Two recent articles offer different perspectives on retaining information. The interesting NYTimes magazine article
by world class memory athlete Joshua Foer describes an ancient memory training tradition that flourished in ancient Greece before the invention of printing. Brain imaging of memory athletes who have engaged this training (who are of ordinary intelligence in virtually all other respects) shows more activation of brain areas known to be involved in spatial memory during memory tasks. The training derives from discoveries of Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C.,
...who reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace...a short Latin rhetoric textbook called “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C. It is the only comprehensive discussion of the memory techniques attributed to Simonides to have survived into the Middle Ages. The techniques described in this book were widely practiced in the ancient and medieval worlds. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric...What distinguishes a great mnemonist...is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity.
Both ancient and more recent memory enhancement techniques focus on the processing that occurs when we encode knowledge. A recent fairly simple experiment by Karpicke and Blunt
suggests the effectiveness of another strategy that emphasizes practice. From their introduction:
It is beyond question that activities that promote effective encoding, known as elaborative study tasks, are important for learning. However, research in cognitive science has challenged the assumption that retrieval is neutral and uninfluential in the learning process. Not only does retrieval produce learning, but a retrieval event may actually represent a more powerful learning activity than an encoding event. This research suggests a conceptualization of mind and learning that is different from one in which encoding places knowledge in memory and retrieval simply accesses that stored knowledge. Because each act of retrieval changes memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning.
Educators rely heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying, whereas activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are used less frequently. Here, we show that practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across texts identical to those commonly found in science education. The advantage of retrieval practice was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences. The advantage of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.
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