and are remembered because they are so basic, simple, and integral to the procedure. However, in order to become comfortable using addition, techniques must be learned (not a single right technique, as is the practice with teaching basic math in so many places) and practiced until addition becomes a fluent procedure. Fluent being defined as both accurate and fast – seemingly automatic. Knowing what 7+3 means appears to be almost instantaneous and without mental effort: fluency.

We teach the other concrete cognitive enablers to the point where they usually reach the same level of fluency. Typical adult reading, at whatever level of comprehension a person achieves, becomes a fluent procedure. The same applies to writing and basic problem-solving. Expertise is the achievement of fluency in whatever domain of activity an expert works in.

Abstract cognitive enablers should reach the same level of fluency as our concrete cognitive enablers enjoy. An almost automatic application of a skill to achieve a goal. This automaticity is often achieved within a narrow area of specialization but fails to achieve the third goal of education outlined above. The skill is limited to the area and types of problems that led to fluency within that context.

There are many programs of study teach abstract cognitive enablers as theoretical knowledge or even theoretical understanding. There may even be procedural learning of abstract cognitive enablers in a class. However, within the context of a single class, none of the goals of learning are satisfied.

The first goal (long-term stable and durable memory of the procedures) cannot be met by a single class. It is possible that the theory and meaning of an abstract cognitive enabler might become a stable and durable memory, but the procedural use of an abstract enabler could not become a fluent skill as a result of a single class. This is also true of a concrete cognitive enabler – addition or subtraction would not reach permanency as fluent skills within a three month, one-semester class.

The second goal, the ability to survive long periods of time when the cognitive enabler is not used, is simply not viable after a single, single semester class. A memory that you used to possess some form of the skill in a limited fashion may survive a long period of time when it is not used, but the fluent ability to use the procedural skill would not.

The final goal of learning is transference. The ability to recognize the skill itself and being able to use the skill effectively and appropriately within any context that is appropriate

Even worse than not achieving any of the formal goals for memory and real learning is the illusion that abstract cognitive enablers have been learned (somehow) and therefore, there is no need to work to acquire anything else. Research has clearly demonstrated that we are notoriously poor at judging what we know and what we don’t know without training and practice. We are also extremely poor judges of our own competency when it comes to learning skills. As a result of this poor ability to properly judge our own abilities, most people rate themselves as much more advanced in their thinking ability than they are.

All of these issues surrounding memory and learning effect both our real abilities and our self-perceived abilities. Understanding how memory works can effect the teaching, use, and accurate appraisal of our cognitive enablers, both concrete and abstract.

We know how it works and what we need to do to fix it, but we don’t.

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