Memory plays a key role in our everyday life, for reasons ranging from mere survival to relaying information from one generation to the next. Memory is indeed of paramount importance during one’s student and professional life, but more often than not, the effort needed to learn new tools or concepts seems disproportionate to the final result. As a consequence, we might even start believing the problem lies in our learning abilities. For instance, how many training programmes, conveniently packed in just a few hours, have we all undergone, only to find little to no trace of them in our memory? It is certainly a shame, but it is not inevitable.
Psychologists generally classify our memory into long-term memory and working memory. The former is the kind of storage that hosts experiences and information accumulated over the course of one’s lifetime. In contrast, working memory lasts only for a minute or so, and deals with immediate material that we are currently processing.
Only by understanding the main steps of memorisation can we intervene in an appropriate and focused way. Psychologists have established that processing information entails three different steps: encoding, storage (and consolidation), and retrieval.
However, this sequence of events is fragile and not completely automated. In fact, each single step can begin only once we are paying attention, and failure is always around the corner. How can teachers and educators deal with this reality? Let’s review these steps one by one.
Once our senses perceive something, the attention we devote to it intensifies the experience, thereby increasing the likelihood that the event is encoded in our brain.
There are several types of encoding mechanisms:
- acoustic encoding relates to sounds and words;
- visual encoding processes images;
- tactile encoding is linked to our sense of touch;
- and semantic encoding deals with input that has a specific meaning and that can be associated to a particular context.
Long-term storage is known to rely particularly on semantic encoding. Since the association of concepts is so important to human memory, we will remember a new piece of information better if we can associate it with preexisting knowledge. This process is even more effective when the association is meaningful on a personal level.
There are also more measurable ways to optimise encoding. For instance, semantic encoding is amplified when the learner is encouraged to constantly restructure the notions he or she is acquiring. As we will see, frequently testing knowledge is an excellent way to achieve this.
How to improve encoding
Associating words with images essentially provides learners two different methods of remembering, and automatically creates connections in their mind. Therefore, teachers should not discard visual aids during their lectures.
A crucial point for lecturers is to identify and fight the cognitive bias known as the “curse of knowledge”. According to this erroneous assumption, the audience is already equipped with the necessary background to understand the contents of the lesson. Many great teachers fail to put themselves in the shoes of students who encounter a subject for the first time because of that bias. Experts also tend to provide too much information. Instead, they should spend more time selecting the content they want to transmit to students.
It could also be useful to break the flow of the explanation every ten minutes or so, by providing a video to sustain a concept, or maybe tell a funny anecdote (only if one truly feels like it: beware of emotional dissonances!).
An especially good strategy to keep students’ attention is to intersperse a lesson with interactive quizzes, of which Wooclap is a prime example. Not only can one (teachers and students alike) catch their breath during a quiz, but the benefits to the learning process are real and demonstrable. Experiments on middle-school classrooms with actual course content show that repeated quizzing led to better performance than repeated reading. The takeaway here is that a test not only measures learning but also changes it, improving performance on subsequent tests.
Open questions are particularly effective, because students are given few cues to recall a large amount of information. Researchers have shown that this exercise largely improves one’s capacity to perform an organised recall at a later stage, when building schemas for instance. During such an exercise, the teacher’s structured feedback plays a critical role. In general, the benefits of open questions on brain activity are so numerous that improvements in academic results have been observed even when such exercises take place before learning about a subject.
Storage (and consolidation)
After the encoding phase comes storage, which can occur in one’s short-term or long-term memory. According to one of the most cited studies in psychology (Miller, 1956), it has been empirically proven that human short-term memory has some limitations, in the sense that most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in it at a time, also called “chunks of information”. The access to storage therefore has a somewhat narrow funnel, and it seems no “training program” is effective in enhancing this capability.
To consider the brain a “muscle” that can be strengthened through repeated use, thereby learning other skills more efficiently, is in fact an old and largely discredited myth. The good news, however, is that the aforementioned chunks can become arbitrarily large. For example, a technique to remember a sequence of numbers (4-7-1-2-3-4) would be to group them (471-1234). Therefore, one can rely on previous knowledge to increase the size of a chunk with new information, in order to create larger, consistent clusters. The number of single items per chunk can consequently increase, and experts are typically acknowledged for their ability to manipulate very large chunks of information.
