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How to use memory systems to deepen learning

The role of working memory

Working memory is an area where thoughts are temporarily held while you are using them. Oakley visualizes him as an octopus sitting in your prefrontal cortex, juggling a game of balls. Working memory can hold about four “balls” at a time before they start to fall. That’s why we can remember a couple of items that we need to pick up from the store, but if the list is much longer than that, we’ll have to write it down.

This is also why many students find it difficult to follow multi-step instructions. It’s not a lack of focus. Their working memory just does not have the capacity to “keep in mind” something like a five-step process – unless they have practiced those steps so many times that it has become a routine that they do. does not require active thinking. This is why qualified teachers spend so much time at the start of the year establishing classroom procedures and thinking routines. These practiced routines can free up working memory space for students to learn new materials.

Race car students often have “a very large working memory” which is more efficient at keeping material and moving it to long-term storage, Oakley explains. Student hikers may need more repetition and practice to keep the same material.

“I’ve been through the hiker experience,” says Oakley, a decorated engineering professor who tells her students about her struggles to learn math and science. “I don’t have a very good working memory, so in college I had to take notes like a stenographer and then stay up late to try to understand. And I would come to understand it so deeply that all the racing car learners would come and ask me “can you explain this?” It took me a long time to get something, but when I got it, oh, I got it on a very deep level.

Because many students don’t understand their working memory, they study inefficiently, she says. They reread their notes or look at a list of vocabulary words and think “I got it”. And they have it in their brains – while they have their notes in front of them. But working memory is short term. Student backpackers, in particular, need concrete strategies for moving material into long-term storage.

And that’s where the next two memory systems come in. As Oakley puts it, “Our brains learn through two main pathways: the declarative and the procedural. And if you throw one in, it’s like saying, ‘Okay, I want you to be a faster sprinter. Now jump on one leg.

Understand declarative and procedural memory systems

Declarative memory refers to facts and information that we can consciously recall “or state” – that we can remove from long-term storage when necessary to solve a problem, accomplish a task, or initiate a discussion. On the other hand, procedural memory implies knowing how to do something “by heart”. For example, once we master typing, lacing a shoe, preparing a favorite recipe, or commuting to work, it takes no more conscious thinking to engage in these activities. In fact, if powerful typists think about the placement of letters on the keyboard, it will slow down their typing.

Oakley notes that the declarative system is the “quick way to learn” and often the first way older students and adults acquire information. The procedural system comes more slowly and is engaged by practice, practice and practice again.

The two systems work hand in hand to achieve expertise. For example, declarative memory can help a pianist learn an unfamiliar piece of music by relying on his knowledge of notes, chords, tempo, and dynamics. But once they have practiced a song so much that they can play it without looking at the music, the song resides in procedural memory.

Young children learn largely through the procedural system, explains Oakley, which is why approaches such as Montessori proved so effective in the early years. Adult brains assimilate much of their new learning through the declarative system. The best kindergarten to grade 12 teachers rely on both systems to support student learning.

Putting it all together to support student learning

“I really advocate a balanced approach,” says Oakley. Whether a teacher leans more towards formal instruction or practical group activities, the key to success is “active learning” which activates both declarative and procedural learning pathways. Even small changes in instruction can make a big difference for students as they “learn to learn”.

Active learning is when “the student himself is grappling with the material,” says Oakley. “It really builds our procedural connections in long-term memory. While you can actively learn while watching the teacher, you can’t do it for very long.

Simple strategies for incorporating more active learning into a classroom period include:

  • Offer brain breaks: Pauses are crucial for the formation of long-term memory. When students mentally relax, even for a minute or two, it gives their brains time to consolidate new learning. Think of it as interval training for the brain, says Oakley.
  • Use the point recall technique: Take a break from teaching and help students see if they have moved material from work to long-term memory. Take a minute and have them write down important ideas from the class, a sketch to visually represent their learning, or key ideas from previous classes that relate to the topic under study. This recovery practice is especially important for students with working memory problems.
  • Teach students how to engage in active recall: Do you remember the student who looks at the vocabulary list and thinks they have memorized it? Teach students to regularly put away their notes or close their books and see what they remember. Have them teach a classmate a science technique, tell a pet story of photosynthesis, or create a study guide without looking at their notes, then go back to fill in the gaps. .
  • Get involved in Think-Pair-Share: Activities such as think-pair-share require students to engage individually, with a partner, and then with the class. This is because they interact with information three times in a row, helping to strengthen their neural pathways.
  • Practice interlacing: Interlacing involves mixing up practical problems instead of working on almost identical activities over and over again. This relies on active recall practice and cognitive flexibility, as students must consciously decide what information or procedure to apply to a given problem. And practice builds procedural memory.

Celebrate “desirable hardships”

Learning something new is often a struggle as the brain is still developing pathways to store concepts. This is why students are more likely to drop out in the early stages of a new business. But what if we encouraged them to make things a little harder – on purpose! – as a way to start their own learning?

“The best way to progress quickly is to make your life difficult,” says Oakley, building on the concept of “Desirable difficulties“Invented by cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork. “Don’t just read a book or read a section of a book, see if you can pick up those key ideas from what you’ve just read. It’s harder.


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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson