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Memory: Encoding

How many times have you seen students seemingly understand something one lesson, and then act as though they have never seen it before only a day later? Learning without the ability to retain and retrieve is not really learning at all. Remembering things involves three processes: encoding information (learning it, by perceiving it and relating it to past knowledge, so that it is in a format which it can then be stored in memory), storing it (maintaining it over time), and then retrieving it (accessing the information when needed). The next few sections are going to look at the fascinating concepts of retrieval and storage, including how making life more difficult for students might be the key for forming long-lasting memories. However, without successful encoding, there is little point worrying about the rest. So, how do we help students successfully encode information? Well, we have seen already that the principles of Explicit Instruction and Cognitive Load Theory (in particular the careful presentation of information and the use of worked examples) should help focus students' fragile, limited working memories on the things that really matter, and discussed the story structure of lessons and the use of analogies to make information more meaningful to students. In short, effective encoding relies upon the attention of the learner and on the associative nature of the brain. By making new learning personally relevant and linked to prior learning in long-term memory you can increase the associativity of the new learning and increase the effectiveness of the encoding. So, we have  done most of the work in previous sections! However, there are a couple of papers here that I found particularly interesting.

Research Paper Title: Students Remember ... What They Think About
Author(s): Daniel T Willingham
My Takeaway:
This article (along with Willingham's outstanding book Why Don't Students Like School) has had a profound effect on how I plan my lessons. Memory is the residue of though. Quite simply: students will remember what they are thinking about, so I need to plan my lessons accordingly. When I present my students with new material, it is not just the presentation of that material that is important, it is what the students are actually thinking about. Two related problems can emerge here if we are not careful:
1) Shallow Knowledge. Students may grasp onto one message from the lesson, but they may fail to grasp the underlying meaning that supports it. Take a lesson on adding fractions. Students may remember that denominators have to be different, but if they do not understand why, or understand how to make the denominators the same, then that shallow knowledge isn't going to be much use to them.
2) Thinking about the wrong things. If my students are revising quadratic equations by making a poster, will they be thinking about the subtleties of the algebra, or the colour of the highlighters they are using? If they are revising the laws of fractions by putting together a PowerPoint presentation, will they be thinking about fractions or PowerPoint animations?
Number 2) seems relatively easy to fix - I just need to plan activities like this carefully, bearing in mind that any increase in engagement that these different activities bring must be weighed up against a likely decrease in learning. But what about the issue of shallow knowledge? Willingham provides some useful, practical strategies:
1) Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about. When planning my lessons, the main question I ask myself during each part of the lesson is "what will my students actually be thinking about at this point?". And if it is not the key concept I need to get across, then I need to change my plan.
2) Use discovery learning carefully. We have already seen arguments against discovery learning in the Explicit Instruction section, but during the encoding process it seems even more important that teachers guide students carefully to try to ensure they are thinking about the correct concepts and information. I try to avoid bold statements, but I am going to make one here: discovery learning definitely should not be used during the encoding process.
3) Design reading assignments that require students to actively process the text. You may not think this has any relevance to maths, but when I interviewed Dani Quinn for my podcast she described how at Michaela the students take part in whole-class reading, combined with regular rests of knowledge to ensure students are focussed and not just drifting along.
4) Design tests that lead students to think about and integrate the most important material. This is a really interesting one for me. My students will often ask what is going to be on an upcoming test, and I will be purposefully vague. However, Willingham argues that if I am more specific in what I tell students (there will be two questions on adding fractions, one of which involves a negative number), then it will lead students to think more deeply about these topics during revision instead of a shallow glance across a number of topics. Of course, you need to ensure that tests across the year cover all the key concepts, but I thought this was an interesting approach.
My favourite quote:
In summary, in the early stages of learning, students may display "shallow" learning. These students have acquired bits of knowledge that aren't well-integrated into a larger picture. Research tells us that deep, connected knowledge can be encouraged by getting students to think about the interrelation of the various pieces of knowledge that they have acquired. Cognitive science has not progressed to the point that it can issue prescriptions of exactly how that can be achieved—that job is very much in the hands of experienced teachers. But in considering how to encourage students to acquire meaningful knowledge, teachers will do well to keep the "memory is as thinking does" principle in mind.

Research Paper Title: Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research
Author(s): Fergus I M Craik and Robert S Lockhart
My Takeaway:
This classic paper was essentially a precursor to the work on schema for memories that we discussed in the Cognitive Science section. The authors argue that stimulus information is processed at multiple levels simultaneously (not serially) depending on characteristics, attention and meaningfulness. This supports the arguments discussed in the Willingham paper above. New information does not have to enter in any specific order, and it does not have to pass through a prescribed channel. The authors further contend that the more deeply information is processed, the more that will be remembered. For me, the most important point of the whole paper was this: the more connections to a single idea or concept, the more likely it is to be  remembered. The message is clear: as students encounter new information they should try to relate it to information they already know. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. One of the most important differences between novices and experts is the structure and organization of domain-specific knowledge. Experts have existing schema which allows them to better assimilate new information, making connections and thus processing it more deeply. If we wish our students to successfully encode new information, we must first ensure they have the sufficient domain-specific knowledge present, and then try our best to help students see the connections between their existing knowledge and this new information. This could be through the use of analogies, a story structure, or just effective explicit instruction.
My favourite quote:
That is, items are kept in consciousness or in primary memory by continuing to rehearse them at a fixed level of processing. The nature of the items will depend upon the encoding dimension and the level within that dimension. At deeper levels the subject can make more use of learned cognitive structures so that the item will become more complex and semantic. The depth at which primary memory operates will depend both upon the usefulness to the subject of continuing to process at that level and also upon the amenability of the material to deeper processing. Thus, if the subject's task is merely to reproduce a few words seconds after hearing them, he need not hold them at a level deeper than phonemic analysis. If the words form a meaningful sentence, however, they are compatible with deeper learned structures and larger units may be dealt with. It seems that primary memory deals at any level with units or "chunks" rather than with information