I Forget Stuff – I Must Be Brilliant

There are other things that seem to stick quickly and easily — memories that I can recall as if they happened 5 minutes ago — like the time I was 8 years old and hip-checked the best player on the other hockey team planting him squarely on the ice; the time I saw Niagara Falls for the first time or my first major crush at 14. Even today, the memories come back fresh and in full technicolour (for those of you younger than about 50 you won’t know what that is).

Memory is a tricky thing — and one that we still don’t fully understand. But, we’re learning more about it all the time. A recent article in Edutopia (Why Students Forget – And What You Can Do About It) raises some key realities about our memory and how we can use that knowledge to our advantage in the classroom.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

Youki Terada

Before we tackle the concept of memory let’s look at some really cool facts about our brain and its incredible capacity:

  • Some estimates have the human brain containing around 120 billion neurons — the cells that are responsible for processing stimuli and making memories.
  • Each neuron may have around 7000 synapses (connections) to other neurons. Think of synapses as the places where neurons hold hands with each other to pass along information — this sharing of information is the basis for building memories.
  • New research has now shown that these synapses can actually regulate their conversations with other neurons being able to communicate in at least 26 different intensities — it’s not just an ON or OFF type of message.
Neural Synapses – Lighting Up the Connections

So …

120 billion neurons
7000 synapses between these neurons
26 different synaptic communication levels
22 quintilliard possible neural conversation possibilities

(A number WAY too big for me to comprehend)

That’s an incredible processing ability. And with us having this new knowledge about our brains we now believe that the brain’s capacity for memory is larger than recently thought — by at least 10x.

Our brains have the potential for more memories than the entire current World Wide Web has information.

It’s been stated by others and I’ll say it again — our brains could be the most highly organized, complex collection of matter anywhere in the universe. For its size, it is an almost incomprehensibly efficient and limitless information storage system.

So why do I forget why I was going into the kitchen? Or what I had for dinner 3 nights ago? Or why I was walking into that person’s office?

Two neurobiologists (Blake Richards and Paul Frankland) published an article in the journal Neuron about memory. According to these researchers the purpose of memories are not to simply store information, but instead to help us optimize decision making in our rapidly changing environment.

In other words, we forget because it helps us to focus on what is important. It is an evolutionary strategy that works in the background of our minds to determine what is critical (the stuff we want to keep) and what is ‘memory fluff’ (the stuff that we don’t need cluttering up our consciousness) — let’s keep the important stuff that helps us survive as a species and let’s abandon things like remembering the colour of the carpeting in our doctor’s office.

This means that forgetting isn’t a failure of our abilities but an essential part of focusing on the imperative.

Back to the classroom …

How can we capitalize on this reality of our memory to help students retain the information and understandings that we want them to retain?

From a biological perspective we need to do two things:

  1. Strengthen the current synaptic connections between neurons that were made when first learned the new information; and
  2. Create lots of different new connections between neurons — linking the new memory to already established memories.

In other words, we need to build strong neural connections as well as new neural connections to help cement information into memory. Below are five research-supported classroom strategies that build on these two concepts:

Teaching Others is a Great Way to Build Our Memory of Something

Students teaching Students – by having students teach the content to other students they reach into their own memories to find context and meaning. This builds stronger and more diverse neural pathways.

Revisiting course content in the future – by having teachers come back to content later in the course we expose students to previously learned information which helps to reactivate neural connections.

Using Formative assessments – if we regularly assess student understanding of content as we move through a course we strengthen those connections again and again and again.

Building cognitive bridges to other content – We need to keep mentioning how one piece of content links to other content — not keep content as isolated chunks of information. By doing this we build that spider-web of neural connectivity.

Using images as much as possible when we are teaching text – Pictures literally are worth a 1000 words; they can be an incredibly strong link to other memories. It’s much easier to recall information that has both text and image content than if the information is only either text or picture.

Simplified from Why Students Forget – and What You Can Do About It
The Brain’s Complexity is Almost Too Large to Comprehend

So, YES, we definitely forget as soon as we learn something, but research has shown that there are some relatively simple strategies that we can use to help make learning stay — to ‘stick around’ in that 22 quintilliard capacity marvel known as our brain.

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