Why teachers need to understand how memory works

No matter how engaging a teacher, if they are not able to make the information they teach enter the long-term memories of their students, those students will end up having learnt very little.

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Using the memory model above, we can see that depending on how the information is processed by students in their short-term memory, it may or may not be moved into long-term memory for storage and later use. How is the selection made for which information is processed? Even if the students in are taking notes and paying attention in class, thus processing information in their short-term memories, this still does not guarantee that they will have retained much, if anything, by the end of the lesson. In other words, that information won’t necessarily enter their long-term memory.

Instead, how much is retained and learnt will mostly depend on how far a student was able to meaningfully link the new information in their short-term memory to what they already knew (what was in their long-term memory). This linking process is called active learning. It is this dialogue between working memory and long-term memory that will make and store memories of this new learning. Thus, if a student mostly listens and/or watches in a learning environment, without being given the chance to actively process this new information, it is unlikely to be stored in the form of new and usable memories, no matter the student’s level of interest, because most of their thinking and processing will take place solely in short-term memory, which is soon lost. This is, unfortunately, too often what ends up happening in school, when students are neither encouraged nor required to actively process what they are meant to be learning.

Indeed, it is precisely because long-term memory is such a complex component of our memory system that, as educators, it is critically important to understand the basics of its functioning.

No matter how engaging a teacher or how willing the students, without integrating concepts of active learning into teaching practices, it is unlikely students will be able to apply essential concepts and skills anywhere beyond the classroom.

In subsequent articles, we’ll have a look at some teaching and studying practices teachers can apply to their classes to improve students’ retention of information, as well as other aspects of the classroom that can affect active learning.

Key terms used:

  • Active learning: Creating an active dialogue between working memory and long-term memory; in other words, “thinking to learn”.
  • Long-term memory: The part of the memory system where processed information is stored, managed, and retrieved for later use.
  • Short-term memory: Part of the memory system where limited bits or simple chunks of information that have been attended to are held for a brief amount of time (5–20 seconds) for processing then lost.
  • Working memory: is used when holding information in your short-term memory and then manipulating it in some way.

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Content drawn from “_The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know_”, EdX: https://www.edx.org

Gauthier Lebbe

Gauthier Lebbe

Inbound Marketing Manager @ Wooclap, interested in and excited about applying EdTech to the educational needs of today’s students