Learning and long-term memory

A while ago I wrote a post about how we can structure learning to make the most of pupils’ working memory capacity. A recent conversation on Twitter prompted me to write this post on how an understanding of long-term memory can inform our teaching.

Short-term and long term memory

Both these terms are used in everyday English, but psychologists tend to use them in a specific way. Our short-term memory is thought to have a limited capacity and duration, holding a few items for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds. In contrast, our long-term memory has a huge capacity and stored memories can last a lifetime.

Types of long-term memory

Our common experience is that we have different types of memory. We may, for example, have a memory of a childhood birthday which allows us to recall sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. This seems quite distinct from the memory of what the word ‘elephant’ means, or what the capital of France is. Psychologists have classified these memories into three types (although further distinctions are possible):

Semantic memory – memories of facts and figures, for example knowing what a bicycle is, being able to name the parts of a bike and explain their function.

Procedural memory – memories of how to perform an operation, for example being able to ride a bike.

Episodic memory – memories of specific events and personal experiences, for example the first time you rode a bike unaided. Episodic memories contain not only the specific details of the event, but the context and emotions of the experience.

Evidence that these types of memory are associated with distinct areas of the brain comes from studies of brain-injured patients, and from brain imaging. Some patients who have sustained brain injuries retain abilities in one area but not others. An example is the much-studied amnesiac HM who could form new procedural memories, such as the skill of mirror-drawing, but not semantic or episodic ones (Corkin, 2002). While memory function can be highly distributed in the brain, procedural memories are associated with activity in the cerebellum and motor cortex, episodic memories are associated with activity in the hippocampus and semantic memories with activity in the temporal lobe.

Long-term memory and learning

The two are inescapably related and we could define learning as a change in long term memory. This happens when information is transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and incorporated with the information already held there. To make use of this information, we must retrieve the information from long-term memory.

Teachers can use an understanding of these processes to improve the efficiency of learning:

    Introduce new information gradually Information must be processed to be effectively incorporated into memory. Introducing new information too rapidly will not only reduce the proportion that is retained, but prevent it being effectively integrated with prior learning. This risks creating an incomplete understanding of concepts and a limited ability to apply knowledge to problem solving because of gaps in our understanding. This will of course vary from pupil to pupil, so it’s important to build in assessment that will inform the pace of future planning. Resist the temptation to plough through content at the expense of learning.
    Contextualise new information In everyday life we find that it is easier to remember information that has meaning. It’s easier to remember a friend’s phone number or birthday than a random string of digits with no context. Research supports this idea. Our consolidation of information into long-term memory and subsequent ability to retrieve it is improved when that information is presented in context, allowing us to readily make connections between new and existing information.
    Provide time and tools for practice To effectively consolidate new memories, connections must be made with existing knowledge. We need to give students enough time to do this. For semantic memories, this includes opportunities to explore new knowledge and concepts by applying them to novel situations and problems. For procedural memories, opportunities should be given to practise operations and procedures, and to use any equipment or materials needed to do this.
    Testing works better than reviewing Students May view revision as literally that, re-reading information that they have previously learned. Research shows that repeatedly attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a much more effective strategy. Quizzes, tests, and opportunities for self-testing will help students learn new information much more effective than reviewing content. For semantic memory, recall quizzes and tasks requiring the correct use of information, including past exam questions, will help. For procedural memory, opportunities to do things, and recount how procedures work will be beneficial.

Practical examples

Some practical examples of these strategies include:

  • Quizzes at the start of a lesson about the content covered previously
  • Checkpoints in the lesson to assess understanding of information
  • Taking time to look at the ‘big picture’, placing new learning in the concept of overarching principles or concepts of the subject
  • Drawing diagrams that connect new information with existing knowledge, within and across topics / subjects
  • Practice at applying new knowledge to solve problems, either in class or as homework, to consolidate semantic memories and improve their recall
  • Practice of new routines, operations and skills to achieve goals or solve problems to consolidate procedural memories and improve aptitude
  • Explaining new learning to others, either verbally or in writing
  • Writing test questions and answers, rather than just reviewing knowledge.

You may be interested in other posts on Psychology and education:Exams and stress – Exams: use the motivation, lose the stress

Academic success and exercise – Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE

Working memory and learning – Making the most of working memory capacity

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