Understanding Memory and Learning

Almost everything we do requires some form of memory. Most of our everyday actions require memory, but we seldom notice this. They’re like everyday appliances that work unseen in our homes and only the absence of them reminds of their presence. Unseen like electricity we tend to only notice when it is absent or the key that won’t open the lock as usual. Absence alerts us to their presence and usefulness.

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We remember facts and skills through practice and rehearsal until some become like second nature. I remember things like how to drive my car seemingly by instinct, but if I must use another car with instruments placed slightly differently, it takes time for me to feel comfortable, reaching for the handbrake with my foot instead of my hand or vice-versa. We remember passwords and once upon a time phone numbers, were things many could recite but this is almost a lost skill as our phones now do this for us. Some memories are stored deeply perhaps never to be retrieved. Other memories float on the surface bubbling and spilling over regularly into our lives.

We are even guilty of Magpie like behavior of stealing the shiny memory nests of others and hoarding and mixing them until they become parts of our memory and our own prized possessions. Moreover, when we retrieve memories, we don’t produce exact photocopies. Memories are reconstructed in the retrieval process. We compose a picture and add and subtract and create what for us is an exact copy.

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Our brains can also separate our memories and memories can be stored relatively quickly and unintentionally. We can also divide memories up into spatial and autobiographical memory which are almost inexhaustible and new situations can change our memories and the way we see things. Our memories are important because they help us build relationships among facts, events and our experiences.  Amnesia or the lack of memory is a devastating condition as we are becoming all too aware of with the seemingly growing prevalence of various forms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s like diseases and the devastation on individuals and families.

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In order to become more effective learners, we need to develop ways of organizing information using memorable tactics making it easier to recall. Growing up some used music Mnemonic Devices such as ABC songs to help remember the alphabet and Word Mnemonics to remember things like Musical Scales, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (EGBDF)” to remember the lines of the Treble Clef from the bottom to the top, and the Great Lakes of the United States are for many in my generation engrained in the word “H.O.M.E Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie.” Mind maps are another device that help us make connections and give visual understandings of complex content.  But for memory to work at an optimal level we need periods of rest between retrieval and reviewing the information we’ve stored, that is spaced intervals for memory to work well. Which is why reviewing material at the start of any lesson is so important for students in and outside of the classroom.

Helping students understand that instead of reading information repeatedly they would remember more efficiently if first they wrote down what they remembered about a topic. Then checked the textbook or their notes to see what they missed out. This repeated retrieval process is a much more efficient and a better way to understand and remember any content.

Above all we need to be able to relate personally to what we want to remember. Motivation is often very self-centered.  Effective teachers try to encourage their students to make up their own memorable devices when they are learning important material, if they want it to stick.

Moreover, the best ways to remember something is to keep retrieving and reconstructing the memory/information. Sadly, we all do this too often with negative memories and play them repeatedly so engraining and storing them and stopping the act of forgetting.

Most educators know how to store up all the tiny wonder moments of teaching and student learning which startle us from time to time, retrieving and replaying them when faced with the opposite and enjoying this rollercoaster ride, we call teaching. Good memories help us thrive and survive and are needed now perhaps more than ever.

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