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The Impact of Learning on Memory

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1834

The more closely you replicate the environment and conditions of the moment new learning occurred, the easier remembering it will be.

Folks:

 

The posting below looks at a number of techniques for remembering long-term what you are studying today.  It is from Chapter 6: Memory in the book, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain. Second Edition, by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. https://sty.presswarehouse.com/books/features.aspx

Copyright © 2019 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

 

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Facing Resistance to Daily Writing

 

 

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

 

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The Impact of Learning on Memory

 

Another important factor relating to our recall of new learning is recognizing that the physical environment in which we learn something is also a cue to recalling it at a later time. Learning and memory researchers call this context-dependent memory. The more closely you replicate the environment and conditions of the moment new learning occurred, the easier remembering it will be (Grant et al., 1998). A great place to study for a test is in the room where the test will be given. That is often very difficult, so a good alternative is to study a given subject in the same place each time you study. This might be the same place within the library, the same place on campus, or even the same place in your home. Being in that physical place can actually help you to recall the information you learned in that place.

 

Remembering What We Think Is Important

 

Your brain will make memories of the information it recognizes as important. Sometimes your brain has to determine what is important. Think about what is likely to be important in your life. Things that we do and say over and over must be important or we wouldn’t waste time and energy repeating them. Information needed for survival—for example, asking your loved one, “Did you take your medication today?”—is important, as is information about friends and family. Material processed when you are excited also tends to be judged important by the brain. After all, if that information was exciting, it must be important to you. This is why an individual will remember the winning shot in a championship basketball game years later.

            

Given this information, think about the implications of telling yourself that material you are reading for class is boring or not important. If you convince your brain something is not important, while trying to learn or remember the material, you are much less likely to remember or learn the material. After all, thinking about this from the brain’s perspective, why use valuable resources to remember something that is not important?

            

You will also remember what you learn or process just before going to sleep, for two reasons. First, the material is fresh in your mind and other information did not displace or interfere with the material before you drifted off to sleep. In a 2012 study, Jessica Payne and her colleagues found that studying material just before going to sleep created stronger memories for the newly learned information (Payne et al., 2012) Second, think about how often through life you completed a task before going to bed because it was something important. You lock the doors, make sure your pet is inside, set a to-do list for the next day, and say good night to family members. Many individuals train their brains to recognize that things done just before sleep are important. Provided that you are not totally exhausted (or intoxicated), 20 minutes of review right before bed is a great time to go over important information one last time.

 

Taking Classes Back-to-Back and Memory

 

Sleep is important for consolidation, but it is not the only time the brain is strengthening connection to information. Researchers Tambini, Ketz, and Davachi (2010) of New York University’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science discovered that the parts of the brain that are active during new learning continue to be active up to an hour following the end of that learning. These results demonstrate the importance of postexperience rest (resting after new learning) in creating memories for recent experiences. The brain needs additional time to process the new learning, make important connections, and strengthen the cues to the information just learned. Thus, it is helpful to relax after learning, rather than learn additional information right away. Research has shown that recall of new information was improved in people who were given a break after learning (Schlichting & Preston, 2014).

 

Overlearning and Recall

 

As noted in the introduction to this chapter, it is not always enough to learn. Continuing to study and to learn something after you already know it is called overlearning. Overlearning is important for information that will need to be recalled in times of stress or for information that may be needed a long time in the future. A study by Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, and colleagues (Shibata et al., 2017) shows that overlearning prevents new learning or other distractions from interfering with the brain’s ability to recall the overlearned information. Overlearning really helps cement the learning into memory. 

            

There is a downside to overlearning. Overlearning may work so well and quickly that for a time, overlearning one task makes it more difficult to learn a second task—as if the brain becomes locked down for the sake of preserving mastery of the first task. This lock-down lasts only a few hours. The underlying mechanism, researchers discovered, appears to be a temporary shift in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred. “These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-learning unstable [learning state] to a hyper-stabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning” (Shibata et al., 2017).

 

The study shows that overlearning can be a great way to ensure that your brain holds on to the information you need to know and recall. It also shows that if you choose to use overlearning as a study tool you need to leave a few hours as a break between the overlearning activity and trying to learn some new material.

 

Cramming, Learning, and Distributed Practice

 

Dozens of studies show it is possible to cram for an exam and do well on that exam (Wheeler, Ewers, & Buonanno, 2003). Studying intensely for an extended period can help the brain to remember a lot of information for a short period. The key part of this statement is “a short period”—typically 18 to 36 hours. Unfortunately, cramming requires a great deal of effort but provides no long-term learning benefits. Research about cramming shows that as little as a day or two following a cram session, you will no longer remember a great deal of the information you studied. Within a week, you will likely have forgotten 75% or more of the material you studied (Krishnan, 2013). You quickly forget the information because your brain did not make any long-term memories for it. For information to become a part of your long-term memory, it has to be practiced many times over an extended period. Practicing over extended periods of time is called distributed practice. Cramming fails to produce long-term learning because the time frame for studying is too short to build the kind of memory that will last.

