Memory and Learning

I taught my middle school students about memory at the beginning of each school year. I quizzed them about their memories over the next three to four weeks, then reduced the reviews to once every other week. My students commented, “Why do you keep quizzing us about memory? We already know this stuff.” My response was, “Exactly! That’s why I keep quizzing you.”

Students of all ages use different learning techniques that teachers and parents have taught them. Each technique is based on memory related research. This article will help parents, teachers, tutors, and all students understand the four stages of memory and how to use this knowledge to improve the quality and quantity of learning.

Four Stages of Memory

Human memory is a four - stage process: input, encoding, rehearsal, and retrieval. A problem at any stage affects memory and learning. When I teach these stages to my students, I use a filing cabinet analogy. Here’s how the analogy goes:

Think of your brain as a filing cabinet. The metal cabinet itself is like your brain. Papers that go into the cabinet are like your memories. When we file papers in a filing cabinet, we use a system so they stay organized and we can find them easily. We can’t just take stacks of papers and throw them in! Our filing system helps us keep papers organized for easy relocation.

Input is what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. We see and skim the papers to file so we know what drawer and folder they go in. We’re not memorizing (or “learning”) them yet, we’re just taking it all in and organizing our papers. This is what our brain does with sensory information.

Encoding happens when we’ve filed and organized the papers in their files and drawers. We categorize them so we can start learning what’s there. We can remember what’s in the drawer but not the exact papers or the locations of files in the drawers. In other words, we’re committing drawer contents to short term memory.

Rehearsal is like using the filing cabinet repeatedly. As time goes by, we refine our knowledge of what’s in the drawer. Now we can easily locate old quizzes and tests from October. We’ve used the file enough that we know where they are. Rehearsal is just practice.

Retrieval is when we find the file we’re looking for. In fact, now that we’ve rehearsed the location of the files and folders, we know exactly where they are located without looking. The information is in our long - term memory. Now the question is, “How do we keep the file’s location in our long – term memory?” The answer is: more rehearsal!

Memory and Quality Learning

Knowing these steps can help us improve the quality and quantity of learning. Several things can interrupt the memory process at any of the four stages. Here are several ways we can maximize learning based on the four – stage memory process:

1. Study in a well-lit environment. Dark environments cause eyestrain, which interrupts the input stage. If you can’t see what you’re studying, your brain spends precious resources dealing with the low light situation. The same goes for wearing your glasses or contacts when you study.

2. Collect all materials before studying. This can interrupt the input, encoding, and retrieval processes, depending on when you discover you forgot something. For example, imagine you’ve been studying for an Algebra test for 30 minutes and can’t find your old homework. You stop what you’re doing and go find the problems. In this case, you interrupted the encoding (or “rehearsal”) stage because you were practicing problems you already knew.

3. Get 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night (for teens). Adults need less sleep – about 6 – 8 hours. Many parents don’t realize how much sleep their children need. Children’s bodies grow through their teen years. Research shows that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 21 or 22! Lack of sleep “dulls” the brain because it doesn’t have a chance to restore itself.

While we sleep, our brain sorts through the day’s sensory information and gets rid of things it doesn’t need. For example, if you went to school today, your brain doesn’t need to remember images of your friend’s faces, how the hall lockers look, or which textbooks you took to each class. That information is already in your long – term memory. Your brain sheds these repetitive memories to make room for the next day’s learning. Without sleep, your brain is still full of today’s memories and there’s no room for new learning.

4. Take planned breaks. Your brain has limits on the amount of new information it can process. Once it reaches its limit, your brain needs a break. Plan your break so you know the interruption is coming. Set a timer and stop studying when it goes off. Take 15 minutes every hour to hour and a half to stand up, walk around, go to the bathroom, and get some water or a snack. This engages your brain in a different activity and gives it a break from intense learning.

Human memory is a four - stage process: input, encoding, rehearsal, and retrieval. Students can do several things to help improve their memories: study in a well – lit environment, collect everything you need before you start studying, get enough sleep, and take planned breaks.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please take a minute to leave a comment, Like this post on Facebook, or Tweet the post via Twitter using the buttons on the right side of my blog page. If you have questions about whether a tutor is right for you or if you would like advice for your unique situation, feel free to E-mail me using the “E-mail Jeff S.” button on my Wyzant tutor home page.


Jeff S.

Flexible, Licensed, Well-Traveled Tutor!

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