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Learning to learn 06: Remembering

Discipline is remembering what you want – David Campbell


Common myths about memory

  • Re-reading text helps you to remember it. It actually contributes to the illusion of knowledge, which is the idea that you know something simply because it becomes easier to recognise it.
  • Highlighting information helps you to remember it. It actually does nothing.
  • Cramming for a test is a useful way to remember things. Cramming is really ineffective for long-term remembering
  • Working through the night is a reasonable strategy. Getting a good night’s sleep is far more effective for preparing for a test.

This module aims to provide a few simple guidelines for helping you to remember more of what you need to know as part of your learning. And the guidelines are simple. We know, in ways that are well-supported by fairly robust evidence, exactly what you need to do in order to remember more. But, as with all of the skills we’ve been sharing in these modules, simple doesn’t mean easy.

In addition, remembering something isn’t the same thing as understanding it. Before you can really understand difficult ideas there are almost always a few basic concepts that you need to know. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of following the argument in a lecture, leaving with the feeling that you understood what was said, only to realise a few days later that you remember almost nothing.

The problem is that, while the lecturer was speaking you were able to hold the relevant concepts in your short-term memory, accessing them as the lecture unfolded, and thus you were able to make sense of the overarching thesis. But once those basic concepts – the ones you needed to understand the whole argument – faded from memory, it because difficult to recreate the narrative. This module is about trying to work through a (very) basic foundation of memory, forgetting, and finally, about strategies you can use to help you to remember.


Memory

Our memories are more elusive than we think. Many of them are, in fact, not accurate representations of the reality we experienced when the memory was formed. Which is just one reason to pay attention to how memories are created and moved from short- to long-term storage. To start with, we should acknowledge that only a fraction of the information we’ve exposed to even makes it into our conscious experience. Our brains are actually filtering out most of the incoming sensory information that we experience, which is why selective attention, or the ability to focus on the task at hand, is so important for effective learning. If you’re not focusing on the incoming information, the chances are high that your brain is tuning it out. Whatever information does get through is captured by your short-term memory.

Short-term memory: Short-term memory is the working memory we use that enables us to store information for short periods of time, holding it for later processing. Estimates vary but it seems that we can hold about pieces of information in short-term memory. These “pieces” of information are known as chunks, which can be grouped into larger chunks as you become more familiar with an area or knowledge domain. Think of chunking as a kind of information compression that we use to group related information that is more memorable. In this way, chunking vastly increases the capacity of working memory.

Long-term memory: Moving information from working memory into long-term memory is actually an inefficient process, which is why a lot of what we keep in short-term memory is likely to fade away. The initial memory (called a memory trace) is quite weak and unless it is reinforced through intentional practice, it is unlikely to be retained for any significant period of time.

Memory formation

In very simple terms, we form memories in three distinct phases, each of which is important for moving information from working (short-term) memory into long-term memory.

Encoding: The process of converting incoming “important” information into new synaptic connections via chemical and electrical means. Encoding is literally a process of changing the physical structure of the brain as part of the formation of short-term memory. The ability to focus attention is one way to improve the likelihood of new information being accurately encoded.

Consolidating: This is the process where memory traces that have been flagged as important are moved into higher capacity long-term storage. “Important” in this context could be determined by the relationship to previous knowledge, an emotional connection to the incoming information, or the amount of attention paid to it. Sleep is an essential factor in the process of consolidating memories.

Retrieving: This is when you try to recall information from long-term memory. Retrieving information at regular intervals increases the strength of the memory trace. In other words, the more frequently you recall information, especially in the early stages of memory formation, the better your memories of that information will be. Retrieving information also increases the size of the chunks that the information is encoded as, meaning that more related information can be retrieved over time.


Forgetting

It seems intuitively obvious what forgetting is; it’s the opposite of remembering, right? But it turns out that there’s a lot more to forgetting than we might think.

Failures of memory

There are seven major failures of memory. The first three items in the list below are failures of omission (when we forget) and the next four are failures of commission (when we distort our recollection).

