Memory and memorisation get rather a bad rap in education. Memorisation frequently is associated with rote learning, students passively listening to lectures, and generally dull and uninspiring lessons. It further often is positioned as the bane of creativity, critical thinking, inquiry, and agentic behaviour. However, misconceptions about the role that memory plays in learning have the potential to be hugely damaging. How we learn affects what we learn, and memory forms a critical part of how we learn.
Memory is a person’s ability to retain information overtime. While a hugely complex process, it can be useful to think about memory in terms of its two core components – working memory and long-term memory. Our working memory processes all information – both new stimuli from our environment and existing knowledge that is being manipulated, added to or used to make a decision. Working memory is characterised by its limited capacity, as it is able only to store smallamounts of information for a very short time. In contrast, our long-term memory is where largeamounts of information are stored semi-permanently.
Typically, new information is only stored in our long-term memories if we can connect it to pre-existing knowledge in what are known as schemata or conceptual frameworks. Consequently, our pre-existing knowledge significantly influences our ability to learn new information. The more complex and interconnected our schemata are, the easier it is to make sense of, organise and use new information. Our ability to understand new information and new contexts, therefore, is intimately connected with our memory.
Understanding how memory works directly impacts the place and role of knowledge in education. Because we encounter all new information, including the learning of new skills, in relation to what we already know, it is critical to uncover the background knowledge, beliefs, and experiences of students. If students have unequal background knowledge, their ability to learn and utilise new information is similarly unequal. Teachers also need to uncover any misconceptions students have about a topic, so that these can be addressed, and where necessarily replaced, so that students can fully grasp new concepts and information.
The limited capacity of working memory means that teachers need to carefully structure how new information or skills are approached. Breaking more complex information into chunks and building in opportunities for frequent recap and review of information helps to consolidate new knowledge in our long-term memory. This is particularly important for enabling students to engage in higher order thinking such as problem solving or critical thinking.
Students require a deep understanding of the subject matter with which they are engaging to engage effectively in higher order thinking. This includes an understanding of facts and ideas as well as how they are organised into a conceptual framework. Without this solid foundation, when asked to engage in a complex task requiring higher order thinking, too much pressure is put on students’ working memory.
The organisation of information into a conceptual framework also supports transfer, the ability to apply information to a new situation and to learn new information more quickly. Providing opportunities for students to practice using new information, initially guiding them through this process before moving to independent practice further supports students’ ability to transfer information. Incorporating metacognitive elements into this process, in which students take an active role in monitoring their learning and progress, also enhances the learning process.
Ensuring teaching is structured to support memory and learning transcends particular teaching philosophies. Instead, teachers should use knowledge of how people to learn to purposively choose the teaching strategies or techniques that are most appropriate for their particular goals. These learning principles can and should be incorporated into all classrooms, whether they tend towards a more ‘traditional’ style or are more akin to a ‘progressive’ style of education.
To ensure the success of all learners, it is essential that we move beyond the binary thinking that too often affects education and instead focus on understanding and incorporating the core principles of learning across all classrooms and schools.