The Mother of All Wisdom: Memory and Learning, Part I

(Pay close attention – you will be tested at the end!)

As old Aeschylus suggested, back in the 5th Century B.C.E., our memory is core to our ability to learn new things. Despite the fact that our understanding of how exactly our brains remember things is still incomplete, even in 2023, we know that acquiring new knowledge works by identifying new and important information and then storing it somewhere in the neural pathways of our brain.

At this juncture, it’s important to remember that the information stored in your brain is not static; it doesn’t just sit around gathering dust like that copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses on your bookshelf! Instead, when new information is introduced, it interacts with existing knowledge. Instead of being a simple bin into which new information is casually dumped, it’s more like a super-automated, constantly reorganizing filing cabinet.

Unlike a regular filing cabinet, where you store items into one of many fixed categories, your brain stores information in multiple categories simultaneously. For example, if you put blue socks knitted by your grandmother in the “socks” drawer, your brain also associates them with things that are wool, things that are blue, outfits that match those socks, items from Grandma, things that are starting to wear out, and so on. Your brain has several overlapping methods to keep track of information, allowing it to retrieve relevant knowledge from various angles.

However, amidst the constant influx of information, your brain can’t possibly attend to or remember everything. It’s bombarded with countless data points throughout the day, leading to a natural filtering process where only certain information sticks and becomes part of your long-term memory. Luckily for us, our brains are very adept at filtering new information into three main types:

  • Sensory Memory
  • Short-term Memory
  • Long-term Memory

Sensory Memory

This filter allows us to perceive information from our senses. Essentially, anything we sense, such as sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch, is temporarily stored in sensory memory.

However, most of these sensations pass through without being retained, unless there is something unusual or significant about them. Try it out right now: sit back and pay attention to all the noises around you. If you are indoors, you might hear the humming of an air conditioning or heating unit, the noise from appliances or computers. If you are outside, there will be environmental noises specific to your location. Anyone who has practiced mindfulness meditation will be quite familiar with this stream-of-consciousness experience.

An interesting thing to note is that unless someone or something draws your attention to one of these noises, you probably weren’t actively focusing on them, and thus, you weren’t encoding those noises into your memory. Sensory memory acts as a temporary holding space for information, but not everything we sense gets permanently stored; only what we actively attend to and find noteworthy is more likely to make its way into our memory for longer periods.

Obstacles for Sensory Memory

For learning designers, sensory memory typically isn’t a major concern, except for the phenomenon of habituation. Habituation occurs when we become so accustomed to a sensory stimulus that we no longer notice or respond to it. This adaptive process allows us to stop being bothered by the buzzing sound of a refrigerator after listening to it for a while.

However, habituation can be affected by the predictability of stimuli. If something is unpredictable, like the flickering of a fluorescent light or the bass thump from your neighbor’s stereo at 2:00 am, it can be harder to habituate to, and we may continue to notice and be bothered by it.

On the other hand, habituation can also occur to things we may not want people to tune out. For instance, many of us have learned to ignore banner ads at the top of webpages, a phenomenon known as “banner blindness” in web design. Eye-tracking studies confirm that people often don’t pay much attention to banner ads or may not look at them at all. The same can happen with resource and reference material provided for learners on websites and in e-learning courses.

Challenges for Instructional Designers

Consistency can be a valuable tool in facilitating learning, but it should be used judiciously to strike the right balance.

Moderate consistency can be helpful in creating familiarity and reducing cognitive load for learners. For instance, using the same format for each chapter in a technical manual allows learners to become accustomed to the structure, saving mental energy that can be directed towards understanding the content.

However, excessive consistency can lead to habituation, where learners start to ignore repetitive elements. To avoid this, it’s essential to introduce variations in teaching methods and information presentation. For example, in an e-learning program, providing the same type of feedback in the same location every time, especially if it’s generic like “Good Job!”, can cause learners to tune it out. Additionally, being overly predictable, as seen in “banner blindness,” can hinder engagement.

On the other hand, introducing annoying or meaningless variability can also be detrimental. Randomly placing feedback boxes on the screen might prevent habituation but can frustrate learners. Instead, meaningful variation should be applied, such as using different feedback formats tailored to specific content or incorporating diverse learning activities to maintain interest.

The best way to determine the appropriate level of consistency is through user testing. Observing how learners interact with materials, whether in print or electronic format, or conducting pilot tests of a course can provide valuable insights. If learners appear inattentive or consistently ignore certain resource materials, it signals a need for adjustments to prevent habituation and maintain engagement.


Let’s see how well your memory is working!

All in all, striking the right balance of consistency and variation in instructional design is crucial for optimizing learning experiences. Being mindful of learners’ responses and preferences helps create engaging and effective educational content.

Stay tuned for the next blog post, where I’ll be talking about Short-term Memory.

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