Memorisation and Learning- Paul A Kirschner at SSATs conference

Memory and Learning

Don’t confuse access to information with knowledge

William Faulkner said in ‘Light in August’ that “ memory believes before knowing remembers”. In recent years cognitive psychologists have established that the mechanics of memory have a big impact on learning.   Professor Paul Kirschner, in a key note presentation  at  last weeks well attended   SSAT Annual conference,  described the difference between short term,  or working memory, and long term memory(LTM) and its impact on learning .

Short Term and Long Term Memory

The long-term memory can be defined as a huge,   virtually limitless repository of vocabulary, concepts and procedures.  Human intellect comes from this stored knowledge and not from long, complex chains of reasoning in working memory.  Everything we see, hear or think about, it seems,   is dependent upon our long term memory.

The human working  short term memory, on the other hand, is much more limited. It is the ‘space’ in which we think and process information immediately. The relationship between short term and long term memory and the cognitive processes that support learning are all  vital to learning. Indeed, long term memory is seen as the single dominant structure of human cognition.  Learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. And the human cognitive architecture is formed of both long-term and short-term memory “where the long-term incorporates a massive knowledge base that is central to all of our cognitively based activities”

Working memory can only hold, for a short time, a few items so   7+/- 2 items for less than a minute. When working memory fills its processing capacities,  it slows down. Kirschner demonstrated this with an exercise in memorisation in which the audience participated, memorising basic sequences of related numbers and letters. The exercise starkly demonstrated the constraints of short term memory.

When students are working on a task – be it reading, writing, solving a maths problem or throwing a ball – they are mainly relying on the representations of these experiences in their long-term memories. When we solve a new problem, we are not really working it out. We are remembering it. This is because the space in the working-memory is so small. And, It is easy to overload this short term memory. Its constrained ,unlike long term memory, which is virtually limitless.

The encouraging thing though is that  long-term memories  can be brought back to mind when they are needed/  The  point about this is  that if nothing has been changed in long-term memory, then nothing has been learned. If you know your times-tables, for instance, this knowledge can be employed to help in the solving of more complex problems without placing any extra stress on working memory. Therefore, the more developed our mental schemas – the vast repositories of concepts and procedures in our long-term memory – the easier it is to learn new information.

So what? How does this impact on what teachers do ? Well, teachers want their students to retain what they are being taught and apply it later on. They get frustrated that their students forget vital information so quickly.   So, teachers should ease the load on their students’ short term, working memories. Too much information leads to cognitive over-load.  So how do you get information to embed in your long term memory? In short,   the more students practice something, the more likely it will be that this stays in the  long term memory.  Broadly its called the Test Effect. Teachers   need to free  up short term memory  to ensure that more information gets s stored in long term memory.


So, teacher instruction must consider how this information is stored and organised in LTM so that it is  then accessible when and where it is needed. This is where schema theory comes in.  Knowledge is stored in LTM in schemata. Schemata is about categorising  information elements according to how they will be used , A schema can hold a huge amount of information, yet is processed as a single unit in working memory. Schemata can integrate information elements and production rules and become automated, thus requiring less storage and controlled processing. Skilled performance consists of building increasing numbers of increasingly complex schemas by combining elements consisting of lower level schemas into higher level schemas. . In summary, schema construction aids the storage and organisation of information in long-term memory and reduces working memory load so avoiding cognitive over-load. (If you’ve missed it , this is the new big idea in cognitive psychology.)

Multi- Tasking and Distractions

Well, at least we can  all multi-task  (especially women!). Well actually we can’t.  Or at least not  at all well.  Because our short term memory is so constrained, we are not good at multi- tasking, although we may think we are.  What we actually do is shift from one task to another. And we are particularly bad  at functioning in basic tasks if  we are in any way distracted while carrying out that task. Those who claim to  to multitask at scale    show an enormous range of  cognitive deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.

If ,for example, a car driver is  distracted by using his/her  mobile phone ,even hands free, Kirschner revealed an experiment that showed  drivers reaction times  and the distance it takes to stop a  car,   is  badly affected by mobile phone use.  (the data was pretty  shocking) Using a mobile phone was considerably worse, as it happens, than if  someone is impaired by alcohol.

Kirschner made it clear that the use of computers and mobiles during his presentation were distractions and should be switched off.  Much better to use pencil and notepad. Some teachers in the audience were inevitably caught out .The broader lesson for teachers though  is to reduce distractions,  and that includes technology,  for learners to a minimum because we cannot multi-task and our short term memory has significant constraints and is prone to overload.


The Testing Effect

The testing effect was referenced as means of embedding information and knowledge in long term memory (LTM). It is the finding that long-term memory is increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information through testing with proper feedback. The effect is also sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, practice testing, or test-enhanced learning. Testing has a powerful positive effect on future retention. If students are tested on material and successfully recall or recognize it, they will remember it better in future than if they had not been tested. . Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important —serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.

Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory, in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with stored in your long term memory .Those who think that you simply need access to the internet now and don’t need to learn and store facts are simply wrong. They clearly confuse information with knowledge, not uncommon among Edutechies.  Who can disagree with that?   Making knowledge stick, so you can apply it later on  matters to us all .Because that is what learning is really about. Memorisation and applying knowledge over time , is learning. And the more we know, the more we can think.

Memorisation and Rote Learning

Rote memorization actually encourages surface learning, rather than anything deeper   “Cognitively passive” study methods, are based on repetition and rehearsal, i.e., rote memorization.  While these techniques can make it easier (and faster) to recall information within a narrow window of time, when it comes to application, analysis, and other higher-order types of knowledge, they may be worse than useless because they consume valuable time that could/should be spent on deep learning approaches

There are a list of techniques that can help LTM which Paul Kirschner   briefly referenced in his presentation .There are quite a few .But here are just some:

Retrieval practice

Self-quiz frequently by recalling information from your memory. Every time you access a memory, you strengthen it. So, not only does self-quizzing help you identify your areas of weakness, it also helps you retain the information for later recall by strengthening the neural connections.

Elaborative rehearsal

Link new information to things you already know. Access to memories is greatly improved when the information being learned is meaningful. To aid in recall, study methods should involve deliberate creation of logical, intuitive, and even fanciful associations with existing knowledge. Make sense of new information and develop an organizational scheme/framework; information you understand rarely needs to be “memorized.”

 Generation effect

Retention and recall are improved when you actively participate in the creation of your own knowledge.  So, Create your own summaries, study guides, tables, flow charts, diagrams, etc.

Dual coding

Create both a visual and a verbal memory for the same information.

 Associate words with pictures

o Use your own words to describe a picture/figure/diagram

o Translate a written passage into a drawing or diagram

Distributed effort

Spread studying out over several days, rather than cramming. Say you’re going to spend 10 hours studying a particular topic, rather than spending one marathon 10-hour session, it is far more effective to spend that time as 10 one-hour sessions, or 5 2-hour sessions, or even 2 5-hour sessions, spread out over two or more days. This is why it is so very important to review everyday. Obviously, you cannot review everything everyday, but make sure you frequently review the things that are most challenging to you.

For more information on Paul A. Kirschners thinking and research

Urban Myths