Information will not write itself on our memories.
In order to illustrate to a student how they should approach learning in order to become independent and self-regulating, Bjork, Dunlosky and Kornell’s paper titled Self Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques and Illusions highlights at length the construction of the brain’s cognitive architecture. It has to – how else can you learn about learning if you don’t understand the mechanics of the thing that does the learning? But before doing so, it cleverly identifies its audience: the student who understands that knowing how to manage one’s own learning activities is an important survival tool. This student, motivated and ambitious, and ultimately seeking the autonomy all the very best involved in education aspire to, is then taken on a journey of enlightenment that quells fears and quashes enduring myths borne from understandable ignorance. By the end, the student is secure in the knowledge of how best to approach their studying to achieve their optimal best in being able to hold on to what they have been learning – the essential factor in then being able to apply that knowledge to new learning contexts.
It is not coincidental that the authors labour on the notion that human brains differ from man-made recording devices. It is the way the brain relates new information to existing knowledge that differentiates it from the passive, robotic, computational analogy once espoused, poignantly concluding that it is therefore necessary for the learner to be active in the process of learning, by interpreting, connecting, inter-relating and elaborating on what is experienced. Indeed, information will not write itself on our memories.
Concomitantly, the ‘action’ appears to be a two-way street, memories being actively altered when we try to retrieve them, at the mercy of beliefs, assumptions or prior experiences: ‘When we remember the past, we are driven , if not consciously, to make our recollections fit our background knowledge, our expectations, and the current context.’ What compelling implications this has for the way we view the past – this surely becomes nostalgia’s greatest ally, the great embellisher?
The emphasis on supporting the encoding of information by making meaningful connections to previously learnt material is only surpassed by the emphasis on retrieving the outcome of the meaning-making. The need to consciously work at recalling information to counter Ebbinghaus’ evolutionary forgetting curve is expanded to discuss spacing and interleaving such practice, and used to warn against complacency generated when retrieval fluency rears its mischievous head, tricking the learner into a false sense of security that what has just been learnt needs no further commitment. In fact, it is from here that the paper dispels the illusions that students instinctively propagate, that rereading notes is more effective than testing oneself, that studying things you already feel you know is better than studying harder topics, that cramming works. These strategies are instinctive because to the student who is still actually putting in effort, there is a sense that they are achieving. Of course, compared to someone who is not doing anything, they are, but the overwhelming theme in this paper is that it’s not wise to just be doing something when there are better ways to go about it.
Such a proposition leads on to discussion about performance vs learning and Bjork’s ‘desirable difficulties’. It is here that the paper laments the plight of the student, forced to not only battle against the counter-intuitive retrieval practice, but also societal misunderstanding about effective learning conditions. Creating deliberate ‘difficulty’ in retrieving content inevitably leads to errors, and this almost appears as the antithesis of progress. It’s the opposite of success… and in a time starved and competitive learning context, can easily become the pariah of educational theory, booed off the stage and supplemented by the more visible, yet infinitely inferior performance based charade.
The paper ends with a rapid-fire Q and A style discussion of some of the most prominent student questions about becoming a better learner. They seem to have paved the way for the excellent Learning Scientist website that also sets the student on the right path to improved metacognition, and how to succeed as a learner.
But what I want to focus on from this paper is the very transferable notion that if we understand how students learn best then such strategies should form the core of our teaching practices. Of course, information will not write itself on our memories, so it must become a deliberate and sustained process of practising the strategies mentioned that will provide the necessary opportunities for students to encode information sufficiently by making connections to previous learning. But crucially, by also providing opportunities for them to retrieve that information in measured and practical ways, we manufacture the occasions where the information becomes more permanently stored in the long-term memory, and thus accessible to engage with new learning contexts.
With this in mind, it is so important that curriculum is designed to allow for these practices. If there’s ostensibly no room, then maybe, like a gardener, some trimming needs to happen. It seems that unless we include this discussed encoding and retrieval strategy, then learning is not going to be as efficient as it could be.
I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger