Memory and the Science of Learning
Memory – the science of learning
In recent years, there has been lots of research around the science of learning and how we learn and retain information.
- We have a certain amount of attention to pay and this can be limited and can dramatically vary depending on the individual or the environment. In the diagram above, ‘attention’ means we acknowledge new information and this is then transferred into our working memory.
- Our working memory is where you do your thinking and where you take in new information. It is finite and we can only absorb a limited amount of information at a given time otherwise it gets crowded (research suggests we can hold 5 things in our working memory at one time). This may be up to 30 seconds. As an example, if you write down a ‘long number’ and try and remember it every 30 seconds, you will be surprised how difficult this is to do!
- Information is processed into our long-term memory through ‘learning’. This long-term memory is effectively unlimited, and we can retrieve information from here back into our working memory as needed in a given moment. When we remember something, it comes from here. As an example, this might be your phone number or address. We don’t walk around thinking about those two things every second of the day but it is in our long-term memory ready to be used and retrieved when needed. However, if we don’t use the information it fades (is forgotten). Learning is therefore a change in your long-term memory. Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Therefore, revision activities must require you to think hard.
- Information in our long-term memory is interconnected and linked with prior knowledge. Anything that is not connected or not successfully stored well enough in our long-term memory is forgotten and this is completely natural.
- If students undertake enough retrieval practice, generating the information in our long-term memory, it increases a level of fluency within the subject. Practice makes perfect!
Forgetting is completely natural. Research has shown that over time you forget a majority of what you’ve learnt and it happens immediately. The following diagram outlines this process and is called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (1885).
Ebbinghaus proposed that humans start losing ‘memory of knowledge’ over time unless the knowledge is consciously reviewed time and time again. He conducted a series of tests on himself which included the memorization of a meaningless set of words. He tested himself consistently across a period of time to see if he could retain the information. He found that:
- Memory retention is 100% at the time of learning any particular piece of information (in the moment). However, this drops to 60% after three days.
- A range of factors affect the rate of forgetting including motivation, the meaningful nature of the information, the strategies for revision and also psychological factors (sleep for example).
- If each day, repetition of learning occurs and students take time to repeat information then the effects of forgetting are decreased. According to research, information should be repeated within the first 24 hours of learning to reduce the rate of memory loss.
Practice and retrieval help to break this ‘forgetting curve’ as it strengthens the long-term memory and stops information from fading.
In summary, what do we know about memory?
- Consistent practice and revisiting previous material strengthen memory and boosts learning.
- Our working memory is finite and limited and so overloading this or cramming for revision doesn’t work.
- Information, if not revisited, is ‘lost’ from our memory.