What is Memory?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, memory is "the power of the mind to remember things." Put this way, memory seems to be occupied with something fairly ... "simple." That said, did you know that there are potentially 256 types of memory? At least, that's what the psychologist Elden Tulving put forth as a hypothesis, based on his research endeavours on memory. This is not to say that we are going to spend all the virtual ink at hand explaining all possible types and variations of memory, but to point out the following:
- Different types of memory follow different (albeit sometimes similar) processes
- As educators, we need to understand those processes in order to construct our learning experiences, such that we maximize the learning gains for our learners
Why is it important to develop and maintain your memory?
Research suggests that memory training can:
- Help you to be more focused and attentive to everyday tasks.
- Have a positive effect on your mood and emotional state
- Offset and counterbalance age-related cognitive decline
- Reshape the brain networks, introducing new patterns of brain activity that correspond to the training
The types of memory you need to understand
There are various memory models proposed. The one more frequently used to describe the basic structure and function of memory is the stage model. Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin first suggested this model in 1968, and it divides memory into three stages:
- Sensory memory,
- Short-term memory
- Long-term memory.
Sensory memory is the first level of memory. Sensory information from the environment is captured and preserved for a short time, usually a little more than half a second for visual information and 3 or 4 seconds for auditory information. We actually pay attention only to a fragment of this sensory information, allowing some of it to progress to the next stage: short-term memory.
Short-term memory, also known as active memory, represents the sensory memories that we pay attention to. It is the information that we are actively aware of or thinking about in the present moment. Most of the information in our short-term memory is kept for approximately 20 to 30 seconds. Most of those memories fade away quickly, however, the ones that we decide to pay more attention to can continue to the next stage: long-term memory.
Long-term memory refers to the storing and preservation of information long-term. For the most part, this information is preserved outside of our consciousness and can be retrieved
into our working memory to be used when required. Normally, some of this information is easier to access, while others may require a bit more to recall.
The terms "short-term memory" and "working memory" are sometimes used interchangeably. However, some researchers distinguish the two, describing short-term memory as the stage at which information is, while working memory being the processes related to utilizing, organizing and altering information present in our short-term storage. Working memory supports the processing of thoughts, articulating ideas and sequencing actions. Working memory is not only related to new incoming information but also long-term memories that can be recalled and mixed up with new memories to construct new meaning and make further decisions
Forgetting is a pretty common event. But why do we forget? There are four basic explanations:
- Failure to store - when we don’t pay enough attention to information or render it unnecessary
- Interference - when similar memories compete, causing some to be more difficult to remember or even forgotten entirely.
- Motivated forgetting - when we actively want to forget something, either consciously or unconsciously
- Retrieval failure - where the information is in long term memory, but cannot be accessed i.e. cannot be accessed because the retrieval cues are not present.
One could argue that it is through our imagination that certain types of memory are preserved. But what is imagination? According to the author of the book “The Element” Sir Ken Robinson, imagination is the “act of bringing things into consciousness that aren’t here.” In a very broad way, memories fit that same description as well. That said, there’s an important distinction to be made between imagination and another element that we are to explore in greater length later on namely - creativity. So, what is the difference between imagination and creativity? According to the multi-disciplinary design leader Tanner Christensen “Imagination allows us to think of things that aren’t real or around us at any given time, creativity allows us to do something meaningful with our imaginations.” In other words, in the context of memory, imagination is a tool that we can use to craft our memories in a way that is meaningful for us. And that very process we can label as “creative.”
Keys to Better Memory
The depth and attention with which we process information affects directly our ability to recall it. Here are some techniques that allow us to memorize better.
We might think of rehearsal as just repeating material over and over again until it finally sticks or we don’t need it anymore, like repeating the digits of a phone number until we dial it. However, this is only one type of rehearsal, and it’s known as maintenance rehearsal (commonly known as “rote memorisation”).
In contrast, elaborative rehearsal is related to connecting newfound information you're learning with information you already know.
So, by working on understanding how new and known ideas are linked or by building creative associations between pieces your brain is processing the information in greater depth.
Instead of simply reading or copying information from your source, give yourself the opportunity to explain it in your own words. This will help you gain greater insight into what you actually understand and what else may require more attention.
If you want to take this a step further, think of explaining what you are learning to:
- Someone older than you
- Someone younger than you
- Someone your age who is not acquainted with knowledge in the topic
Come up with 3 to 8 questions related to each point that you are studying. Asking questions helps you better understand not only what answers the material can provide but also the answers that the material doesn’t provide.
Asking questions makes you actively think and engage with the material, instead of just passively perceiving it.
Plus, you can then use these questions to test your knowledge. This is extremely valuable because self-testing is cited as one of the most effective ways to remember new information.
In this case, by “analyse” we mean something very specific. Think about how you can compare, group, and contrast different pieces of information. This is best done, once you already have a basic grasp of the new concepts that you are studying. By performing such self-conducted analysis you are inviting your brain to spend even more time with the new information. In addition, the observations and new connections you create through your analysis will help to further facilitate pieces into your long-term memory.
Then, if you want to take this even a step further, you can put your observations into writing or put together a visual representation of them (like a presentation, a matrix, a mind map, or a table)
Mnemonic strategies can be very helpful in learning information in an efficient, well-ordered manner. The reason mnemonics work so well is because they combine a multitude of memory principles together. More elaborate systems like the loci method or a memory matrix require a bit of effort to set up at first but may be used indefinitely. The key to any quality mnemonic is developing consistency in its use.
Space out your learning
There are two major principles to remember here:
(1) don't expect to learn everything in one sitting;
(2) don’t expect to remember anything if you don’t revisit it. Based on research related to our biology, science suggests that every 90 to 120min we should take a 20min pause from learning. Then, in order to really consolidate what you are learning long-term, make sure to revisit it.
One straightforward way to do that is by following the Fibonacci sequence, where every number gets to represent the number of days you want to wait before revisiting a piece of information again (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc…)