Memory and Learning

Memory and Learning

What is memory? Are there different kinds of memory? How are memories formed? What types of information are difficult — or easy — for students to learn and remember, and why? How does emotion affect learning, thinking and memory? How about stress? Exercise? These questions and more are being studied by neuroscientists all around the world, and the findings have the potential to revolutionize the way we teach and learn.

After all, the brain is the organ of learning, and education is all about learning, so doesn’t it make sense to understand how the brain is designed for learning, and what happens in the brain when learning occurs?

Memory, to me, is just another way to think of learning. After all, what is memory, if not changes in our brains as a result of our experiences? Everything we learn is stored somewhere, somehow, in our brains. It only makes sense to understand this process if we want to be good educators and effective learners.

There are different types and sub-types of memory. The main ones are: Episodic Memory, Semantic Memory, Procedural Memory and Working Memory.

Understanding which type of memory needs to be formed or used for different subjects or tasks can give teachers — and parents — insight into the best methods for teaching or studying different lessons.

Episodic memory, for instance, is experience-based. We recall where we were, the sounds and sights around us, and the events that took place. Children tend to have strong Episodic Memory. Every teacher has had the experience of asking a factual question, such as, “What is the capitol of California?”, and calling on a student, only to hear something like: “My family went to Sacramento to see my uncle last summer and it was so hot!” Educators who understand how episodic memory works can structure their lessons to exploit this powerful ability in children.

Semantic Memory involves facts. It’s the kind of memory that you need to play Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, or pass a vocabulary test. Learning and recalling facts is a different process for the brain than other kinds of memory, and once this is understood, lessons can be planned accordingly.

Procedural Memory is the body’s memory of sequential steps to perform a task like tying a shoe, driving a car or saving a file on a computer. Procedures are often difficult to learn but become unconscious once they are learned.

Working Memory is the ability to hold a few pieces of information in the mind simultaneously while it is being used. We use Working Memory every time we do long division or write a paragraph.

Many life tasks require efficient integration of all of these types of memory.

Think about cooking, for instance: The Episodic memories of the way food tasted around the family table as a kid; the Semantic Memory of knowing the difference between “boil” and “broil”; the procedural memory that allows us to make pancakes and the working memory that allows us to orchestrate a meal, follow a recipe and coordinate the timing of various dishes, all while dealing with phone calls and scraped knees.

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