            

The practice of cramming also signals to the brain that the information being studied is not important. After you take an exam you’ve crammed for, you usually have an exhausted, “I am glad that is over” feeling. This feeling tells the brain that the information is no longer needed and can be purged as you sleep. Much of the experiences you have during the day are purged when you sleep, and your brain is very efficient at getting rid of this useless information—things like what you had for lunch, the color of a car that pulled up next to you at the light, or where you parked when you went to the library. Pay attention for just a few minutes later today to how many things you encounter that your brain will purge by the next day. The challenge, again, is to not send the message to your brain that the material you crammed and “dumped” on the test should be part of the purge. Of course, cramming also typically leads to fatigue, and we have already discussed the difficulty of learning when tired. Taken altogether, many factors make cramming a short-term solution without any real positive long-term outcomes. As one group of researchers (Jang, Wixted, Pecher, Zeelenberg, & Huber, 2012) put it, “If learning is your goal, cramming is an irrational act” (p. 973).

            

Following is a quick story from my own life (T. Doyle) to illustrate this point: When I was an undergraduate, I took 2 years of Spanish and earned an A in all courses. I also lived in a Spanish-speaking country for a year following college. Yet today I know only about 30 words of Spanish. Why? Because I crammed for all my Spanish exams, and when I lived abroad, I tried my best to find people who spoke English to hang out with. I never engaged in distributed practice with my Spanish, and for all my time, money, and cramming, I got 30 words. If your goal is to learn something that will be available for later use, cramming does not work.

 

Daily Review Is an Effective Form of Distributed Practice

 

A good example of distributed practice is daily review or recall of course information. As happened with the song lyrics, if you retrieve from your memory the material you are trying to learn each day, even if it’s for only a short period, your brain will make a pathway to that information that is easier and easier to access.

            

Learning and memory have two key components: the learned object itself and the retrieval cue to find the learned material. Think of it this way: There are many books in the library, and to find a specific book about a specific topic, you look up the call number and then go to where the book is shelved. If the book has been misshelved, the library doesn’t have it, or you don’t know how to look up the topic, then you can’t get to the book. Finding a book in a library is similar to using a retrieval cue to get at a specific memory. Researchers have found that both the memory itself (the book) and the retrieval cue (the call number) are needed for you to remember something.

            

The best way for you to strengthen both the memory and the cue is to review material on a regular basis over an extended period—a few weeks at least. To make good use of your study time, don’t just look over the material or read over the material passively. Instead, try to recall the material. The best form of recall to improve memories are actions that are overt. Saying the information aloud or writing the information down on a piece of paper has been shown to improve recall better than just saying it to yourself silently (Tauber et al., 2017). Each time a memory is recalled, both it and its cue are strengthened, and you can access the desired information in your brain faster. You learn songs by singing them over and over and through the same process of repetition you can learn just about any course material. 

            

Keep in mind that reading (inputting information) is very different from using information through a retrieval process. This is why researchers have been able to show that simply reading course material multiple times is much less effective in building a strong memory process (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Mitchell, & Willingham, 2013).

 

References

 

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Mitchell, J. N., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Retrieved from www.indiana.edu/~pcl/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovinglearning.pdf

 

Grant, H., Bredahl, H., Clay, J., Ferrie, J., Groves, J., McDormand, T., & Dark, V. (1998). Context-dependent memory for meaningful material: Information for students. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 617-623.

 

Jang, Y., Wixted, T., Pecher, D., Zeelenberg, R., & Huber, D. (2012). Decomposing the interaction between retention interval and study/test practice. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(5), 962-997.

 

Krishnan, K. (2013). Exam cramming is not learning. Today. Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/exam-cramming-not-learning

 

Payne, J. D., Tucker, M. A., Ellenbogen, J. M., Wamsley, E.J., Walker, M. P., Schacter, D. L., & Stickgold, R. (2012). Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: The benefit of sleep, the cost of wake. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e33079.

 

Schlichting, M., & Preston, A. (2014). Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content [Abstract]. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/44/15845.abstract

 

Shibata, K., Sasaki, Y., Bang, J., Walsh, E., Machizawa, M., Tamaki, M., … Watanabe, T. (2017). Overlearning hyperstabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant. Nature Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-475.

 

Tambini, A., Ketz, N., & Davachi, L. (2010). Enhanced brain correlations during rest are related to memory for recent experiences. Neuron, 65(2), 280-290.

 

Tauber, S., Witherby, A., Dunlosky, J., Rawsom, K., Putnam, A., & Roediger, H. (2017). Does covert retrieval benefit learning of key-term definitions? Journal of Applied Research on Memory and Cognition. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211368116301292

 

Wheeler, M. A., Ewers, M., & Buonanno, J. F. (2003). Different rates of forgetting following study versus test trials. Memory, 11, 571-580