Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak
I believe that memory is very important in education. This might seem obvious - of course children and students need to remember things. Perhaps it also seems threatening - reducing education to mere passive memorisation?
I don’t think so.
In my view, improving how we use memory is not threatening because remembering is essential regardless of your view of how teaching should be done, or what the syllabus should consist of. Whether you are talking about lectures or discovery learning, a minimum requirement is that the pupils retain some of the information that you have been teaching, and develop skills and understanding over the long-term.
Indeed, educational approaches tend to be judged, at least in part, according to whether people remember anything in terms of their performance on tasks (real or artificial) or tests at a later date. As a learner, a class might be a lot of fun, but I would ask myself whether it was a worthwhile use of my time if I later couldn’t remember anything about it.
From a psychology or neuroscience perspective, we are talking about encoding facts, skills and schema knowledge that is retained over the long-term. This learning is represented in the physical brain by changes to neural structure. There is no learning without these things happening!
Perhaps memory can seem to be a threat because it appears reductive - breaking education down to a list of testable facts. But actually, this may just be a matter of definition; cognitive psychology takes a broader view of memory than that used in everyday speech, and includes any change in behaviour or thinking. This could include developing our creative skills, for example, or our ability to write an essay. There are, of course, various different types of memory - memory for a fact, an experience, a task, and so on. But all of them require, on some level, that the learner takes something in, and that it persists for long enough to affect their future actions and/or thoughts.
I would agree that too much of what currently passes for education is founded on shallow memorisation - much of what is crammed for exams is swiftly forgotten, particularly if not well understood to begin with. But this is exactly where research can come in - by telling us how to make learning last.
As for the role of memory being obvious, well… Perhaps something so fundamental should be seen as obvious, but as such it is easily ignored and neglected. I’d argue that the role of memory is not prominent in current educational debates, and plays too small a role (if any) in teacher training and CPD.
When we talk about improving education, we are essentially saying that we want pupils to do better at maths, science, languages, social science etc, in a way that will allow them to:
- pass exams
- retain skills that they can use in future
This means that they need to retain key facts (such as what hydrogen is) and skills (such as how to multiply two fractions) for long enough not just to pass an assessment, but also to use it an unspecified period of time in the future - i.e. it must be retained in long-term memory, and be amenable to transfer.
The newly re-elected Scottish Government has made it very clear that education is a top political priority, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted that we must try to ‘close the attainment gap’ in terms of the academic under-peformance of the least well-off young people in our society. I would certainly commend that sentiment. I would also suggest that interventions that have been shown to improve attainment exist in the psychology research literature, and has increasingly been applied to real settings and with authentic learning material.
What’s more, any such interventions - although they can help everybody - are likely to benefit to the lowest achievers most. This is simply because the less you have learned up to now, the greater the potential for improvement; the worse your study habits, the more you can improve them. In contrast, some other possible interventions tend to preferentially help higher achievers, for example more homework or smaller classes.
A major challenge, then, is to engage with the wealth of scientific research on memory that is out there, digest it, and communicate it in a way that teachers, learners and parents can actually use. There needs to be an increased psychological literacy when it comes to human memory - we need to understand how our own learning processes work, and how to use them better.
That is the aim of this blog.