In a recent article, Stephen Chew and William Cerbin claim, “Teaching and Learning are lost in a buzzword wasteland.” Teachers struggle to figure out what works and what doesn’t, some quickly adopt any new strategy while others are stuck on worn out ideas that long ago ceased to work. Our students don’t recognize the buzzwords, but they’ve been subjected to numerous educational innovations in various classrooms leaving them with no uniform understanding of how their learning actually works. We certainly don’t know everything, but we can start by making sure that all teachers and students understand the basic processes behind encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories.
It all starts here. Many people don’t recognize this stage as a part of memory. Sensory memory is fleeting, less than a second long in many cases. EVERYTHING we experience registers in our Sensory Memory. It’s so overwhelming, most of this information is simply discarded. “In one ear and out the other” is not just an old cliché; it is how our Sensory Memory works. We cannot attend to everything so most of what we see or hear stays in that moment lost forever.
A few precious nuggets of information make it to the next level, but only if that information is attended to. There’s no time for processing in the Sensory stage, so information is simply selected and passed on, or dismissed and lost.
Once attended to (or selected), information is passed along to our Working Memory. This stage has a limited duration and capacity (less than a minute, about 5-9 items of information), but unlike Sensory Memory, more complex processing occurs here. In many cases, we may simply repeat information in our Working Memory until we use it (for example, a phone number), or until it eventually passes on to Long Term Memory. This simple rehearsal works fine for information that we only need access to for a short period of time, but elaborate rehearsal is more effective for creating Long Term Memory.
Long Term Memory and Forgetting
The process doesn’t end when information is stored in Long Term Memory. Forgetting is a natural part of the learning process. One exposure to something new is usually not enough for long term retention. The classic forgetting curve shows that soon after initial learning, much of what we learn is forgotten, but with repeated and spaced retrieval of that information, learning will become more durable.
Takeaways for Teachers
- Attention is vital for learning. Make sure to vary activities and provide frequent opportunities for checking in to make sure students are engaged.
- Be mindful of the limitations of working memory and take care to minimize extraneous stimuli for students when learning new tasks.
- Provide opportunities for students to work with concepts and information using deeper processing methods.
- Make use of frequent low-stakes retrieval practice through quizzes, games, or other activities to prevent cramming and combat forgetting.
Takeaways for Students
- Attention is vital for learning. Minimize distractions in the classroom and while studying. For example, put away digital devices or request different seating in the class.
- Remember that your working memory is limited. Multitasking while learning is not effective. Dealing with emotional and social stress can also interfere with working memory capacity if not managed.
- Make use of effective learning strategies. Just about any type of thinking you can do with information is better than read, reread, repeat.
- Spread out your work as much as possible and avoid cramming. It might get you the grade that you want, but you will never do as well as you could do with repeated exposure to the material.