Why Learners May or May Not Remember What They've Learned (page 4)
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.
Remembering depends on the context
When I hear certain “oldies” songs (songs by the Beatles, Supremes, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, etc.), I immediately recall my college years, when those songs were played regularly at parties, in my dormitory, and on the beach. The songs send me down that Memory Lane of associations that leads me to my stored versions of the people, places, events, and ideas that were so important to me in college. You too may find that certain songs, smells, pictures, or words stir up memories of days gone by. Things in the environment that remind people of something they’ve learned in the past—those things that facilitate retrieval—are retrieval cues.
Retrieval cues clearly help learners recall what they’ve previously learned.
Whether people remember something they’ve learned when they need it later depends on whether something in their environment sends them down the appropriate pathway in long-term memory. In some cases the retrieval cue might be something inherent in the task to be done. For example, if I ask you to solve the problem 13 + 24 = ?, the plus sign (+) tells you that you need to add, and so you retrieve what you know about addition. The presence or absence of such retrieval cues plays a critical role in people’s ability to apply, or transfer, what they’ve learned to new situations.
How easily something is recalled and used depends on how often it has been recalled and used in the past
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but as we’ve seen, it does make knowledge more durable and automatic. Practice also makes knowledge easier to “find” when it’s needed. When we use information and skills frequently, we essentially “pave” the pathways we must travel to find them, in some cases creating superhighways.
Knowledge that has been learned to automaticity has another advantage as well. Remember, working memory has a limited capacity: The active, “thinking” part of the human memory system can do only so much at a time. When much of its capacity must be used for recalling single facts or carrying out simple procedures, little room is left for addressing more complex situations or tasks. One key reason for learning some facts and procedures to automaticity, then, is to free up working memory capacity for tackling complex tasks and problems that require those facts and procedures. For example, fourth graders faced with the multiplication problem (87 x 59) can solve it more easily if they can quickly retrieve such basic facts as 9 x 8 = 72 and 5 x 7 = 35.
Recall often involves reconstruction
Have you ever remembered an event very differently than a friend did, even though the two of you had participated actively and equally in the event? Were you and your friend both certain of the accuracy of your own memories and therefore convinced that the other person remembered the situation incorrectly? Like storage, retrieval has a constructive side, which can explain your differing recollections.
Retrieving something from long-term memory isn’t necessarily an all-or-none phenomenon. Sometimes people retrieve only certain parts of something they’ve previously learned. In such situations they may construct their “memory” of an event by combining the tidbits they can recall with their general knowledge and assumptions about the world.
When people fill in gaps in what they’ve retrieved based on what seems “logical,” they often make mistakes—a phenomenon known as reconstruction error. In the opening case study, Rita’s version of what she learned in history is a prime example. Rita retrieved certain facts from her history lessons (e.g., the British wanted furs; some of them eventually settled in the Upper Peninsula) and constructed what was, to her, a reasonable scenario.
Long-term memory isn’t necessarily forever
People certainly don’t need to remember everything. For example, you probably have no reason to remember the phone number of a florist you called yesterday, the plot of last week’s rerun of Friends, or the due date of an assignment you turned in last semester. Much of the information you encounter is, like junk mail, not worth keeping. Forgetting enables you to get rid of needless clutter.
Unfortunately, people sometimes forget important things as well as inconsequential ones. Some instances of forgetting may reflect retrieval failure: A person simply isn’t looking in the right “place” in long-term memory. Perhaps the forgetful person hasn’t learned the information in a meaningful way, or perhaps the person doesn’t have a good retrieval cue. But other instances of forgetting may be the result of decay: Knowledge stored in long-term memory may gradually weaken over time and perhaps disappear altogether, especially if it isn’t used very often. To some degree, then, the expression “Use it or lose it” may apply to human memory.
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