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

Welcome back! So far in this mini-series of posts, we have looked at the human memory in terms of how it acquires and retains new information. We initially took a look at sensory memory, followed by short-term (or “working”) memory, so today we get to look at – you guessed it! – long-term memory.

Time for a metaphor!

A common analogy to use when describing our long-term memory is a closet (or wardrobe, for my fellow Brits).

When we teach or learn, our goal is to store information in long-term memory for easy retrieval. Information is best retained through multiple associations, which act as shelves in our mental closet. These associations can be intentional or unintentional, created through context, personal experiences, or senses.

The more diverse and numerous these mental shelves, the easier it is to remember information. For instance, remembering a zip code may be challenging if it’s on a single, weak shelf, while a significant memory, like a job offer, can be stored on multiple sturdy shelves for better recall.

Poorly constructed shelves, overcrowded with information, hinder retrieval accuracy. Context matters too; information learned in a particular environment is best retrieved in a similar setting.

Unintentional associations can also play a significant role in memory. For instance, a smell may forever link a place or concept in your mind.

The importance of context

What the above means is that we want to create as much context as possible so that the information has the best chance of securing a firm place in our long-term mental storage.

Furthermore, the environment in which you study becomes linked to what you learn, and it’s ideal to study in a setting similar to where you’ll use the information. This holds true for job-related knowledge as well; the farther the learning environment is from the context of use, the less effective the memory recall.

Classrooms often differ drastically from real-world application settings, which can be problematic. In-context learning, like flight simulators or teaching hospitals, provides a richer learning experience. For instance, drivers’ education includes actual road time because it’s essential for safe driving.

However, out-of-context training is sometimes unavoidable due to practical constraints like space limitations. In such cases, efforts should be made to enhance context, such as hands-on experience with relevant equipment. Often, traditional classroom settings lack context due to habit or unawareness.

Don’t leave emotional context behind

One of the issues that was raised by international students taking the IELTS test preparation course that I managed was that the real examiners for the speaking tests were much grumpier and not nearly as chatty as our teachers had been while they were conducting mock tests.

Although it seemed a little strange to have to tell our teachers not to be so friendly to students during the practice examinations, it was necessary because students were being thrown off by the abrupt shift in atmosphere on test day!

Often, we possess the knowledge and protocols required, yet struggle to apply them in unfamiliar emotional situations. This gap between knowing and doing is a common cause of learning failures. The disparity between the context of learning and the context of retrieval plays a crucial role in this.

Many times, the emotional context of using what we’ve learned differs greatly from the context in which we learned it. Retrieving information in stressful or emotionally charged situations can be challenging because heightened emotions tend to trigger automatic responses, overshadowing our intellectual knowledge. This transition from a calm to a high-stress emotional context can hinder the application of learned information.

Tips for teachers and course designers

Creating appropriate contexts for learning is essential if we want the knowledge to stick around, and here are a few ways we can best achieve this:

  1. Role-playing: Engage in role-playing exercises, even if they are not real situations. Role-playing, especially with an effective partner, can simulate emotional contexts and help you become more comfortable with the necessary words and actions. This practice can make it easier to recall information in real-life scenarios.
  2. Introduce pressure: While the pressure may not be identical, introducing elements of similar pressure can replicate the emotional context. For example, setting tight time limits for responses can create a sense of urgency akin to other types of pressure. However, it’s crucial to strike a balance, as excessive pressure and stress can impede learning. For high-stress environments like emergencies, initial practice in a lower-stress setting may be necessary.
  3. Invest in quality storytelling and performance: When dealing with critical material, consider using skilled actors or voice actors to establish a strong emotional setup. High-quality storytelling and performance can enhance the emotional context and improve the effectiveness of the learning experience.
  4. Create an appropriate environment: If possible, try and simulate the conditions under which the learning objectives are to be performed in the real world as closely as possible.

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