  1. Transience. The deterioration of a specific memory over time (the memory itself fades). OR, a decreasing ability to retrieve the memory (the memory is still encoded and we just can’t find it).
  2. Absent-mindedness. Lapses of attention and forgetting to do things. This operates during encoding (the formation of new memories) and retrieval (accessing memories that have been encoded).
  3. Blocking. Temporary inaccessibility of stored information sometimes called “tip of the tongue Syndrome”.
  4. Suggestibility. The integration of incorrect information into memory as a result of leading questions, deception, or other causes.
  5. Bias. When we introduce distortions into memory as a result of current knowledge or beliefs. What we believe can influence what we think we remember.
  6. Persistence. Unwanted recollections that are intrusive and unrelenting, that people can’t forget e.g. PTSD.
  7. Misattribution. Attribution of memories to incorrect sources i.e. believing that you have seen or heard something you haven’t.

The forgetting curve

The forgetting curve is a specific type of memory failure, called transience. From the list above we know that transience is either the process of a memory fading or decreasing ability to retrieve a memory that exists. For about 200 years we’ve known about the average rate at which information fades from memory and that this rate can be tracked through a graph called the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve plots the decline of information retention over time (assuming that there is no intentional effort being made to retain it). Related to this is the concept of memory strength, which refers to the durability of the memory trace left in the brain. The stronger the memory, the longer the period of time that a person is able to recall it.

A typical graph of the forgetting curve shows that the half life of new information is about a week, unless we spend time reviewing the material. This means that we forget half of the new information in about a week, and then another half of that a week later, and so on (Wikipedia, 2020). Actively strengthening the memory trace is one way to keep the memory for longer.


Getting better at remembering

There are four important strategies for increasing our ability to remember information, all based on the principle of desirable difficulty. This is the process whereby actively retrieving information from long-term memory reinforces the traces laid down as part of memory encoding. Note that desirable difficulty is not the same thing as intentionally putting barriers in the way of students’ learning e.g. not preparing students with the relevant knowledge and skills that are aligned with the learning outcomes.

It’s also important to note is that improving memory is difficult. In the beginning, it’s likely to feel like the following strategies are not working because learning will feel more effortful. You may also notice an initial drop in assessment performance because you’re not used to working in this way. But if you stick with it you’ll see that the knowledge you gain using these strategies compound, which means that their value increases exponentially as you keep using them.

Four of the most effective strategies for improving the consolidation and retrieval of information include:

  1. Retrieval practice: retrieving information without looking at the source.
  2. Distributed practice: retrieving information at varying intervals.
  3. Elaboration: explaining concepts in your own words.
  4. Interleaved practice: retrieving different, but related information.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is a process for testing yourself by trying to answer questions or explain concepts without looking back at the source (it is, therefore, also known as the testing effect). Your aim is not to repeat verbatim what is written in the text but to use your own words to answer the question. In addition, any inaccuracies in your response should be noted as something that needs more focused attention. Contrary to what is commonly believed, retrieval is not simply a review of the material that’s sitting in your memory. By trying to recall the relevant information in response to a question or prompt, you’re actually changing the synaptic connections that form the memory. The more intentionally you practice retrieving information (i.e. bringing it from long- into short-term memory) the more that the memory trace is strengthened. In this way the retrieval of information from long-term memory is not akin to “reading” something from storage; retrieving the memory changes it by making it stronger.

Practice: Read a paragraph of text once then look away from the source material and try to repeat what you’ve read in your own words. Don’t make the mistake of trying to memorise the order of the words in the text as this changes your focus on attention from trying to understand how the concepts fit together, to what order the words appeared in. When you’re satisfied that you can explain the concept without looking at the source, move onto the next paragraph.

Distributed practice

Distributed practice is also known as spaced repetition or distributed learning and is the practice of retrieving information from memory at varying intervals. If you practice something too soon it’s a waste of time and if you practice too late you’ll have forgotten the material. You need to practice retrieving information just at the point where you’re about to forget it. But this is a logistical challenge of note. Imagine all of the facts you need to know in a huge pile on the floor. Somewhere in that pile are the facts that you’re about to forget. Which ones are they? You could randomly allocate specific topics to cover at different intervals, although you’d essentially be guessing about what to cover at what points in time because you have no way of knowing what you’re about to forget.

This is where computer-assistance comes in. Anki is a free spaced repetition flashcard system that uses an algorithm to show you the things you want to remember at the point when the algorithm says you might be about to forget it. The algorithm obviously doesn’t know exactly what’s going on in your mind but it knows the mathematical model of how quickly you’re likely to forget something and gradually increases the period of time between testing that information again.

