Lessons in Learning from the School of Rock n' Roll
When I was a university student, I accidentally stumbled upon one of the most profound lessons in learning I've ever experienced. You might think I had this revelation while taking in a lecture, attending to my studies, or perhaps while participating in one of my teaching practicums, but you'd be wrong. No. In fact, one of the most important lessons I ever learned about learning is a lesson I came across while I was singing in rock band... a classic rock band, in fact.
Now... here's the thing: I hate classic rock. Well, maybe "hate" is a strong word... but I really don't like it very much. For that reason, I wasn't at all familiar with all the Creme, Doors, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix tunes that I had to learn. Bottom line: I had a whole lot of songs to learn in a very short period of time. That dilemma forced me to learn something very interesting about my brain, and it's something that most of us have in common.
You see, I tried a bunch of different strategies to memorize all those words. I tried carrying those crazy lyrics around with me and reading them over and over and over again... whenever I thought of it. I read them on the bus, I read them while waiting for class, I read them here, I read them there... and yet, no matter how often I read, "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky," I just couldn't get those darned lyrics stuck in my head.
After a while, I noticed something very interesting. I found that if I just put those pieces of paper away, and forced myself to pull the lyrics out of my memory while listening to the songs, or singing the songs, or even while just thinking about the songs, then the lyrics became firmly ingrained in my memory. Thus, I came to learn an important lesson about learning: a lesson that, strangely, nobody had ever taught me... even as a psychology student studying the brain, or as an education student exploring the art of teaching. I came to realize that the key to learning is to pull information from the brain... not to push it in.
It turns out I'm not alone in my surprise at how little-known this critical phenomenon is with respect to long-term memory. In their 2008 study, Karpike and Roediger found that "repeated studying after learning had no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produced a large positive effect." Not only did Karpike and Roediger identify the critical role that retrieval practice plays in consolidating learning, but they also found that "even university students seemed completely unaware of the fact."
While the importance of retrieval in the forming of long-term memory may be rather poorly recognized in educational circles, it is certainly not a new discovery. In fact, we will soon be celebrating the centennial of the 1917 article by Arthur Gates that first identified the "testing effect," wherein long-term memory is increased when some learning time is devoted purely to recalling information. What's more, it seems that the testing effect not only contributes to the memorization of material, but it also plays a significant role in thinking and application as well. A study by Roediger and Butler found that "retrieval practice promotes the acquisition of knowledge that can be flexibly retrieved and transferred to different contexts" (2011). Thus, as politically incorrect as "memorization" has become in today's educationalist circles, it turns out that there's plenty of research indicating that time dedicated to recalling information can be a powerful prerequisite to subsequent thinking and application. Yes... it seems that in order to think, you actually have to know something.
Memorization... the "M" Word!
Memorization has been slapped with a profoundly and unduly bad rap. Perhaps I'll write more about that later, but, for now, suffice to say that Bloom, and others, have long pointed out that memory is the foundation of learning. That's right... you heard me... it's the foundation. It's not the "lowest," or "lowliest" form of learning: it's the foundation. The bottom of Bloom's taxonomy is persistently misinterpreted and misappropriated to justify the unwarranted persecution of one of the most critical phases of learning: the memorization of knowledge. Let's not forget that Bloom's taxonomy is more than just a classification system... it's a hierarchy. Bloom's taxonomy outlines a six-level hierarchy of cognitive skills. The 1st is Knowledge, the 2nd is Comprehension, the 3rd is Application, the 4th is Analysis, the 5th is Evaluation, and the 6th is Synthesis. Yes... Bloom and his colleagues were attempting to classify learning objectives, but intentionally or otherwise, they outlined a hierarchy of learning. Given that Bloom's taxonomy is a hierarchy, we must always remain mindful of the fact that the first level of the taxonomy is actually the foundational level. While we may strive to develop the higher levels of cognitive skills within our students, we cannot ignore the fact that a weak foundation will undermine any of the subsequent levels of learning.
Reinforcing Neural Pathways: The Key to Memorization... the Gateway to Higher Learning
Reinforcing the neural pathways within the brain is a key strategy that students can employ in their efforts to improve memorization of knowledge... as well as the thinking, application, and general academic achievement that can follow. In order to do this, students must take a very deliberate and controlled approach to their use of class time as well as their study and review methods. Essentially, every time one learns something new, a new neural pathway is formed in their brain. That might sound like a good thing, but it's not. Not always.
