Why Learners May or May Not Remember What They've Learned
Retrieving information from long-term memory appears to involve following a pathway of associations. Almost literally, it’s a process of going down Memory Lane. One idea reminds you of another idea—that is, one idea activates another—the second idea reminds you of a third idea, and so on, in a manner similar to what happened when you followed a train of thought from the word horse earlier in the chapter. If the pathway of associations eventually leads you to what you’re trying to remember, you do indeed remember it. If the path takes you in other directions, you’re out of luck.
How easily and accurately people remember what they’ve previously learned can be described using the following general principles.
How easily something is recalled depends on how it was initially learned
People are more likely to remember something they’ve previously learned if, in the process of storing it, they connected it with something else in long-term memory. Ideally, the “new” and the “old” have a logical relationship. To illustrate this idea, let’s return once again to all that mail that arrives in your mailbox. Imagine that, on average, you receive five important items—things you really want to save—every day. At six postal deliveries a week and 52 weeks a year, minus a dozen or so holidays, you save about 1,500 pieces of mail each year. If you save this much mail over the course of 15 years, you eventually have more than 22,000 important things stashed somewhere in your home.
One day you hear that stock in a clothing company (Mod Bod Jeans, Inc.) has tripled in value. You remember that your wealthy Uncle Fred sent you some Mod Bod stock certificates for your birthday several years ago, and you presumably decided they were important enough to save. But where in the world did you put them? How long will it take you to find them among all those important letters, bills, brochures, catalogs, advertisements, requests for donations, and sweepstakes announcements?
How easily you find the certificates and, in fact, whether you find them at all depend on how you have been storing your mail as you’ve accumulated it. If you’ve been storing it in a logical, organized fashion—for instance, by putting all paid bills on a closet shelf, all mail-order catalogs on the floor under your bedside table, and all items from relatives in a file cabinet (in alphabetical order by last name)—then you should be able to retrieve Uncle Fred’s gift fairly quickly. But if you simply tossed each day’s mail randomly around the house, you will be searching your home for a long, long time, possibly without ever finding a trace of that Mod Bod stock.
Like a home with 15 years’ worth of mail, long-term memory contains a great deal of information. And like finding the Mod Bod certificates, the ease with which information is retrieved from long-term memory depends somewhat on whether the information is stored in a logical “place”—that is, whether it is connected with related ideas. Through making those important connections with existing knowledge—that is, through meaningful learning—people know where to “look” for information when they need it. In contrast, learning something by rote is like throwing Uncle Fred’s gift randomly among thousands of pieces of unorganized mail: A person may never retrieve it again.
Learners are especially likely to retrieve information when they have many possible pathways to it—in other words, when they have associated the information with numerous other ideas in their existing knowledge. Making multiple connections is like using cross-references in your mail storage system. You may have filed the Mod Bod stock in the “items from relatives” file drawer, but you’ve also written the stock’s location on notes left in many other places—perhaps with your birth certificate (after all, you received the stock on your birthday), with your income tax receipts, and in your safe deposit box. By looking in any one of these logical places, you will discover where to find your valuable stock.
© ______ 2009, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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