Distributed practice can be contrasted with massed practice, or what is commonly known as cramming (rereading lots of text over a short period of time). The problem with cramming is that it’s ineffective for remembering information over longer periods of time (see the forgetting curve above). It may well be true that you retain enough information to pass the test but if your goal is to remember the information over increasingly longer periods of time (hint: it should be), then cramming should be avoided.

Practice: Get into the daily habit of using a spaced repetition tool, like Anki, to review questions related to topics you care about. There’s an initial hurdle of adding information into the system, but over time your database of questions will grow. The more questions and topics you add to your spaced repetition system, the more valuable it becomes. Evidence suggests that 10-15 minutes of spaced repetition testing per day helps you to remember far more than whatever study method you currently use.

Elaboration

Elaboration is the practice of explaining a text in your own words or of expanding on a concept by linking it to other concepts, either from the same session or from previously learned material. During this kind of learning activity, students can be asked (or can ask themselves) to generate explanations for why certain knowledge claims are true.

Practice: When you reach the end of a paragraph of text, create a question along the lines of, “Why is this fact true in this condition [X] but not in some other condition [Y]?” There are many variations of this question but the idea is to create a relationship between variables that explains why certain knowledge claims are true. As you work through a text, keep creating and answering questions that require you to explain (or elaborate) why certain facts are true, and not others. When you complete a section, go back to the beginning and work through the questions again, as this is now integrating aspects of retrieval practice into your study.

Interleaved practice

Interleaved practice is when you mix different, but related, concepts into your retrieval practice. It’s one way of forcing you to reconcile principles, concepts, and procedures that you’ve previously learned, with new information. The process leverages the ability of the brain to identify patterns or connections between chunks of information. So instead of only focusing on concepts from one area of the curriculum, you might include others from somewhere else.

Practice: The next time you’re reviewing your work, choose 2-3 different areas of the same broad topic to include in your practice. These probably shouldn’t be completely different subjects but rather subtopics within a single module. You don’t need to explicitly look for specific relationships between these subtopics but rather spend short periods of time (maybe one “session” of about 30-45 minutes) working through each one.

And that’s it. As I said earlier, simple guidelines but difficult to implement. These four strategies will almost certainly help you to remember more information, as they have long histories of really robust evidence supporting their use.

You may be wondering, “Where is [insert your favourite study technique] in these strategies?”, which may include the following:

  • Summarisation
  • Highlighting
  • Keyword mnenomics
  • Imagery use for text learning
  • Rereading

The problem is that there is very little evidence demonstrating that any of the methods above play any meaningful role in helping you to remember information. In fact, they often lead to what is known as the illusion of knowledge or competence, which is when you start recognising passages as you re-read them, which increases your confidence that you know (or understand) the material. The approaches in the list above also don’t generalise very well so even if they happen to work for some students in some contexts, they should probably be avoided nonetheless because they won’t work for most students in most contexts. One final challenge is that these techniques usually feel easier to do, and because we tend to find the path of least resistance, we may be more inclined to use them rather than techniques that are more cognitively demanding. Together, this feeling of relative ease and the illusion of competence may cause us to fall back on learning techniques that are comfortable, even though we know that they’re ineffective.


Summary

  • Remembering facts is the first step towards understanding more complex material (but memorisation of facts is not the end goal).
  • The memorisation of discrete pieces of information is a skill that you can get better at. This has nothing to do with natural ability or intelligence. Everyone can improve their memory.
  • There are 3 main steps in forming a long-term memory: Encoding (“capturing” the information in short-term memory), Consolidation (moving the memory from short- to long-term memory), Retrieval (reinforcing the memory trace by accessing the information at varying intervals over increasingly longer periods).
  • There are many methods that students use to practice remembering, most of them ineffective or downright harmful (because they make us feel more confident than is warranted).
  • The four strategies that have consistently been shown to yield the best outcomes in terms of remembering more information over longer periods are: Retrieval practice (practising the recall of information from long-term storage, without looking at the source material), Distributed practice (practice retrieving information over increasingly longer intervals of time), Elaboration (creating explanations for why certain knowledge claims are true), Interleaved practice (working through related but different areas of content as part of your learning).
  • If it feels easy, you’re probably not learning. Getting better at retrieving information from memory requires a sustained commitment to practice, which is cognitively demanding.

References


If you found this module on Remembering useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter here. The newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

There are five other modules in the Learning to Learn programme that you may want to explore:

  1. How to create new habits.
  2. How to focus and avoid distraction.
  3. How to take effective notes.
  4. How to read.
  5. How to write.

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