HOW STUDENTS LEARN PART 3
Principles of Memory
We begin by distinguishing between three stages of memory processing — encoding, the process by which a new trace is laid down in memory; storage, or what happens to the encoded memory trace over the retention interval; and retrieval, or gaining access to stored knowledge so that you can use it to solve problems or whatever. The fate of memory over each of these three stages is governed by a remarkably small number of principles.
The encoding stage involves two principles, elaboration and organization. Ebbinghaus’ original theory of memory, based on British associations, was that memory was fixed by rehearsal — by simply repeating the item to be remembered, over and over again. But we now know that maintenance rehearsal, just repeating something to ourselves, over and over again, like we would a name or telephone number, is not sufficient to encode that item in long-term memory — which is why, if we’re interrupted, the thing we’re rehearsing goes right down the mental drain. Instead, what’s needed is what is known as elaborative rehearsal, connecting up what we’re trying to learn with what we already know.
So here is the first key to learning: we learn best when we learn progressively, building new knowledge on old knowledge.
Actually, almost anything that encourages the reader to pay close attention to a text will improve memory.
A recent study by Connor Diemand-Yauman and his colleagues at Princeton (2010) showed that presenting text in an unfamiliar font,, such as Comic Sans, which is relatively hard to read, led to better memory for text contents compared to a more familiar font, such as Arial (this website is mostly formatted in Verdana). The more effort you expend, the better you’ll remember — provided that it’s not just rote rehearsal.
Perhaps for the same reason, Oppenheimer and Mueller (2014) found that handwritten class notes yield better recall of lecture material than notes taken on a laptop. It takes more effort to write than to type, and the additional effort apparently produces a richer, more memorable memory trace. All of which is just one more reason to lament the tendency, in current elementary education, to de-emphasize cursive in favor of printing or even (God help those students) keyboarding.
The elaboration principle is supported by a further organization principle: memory is best when we relate the things we are trying to learn to each other, to see how they are connected together, or share certain features. If you group items into categories, or find some other links among them, you can learn much faster than if you study each item on its own. The elaboration principle deals with “item-specific” processing, while the organizational principle has to do with “inter-item” processing. But the essential principle is the same: we learn things best when we attend to how they relate to other things.
The storage stage is governed by the time-dependency principle, which also has its roots in
Ebbinghaus not to mention your grandmother: memory gets worse over time. But why dos memory gets worse over time. Memories might fade, the way a photograph does; or they might be kicked out by newly arriving memories, as when a filing cabinet gets filled. Both these principles apply to some forms of memory: if you don’t engage in active processing, items will drop out of working memory; and the capacity of working memory is limited to something like the famous “seven, plus or minus two” items.