Memory and learning on The Oregon Trail

Around 25 years ago I was a Year 7 student. I remember studying a story about the American Pioneers in music called ‘The Oregon Trail’. During this weekly hour-long lesson, we would read some sections of narrative and then learn a song that we would play and sing as a class. The story had half a dozen songs and what’s striking for me is that I can still recall most of these songs word-for-word. Some years later, I studied for my A-Level Maths and later still for my University finals- but I can recall very little content from either of these experiences. I’ve had no reason to recall or use these Oregon Trail songs and I worked long and hard (ish) for both my A-Levels and Finals- over an extended period. Why is it that the ‘Oregon Trail’ has stuck in my long-term memory and I’m able to recall it quite easily, whereas things I want (and try) to remember- I can’t? What are the implications of this for learning? Much quoted cognitive scientist Dan Willingham asks: ‘What makes something stick in the memory, and what is likely to slip away? How can the memory system know what it’ll need to remember later?’

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Oregon pioneers some years earlier

In an attempt to understand this, I looked at The Science of How We learn (Hattie and Yates, 2014) who categorize the type of knowledge that I have about the Oregon Trail as declarative knowledge and specifically as a string. Whilst there isn’t a defined phenomenon known as rote learning (P.127), the string (the song in this case) is considered as a serial ordering or association. The sequence is learnt through deliberate focus and repetition with a clear mind- actively rehearsed in working memory. Being slightly scared of my firebrand Irish Music teacher, and having to both perform this string as a class and individually, may have provided me with the motivation to learn. I distinguish this from simple memorisation as I had to recall and apply the content to the questions in the accompanying book and in class discusion. This distributed practice throughout the lesson and then in each subsequent week would have helped as would the multi-media input and the string perhaps becoming memorable as I had to do something with it. Hattie and Yates suggest that a combination of these things may have shifted this string to my long term memory.

Similarly, Willingham suggests that you can’t remember things you haven’t paid sustained attention to in your working memory. Another issue he identifies is things not making it through into long-term memory – they never stick. Clearly, you can’t remember things that no longer reside in long-term memory – they can fade through disuse. Finally, he notes that the transfer process by which things are drawn from long-term memory is prone to failure: transfer is difficult, because it’s difficult to apply abstractions to new situations. In short, Willingham suggests that we don’t remember things because of insufficient focus, time or attention spent on them, and because of insufficient practice, usage, revisiting, consolidation or application. As I wasn’t consciously trying to deeply learn the Oregon Trail, is it the case that more information is transferred into the brain than the conscious mind actually knows about? Can we learn without actually knowing that we are learning? If so, then this would be great news for many students that I teach!

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Memory strings

Considering then my own practice and the knowledge I would like my students to learn, I will typically provide some kind of input (teaching) to introduce a new item of knowledge (an investment in knowledge transmission to quote Teach Like a Champion). I will employ different strategies to do this and the student output (or performance) is the (poor?) proxy I usually use to infer whether an item has been learned (by which I mean retained, open to recall and transferable). The space between, that is the processing or ‘thinking’ is the messy complexity of the mind. No one knows what goes on in there, least of all me – the workings of our brains are as mysterious to us as they are to anyone else.

If this learning (and learning in general) is considered as ‘in the head’ then it could be argued that one of the aims of the teacher should be to make this learning visible so that it can be checked and developed. I think for this reason that traditional lesson observations won’t tell an observer much about learning as it’s just not visible. To have learnt something it should be retained or remembered- a student should still know what has been learnt next week, next month or next year. Students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new example, a new subject or a new place- showing that it’s flexible and has been perhaps incorporated into their schema. If this is right – that the main reason pupils find it so hard to remember subject content is that curricula and assessment aren’t designed with memory in mind. With shiny new and content heavy GCSE courses arriving, I think we need to pay much more attention to the theories of memory and learning from cognatitive science. So, how do I work with my students on both their understanding and their memory, so that they can recall the information for their exciting high-stakes tests?

Dan Willingham wrote about supporting students with their memory in this article, specifically on three elements of memory that he thinks all students should know about. He deals first with how things can be committed to memory, then how students can avoid forgetting the things committed to memory and finally how a student can be certain that the things committed to memory are the things that they want to know.

In terms of committing to memory, Willingham gives the short answer as ‘you remember the part that you thought about’. Wanting to remember something doesn’t seem to have much bearing on whether or not you will actually remember it. He asserts that ‘memory is the residue of thought’, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later- but not every fleeting thought—only those matters to which you really devote some attention. I must have really thought about The Oregon Trail! It is then important for students to know (be told) what they’re going to need (or want) to remember later, because that dictates how they should think about the material. Most of the time, teachers want students to know what things mean. Thus, the advice offered to students should center on ways to help them think about meaning and avoid study methods that do not encourage them to think about meaning. Asking “why?” after reading sections of a textbook chapter can help as can asking students to write out an outline of a textbook chapter or of their notes from a unit. Then ask them to try to write a different outline- is there another way to organize the material? Another strategy he suggests is to:

… have students search for and write out the main ideas of a textbook chapter after they have read it and identify how the author elaborates on these points. Perhaps produce a hierarchical diagram with the main chapter ideas at the top of the diagram, and branching down to subordinate ideas that support the main ideas. The point of this exercise is to get students thinking about what the main ideas of the chapter actually are, and to think about how the author supports those ideas. It is a broader-scale version of Pressley’s strategy of getting students to ask “why?”

An interesting insight Willingham identifies is some study strategies that he beleives will not work. If you buy into the idea that memory is the residue of thought, then copying notes, marking them with a highlighter or simply reading over the textbook doesn’t guarantee that the student will think about what the material means. Even worse, viewing the material several times leads to the illusion that they know it because it seems increasingly familiar- viewing  material does not give it much sticking power in memory. Willingham gives a table of memorisation techniques, most of which will be familiar to teachers but not perhaps used actively and with purpose.

In terms of forgetting things, more important than time or disuse is the quality of the cues to get to the memory. Cues are bits of information that are the starting point for retrieving a memory. The good news is that the right cue can bring back a memory that was apparently lost. A second principle is that memories are inaccessible mostly due to missing or ambiguous cues. Thus, to minimize forgetting, it is important to focus on ways to ensure that we have cues and that they are distinctive. A strategy here is to distribute studying, that is to study early and often. The final strategy Willingham recommends is to avoid forgetting by overlearning. Some forgetting happens following studying, so study until they know the material and then keep studying. In terms of meaning, we can sum this up by saying that people tend to think their learning is more complete than it really is. Thus, to help students study effectively, they shouldn’t use an internal feeling to gauge whether they have studied enough. Instead, testing themselves, using the same type of test to be taken, can help.

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