This is precisely why many corporate training programmes are counterproductive: the provided content is unreasonably crammed in just a few hours (as companies want to save time and money), and, as already mentioned, leading experts often try to present as much content as possible. The human brain is simply not able to efficiently process this much information at once if it is not organised early on, and repeated at later stages.
How to increase storage?
As anticipated, chunking techniques consist of looking for connections: pattern recognition is something humans are extremely good at, so it’s up to your creativity to find the strategy that suits you best, either by grouping items sharing similar sounds or usage, turning names into pictures, and so on. The more absurd or unusual, the better.
Repetition is a crucial factor in the memory equation. It has been proven by many independent researchers that spaced repetitions — that is, leaving an interval of time between one study session and the following — is beneficial to the long-term storage of information. The opposed approach would be to concentrate (to “cram”) all of the study sessions in a short amount of time. When that happens, the brain loses its ability to learn new information: a phenomenon also known in neuroscience as long-term depression (explained by a weakening of synaptic connections).
Spaced repetitions are ideally organised with intervals that increase after each iteration: the first steps of learning are very close to each other, of the order of a few minutes or hours, as the memory trace is still very fragile. After successful initial sessions, the following intervals can progressively grow by following a schema: 2-3 days, a week, a month, etc.
Yet another technique to favour storage, and this one might sound counterintuitive, is called interleaving. For students practicing math, for example, it consists in alternating different sorts of exercises rather than merging them in blocks. First and foremost, this forces them to try to figure out what sort of problem they have in front of them. As proven by psychologists in empirical studies, this additional effort, while slowing down learning during the early stages, is beneficial in the long run.
While avoiding distractions at the time of encoding is critical to ensure optimal memorisation, it seems that memory retrieval is a more or less automatic process. Distraction slows down the retrieval process, but doesn’t impair it.
That does not mean that the ability to recall information cannot be improved. A useful technique consists in multiplying the cues that allow to cross-reference the information. Clearly this association must occur during the training phase. Three types of cues are available: semantic, sensory and emotional cues.
- Semantic cues, which strengthen the meaning of the content, can be present at the very start, by providing the information along with its context. The teacher should also connect abstract concepts with concrete examples and find useful analogies and metaphors. Complexity and transdisciplinary links are also welcome.
- Sensory cues, as mentioned, can involve association between images and a few words on a slide. Appropriate body movement can also help. Moreover, when comparing taking notes with a keyboard to doing it by hand, the latter implies a greater processing of the information, and is therefore more useful during the learning phase. Memory cues are enhanced, as one better remembers the original process of writing, the emotion, the self-made conclusions, etc. Laptops, on the other hand, usually represent a very big distraction factor.
- Finally, pleasant feelings are certainly helpful in an educational context. Surprises in a conversation can help pin down a concept for a longer amount of time, as long as they are provided in a moderate and balanced manner.
There are many ways to make a live class more effective and engaging. Teachers can easily implement all the techniques previously mentioned. In particular, research shows that quizzing should be an omnipresent component of lessons, and Wooclap makes it possible with only the teacher’s laptop and the students’ smartphones. These are enough to get you started. Many awarded professors, teaching all around the world, have stated that integrating such a simple habit into their courses has been a game changer. Why not start tomorrow?
Wooclap will be in MoodleMoot US in Philadelphia to talk to you about making your classes more engaging and captivating students attention for a more effective learning process.
Makers of an engaging online response system that integrates with Moodle, Wooclap can help you boost class participation and engagement through the use of smartphones. Book a meeting with them through the MoodleMoot app to see how you can get started too!
For further information
Smolen, P., Zhang, Y., & Byrne, J. H. (2016). The right time to learn: Mechanisms and optimization of spaced learning. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(2), 77–88. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2015.18
Della Sala, S & Anderson, M. (2012). Neuroscience in Education: The good, the bad, and the ugly. https://10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199600496.001.0001
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043158