Memory and Learning for Life

After car-pooling with her to the MCC Red Mountain campus yesterday, Donna and I had a conversation that she encouraged me to write about in a blog post. So this one’s for you, Donna. 🙂

I’m currently enrolled in an educational psychology graduate class at ASU entitled “Fundamental Theories of Learning.” Tying it together with some of the technology skills and the environment I work in has been an excellent experience. In the class one of the papers we read was entitled “The Seven Sins of Memory” — based on the book of the same name written by Dr. Daniel L. Schacter from Harvard University.

In this very well-known book amongst learning theorists he describes seven ways our brains fail us in remembering what we experience and learn. Those of us who are or who have been students know all too well what it’s like studying for an exam while having a hectic life and schedule, and then performing well enough on that exam in the end. As for myself, I can relate to the extent that I’ve had to work to pay for just about all my education. With the exception of some help from my parents at the onset of my post-secondary studentship, and the readily available and affordable system of colleges here in the valley, I’ve paid cash for 100% of my tuition expenses–which means I had to work several jobs to earn that kind of money. It took me a long time to graduate as a result. I don’t recommend that route for everyone of course, but doing it that way made for some interesting life experiences that tended to blow my focus away from remembering every single important detail of my coursework.

I don’t think anyone rightfully remembers everything they’ve ever been taught (wouldn’t that be nice), but I do have this personal theory that our entire hard-worked-for studies are buried somewhere in our minds somehow if we’ve given the proper effort in attending to them. Then somewhere along the way a trigger exposes, surfaces, and brings new life to the things that we’ve learned, however somehow buried within the folds of our “noodles.”

Apart from this, everyone including myself experiences a certain amount of brain flatulence during their lives. Some of us are better than others in keeping our memory-lapse episodes out of the public eye. Heh, heh! 😉

At any rate, one of the sins of memory that Dr. Schacter presents in his paper that was my assigned topic of study is that of Absent-Mindedness. This is the effect of experiencing or doing something that fails to stick around when the memory of it is needed later. How many times have we been in a lecture, hear, read or see something, and we say to ourselves “I gotta remember that!”, and then later we fail to find it part of our learning experience? In his writing, Dr. Schacter explains that failure to properly rember something is partially the result of insufficient attention given to it in the first place. In some instances, absent-mindedness comes as a result of divided attention. Imagine coming home from school or work and you walk in your front door. As soon as you walk in the door your roommate, or family member comes to you with a question or pressing need. Or your cell phone rings with important news from a friend. After being home for an hour you need to run an errand and in trying to get ready you realize that you can’t find your car keys. Has this ever happened to you before? Maybe, or maybe not, but if it sounds plausible, it’s likely because you had your attention drastically divided by the events that occurred at the same time as when you laid down your car keys.

Not everyone experiences episodes like this exactly, but if you find yourself losing things or constantly forgetting stuff like this, it’s likely that you need a new or different way of encoding your learning experiences in your minds.

For me, it would absolutely amazing and wonderful to me if I could remember every particular detail from my coursework. As stated before, that’s just not possible…at least for me. Of course not everything in life is about school. Contrary to popular belief I have a great life outside of work and school. What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that living things, especially human beings are engineered to learn and absorb information. I’ve found a way to parallel my life’s experiences with that of being a perpetual college student.

Some of us might be familiar with Edgar Dale’s cone of learning. I was first introduced to it during an Ocotillo online learing group meeting in a presentation by Dr. Roger Yohe from Estrella Mountain Community College. I’ll include an image of it here for reference: (click on it for a larger version)

Cone Of Learning

Basically what it amounts to is that for real memory-based learning, the kind that actually combines our education with our minds and bodies and becomes part of who we are tends to be that of Active learning. On the other hand, the types of educational experiences that we are most likely to forget falls in the category of Passive learning.

Active Learning Activities (in order of ‘activeness’) according to Dale’s cone of learning are:

  • Participating in a discussion
  • Giving a talk
  • Doing a dramatic presentation
  • Simulating a real experience
  • And then actually DOING the real thing

Of course, not all disciplines in their traditional ways of presentation lend themselves to these types of activities…at first. As educators sometimes we get caught up in the rigmarole of getting our students to enroll, show up to class and sit through learning experiences in a classroom. What they may end up taking away with them from venues like these varies as much from one individual to the next. That’s what makes people so interesting. If it weren’t so, life as a human would be fairly mundane and boring.

One thing that people all share in common is the opportunity of each and every day to build upon their lives and make them better. In our conversation during the afore mentioned trip to the Red Mountain campus, Donna and I philosophized about the role that making mistakes has in our lives. I believe the conclusion we ended up on was that making mistakes is part of life and is meant to educate us so we don’t make the same mistake again–hopefully in the process we become better people than we were before. Even formal education has its roots in creating societies that grow and progress to become better than they were previously. In many instances both of these processes require a lot of patience.

It might sound strange but I believe that we should be actively trying to find ways to ‘outsmart’ the natural tendencies of our minds to forget what we learn over time. There are things in life that never leave us, though. Our everyday experiences for good or for worse make us who we are. Hopefully our educational experiences are part of that and not just a hoop for someone to jump through. Although some of us (myself included) believe that the process of getting an education is an education in of itself and not to be forgotten.

One Comment

  1. Donna Gaudet says:

    Way to go Jeff! Loved the battery post, too.

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