Expanding Memory Construction and Retrieval
Iwas teaching year five students about the types of planetary motion—rotating and revolving. I realised that they found the difference between these two movements confusing,
so I challenged them to work in groups and construct their understanding by using their bodies to represent each type of movement.
The exercise was a success, and the students’ enhanced understanding and ability to transfer the concepts to the movement of electrons around an atom inspired me to investigate how we could help students use more senses to facilitate learning and memory.
Creating Multiple Cross-Brain Pathways
New learning is fragile until something is done with it. It can be strengthened by simply repeating, rereading and drilling on the specific information again and again. But that, at best, creates a rote memory that is only accessible by the way it was repeatedly activated. Providing students with opportunities to employ multifaceted manipulation of information is more engaging and successful at promoting strong, transferrable memory construction and access.
Varied experiences with the learning topic engages multiple regions in the brain in the processing, generating a more expansive, interconnected network of communication among stored memories. This cross-referencing strengthens memory creation in several ways.
Because a memory is stored in multiple networks, it is reinforced each time any of its connecting hubs is activated (recalled/used). This stimulates the neuroplastic response to build additional connections among the axons and dendrites so neurons can communicate more efficiently.
In addition, when new learning activates information already in memory (prior knowledge), this expands more pathways to access that learning—it is now stored with a variety of related memories in multiple areas of the brain. Students can retrieve the information from a number of areas in response to different cues. For example, when the concepts of positive and negative are experienced through multiple modalities, a student can recall related components such as temperatures above and below zero, magnetic attraction and repulsion, and the number line.
When information is stored in multiple networks, it’s more retrievable for new applications and innovations. By conducting brain scans as subjects performed mental manipulations and tasks they had never tried before, researchers have demonstrated simultaneous or rapidly sequential activation of widely scattered areas of the brain, including sensory, motor, attentional, emotional and language networks. That is, multiple areas of the brain lit up in an interconnected fashion when the subjects applied prior knowledge to solve problems in new ways.
What This Means for Teaching and Learning
Let’s revisit the lesson about planetary movements. Experiencing and representing information through multiple sensory experiences promoted mental manipulation of that information, improving memory and transferability. Similarly, incorporating art, music, movement, presentations and so on as additional ways to learn or review information extends students’ ability to remember it.
For example, when we learn about cars, we store the information in multiple areas of the brain associated with categories that relate to the context in which the new information about cars is learned. When we see a car, the image goes into the visual image cortex. When we see c-a-r spelled out, that information goes into a language-association region. After learning about the internal combustion engine, an association is made with jets and rocket engines.
Because all of this information is stored in multiple brain areas and cross-referencing occurs among these areas when we think about cars, neural connections sprout among these memory storage areas. This circuitry permits multiple cues or stimuli to call forth all our car knowledge instantaneously.
Just seeing the word car can lead us to recall stored memories of many aspects of cars—the sound of a motor, the feeling of moving, rhyming words, other similar motorised vehicles, etc. We may not need all that information, but because the associations have been created, any of the stored information that we do need will be rapidly and efficiently accessible. Mentally manipulating new and already known information increases memory and understanding, so providing learners multiple ways to apply their learning in new applications or situations helps their brains build increasing awareness of the concepts behind that new information. These mental manipulations guide students to progress from initial concrete facts to more abstract conceptual knowledge.
Examples in Various Subjects
You no doubt use some of the mental manipulation strategies I suggest below. I find it helpful to think of them as ways to provide students with opportunities to practise with new
learning in ways that increase the memory durably and its availability for transfer to new applications. Maths
• Represent the maths concept of symmetry in the symmetry of a haiku.
• Play with relationships between quantities through graphing.
• Work with multiples of numbers via a video or animation showing the progression of size of objects increasing by percentages (or exponentially). Science
• Dance the life cycle of a butterfly or the water cycle.
• Have students create relationship analogies comparing chemical reactions. (“A single displacement is when Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angie Jolie, and decomposition
is the breakup of a band like the Beatles.” Your students will undoubtedly come up with more current examples.) Social Studies
• Have students write news reports on historical events like early settlements of their country as if they were current events, selecting a specific perspective from which to write, like aboriginals or other non-native residents living there at the time.
• Represent forms of government—monarchy, dictatorship, representative democracy, etc.—and how a pizza shop would be run in each style .
• Frame the Australian Declaration of Recognition (for recognition of indigenous Australians) as a breakup letter.
Language Arts or World Languages
• Represent book characters as flavours in food items that reflect some of their characteristics (bitter, sweet, sour, crusty, etc.).
When students mentally manipulate new learning through multiple sensory experiences and expanded associations, they build more extensive networks of memory storage and greater access to retrieving the memories they make. These networks then facilitate transfer to new applications, novel problem solving and creative innovations far beyond the classroom and tests.