Believe it or not, students must ensure that they limit the number of times they actually "learn" a particular concept. Each time a student learns and then relearns the same concept, the student will produce a new, albeit weak, neural pathway in his brain. How is it that we “learn” and then “relearn” material? The ways are many. If a student pays moderate attention to a concept that is taught in class, then the student will learn the concept. (The student might learn the concept partially, vaguely, or even incorrectly, but he learns it nonetheless.) If the student later reads about the same concept in his textbook without recognizing it from the earlier lecture, then he will relearn it. If the student then hears about the same concept from a classmate before a test - without recognizing it as something he already knew - then he will relearn it yet again. To be sure, all of these learning experiences have the potential to either i) reinforce existing neural pathways, or ii) produce separate and discrete neural pathways (each containing, more or less, the same knowledge). If the material seemed somewhat new to the student with each learning event, then he quite likely created new neural pathways with each event. However, if the student's subsequent learning events triggered the memory of, and connected to, the previously learned material, then he invariably reinforced his existing neural pathways. The trick is to direct more time and effort to the latter effect.
The key to effective learning is to learn a concept once. Learn it once, learn it well, and then reinforce the same concept while studying.
The key to effective learning is to learn a concept once. Learn it once, learn it well, and then reinforce the same concept while studying. As Edmund Bolles said, "We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want" (1988, p. 23). Thus, students must come to appreciate the importance of an initial exposure to new material. They must provide their full attention during such events, appreciating that the first exposure to new learning will build a new neural pathway in the brain. To make that pathway more accessible, students must seek to attach it to some existing pathway: that means they must strive to make a connection with previously learned and understood material. Whether the first exposure to the new material occurs while listening to a class lecture, watching a video, or reading a book, the student must fully engage the material during the initial learning event. That might require the student to discuss the concept with the teacher in class, clarify points of confusion by rewinding and replaying a video, or re-read and cross-reference written text until the meaning becomes clear.
Later on, when a student might wish to study previously learned material, he must do his utmost to avoid "pushing" the same information back into his brain in the hope that it will magically flow down the same neural pathway that was produced during the first learning event. The research is clear: in pulling information from the brain, we reinforce existing neural pathways, thus making those pathways stronger and easier to access in the future.
Now that we understand how important it is to not push information back into the brain, the final skill we must examine is how to “pull” information from the brain.
The Power of Retrieval
We pull information from the brain when we force ourselves to independently recall information. In brain science, this is called retrieval. You might recognize the effort that can be involved in this process when you think about those moments when you tried to retrieve something from memory that was just "at the tip of your tongue." Sometimes you gave up, and you found the information elsewhere by looking it up or by asking someone else. However, during those times when you stuck it out and finally succeeded in pulling the information from your memory, you quite likely experienced the power of retrieval: you reinforced the neural pathway that was used to access that information, and it became far more accessible from that moment on.
Students must therefore study in ways that take full advantage of the testing effect. In other words, efforts in studying previously learned material should actually replicate testing more than learning, therefore requiring students to "pull" knowledge from their brains instead of merely "pushing" it in. Students can do this by employing techniques that require them to independently recall information, such as writing out study notes (not copying existing notes), having someone ask them a concept (not tell them the concept), or by just thinking about a concept as they examine a review sheet (ensuring they truly "know‟ every item on the review sheet). In any case, truly effective studying must take the shape of timely review and recall... not last-minute learning.
As strange as it may sound, it is in pulling information from our brains – not pushing it in – that we actually reinforce our learning.
Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Bolles, E. B. (1988). Remembering and forgetting. Inquiries into the nature of memory. NY: New York. Walker & Company.
Gates, A. I. (1917). Recitation as a factor in memorizing. Archives of Psychology, 6, No. 40.
Karpicke, J. & Roediger, H. (2008). The Critical Importance Of Retrieval For Learning. Science, 966-968.
Miller, Ralph (2010) Functional Analysis of Learning and Its Failures: The Benefits of Imperfect Retrieval
Roediger, H. & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 20-27.
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