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Learn and Forget: Remember What You Learn
Interview with Dr. Henry Roediger on Memory and Learning
May 23, 2022
Not that I do not want to moonwalk with Einstein, the reason that I picked up the book Moonwalking with Einstein was the subtitle: “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.” In the next few weeks, Joshua Foer’s story of becoming the 2006 US memory champion lived rent-free in my brain, overthrowing my previous perceptions on memory and learning.
Afterall, what could be more intriguing than Foer’s claim that “anyone can do [what he had done]”?
In the book, Foer explained that memory competitors employ the memory palace to vitalize dull and abstract words and to generate links between random items by taking advantage of the natural connection that is created when items are been placed in the same space; in addition, this technique also takes advantage of human’s exceptional spatial memory that is adopted when we need it as hunter-and-gatherers. Specifically, the memory palace turns abstract into specific and places these concrete objects into a familiar environment, somewhere like your childhood home.
Suppose that you need to remember to write your essay that analyzes the rhetorical effect of using animals in Shakespeare’s plays then do the laundry for your grandma. Not that you would ever use the memory palace in these kinds of scenarios, this is a simple demonstration of how the memory palace works. Imagine, as you open the door to your room, the smell of ink flushes into your nose and you see the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland sitting upright on the edge of your bed with his legs dangling down the sides. A mule is chewing at your books that fall out of your backpack. The rabbit is holding a white feather pen and drawing a portrait of Shakespeare on your bed sheet.
Then, you hear a very unpleasant noise, coming from the windows, like fingernails scratching on chalkboards. As you walk to the windows, you see a mass of white doves that fall from the sky, turning into coat hangers. The rain of doves keeps falling down, the coat hangers flood the streets like seawater. And at some point, you see your grandma running bare-footed as if Ponyo, the goldfish princess, from Ghibli Studio.
But I am not sure if it is true when [Foer] says that everyone can do [what he has done]”
— Dr. Roediger
Now, do you remember what you smell when you walk into your room? What did you see on your bed? Then, what happened? If you recall these images from beginning to end, front and back a few times, you will be able to remember the items in order quite well. Of course, you probably don’t need to use the memory palace in scenarios like the one above; the memory palace is most effectively used with longer lists of items.
“Personally, I can use [the strategies effectively] to some degrees. Others have used them for academic purposes, and they really work… But I am not sure if it is true when [Foer] says that everyone can do [what he has done]… Some people have more trouble [implementing] these techniques than others,” Dr. Henry Roediger III, the co-author of the book Make it Stick and the psychology researcher in the area of human learning and memory, said.
In essence, the memory palace is one of many methods that are used to create connections between ideas. But it is not the only one. “[For me], understanding the causation and how something ties into a bigger picture of events helps me to memorize historical facts,” Hannah Moon, a sophomore in CHS, said. If the end goal is to make new information in connection with other information, there are many ways to achieve that.
Now that we have created connections with the new concepts, making them easier to understand and remember, we need to transfer this short-term memory into something long-term. Maybe ever since we started being assessed with tests, we were told constantly to start to plan early. Suppose that you are smart enough to do all the learning effectively in the two days and ace the test. Why wouldn’t cramming all the learning and practicing be efficient and thus a good learning method?
Cramming works. But only in the short-term. If no additional studying and reviewing is followed, everything that you stormed into your brain would quickly drain out. “One reason that immediate repetition doesn’t do much is that you are [retrieving] something from your [short-term memory]. That doesn’t help much. It has to be tested after you have at least forgotten a bit about the information… Then, when you see [the information] again, you would [think to yourself], ‘Oh, I saw before’… and that is what is good for long-term memory,” Dr. Roediger said.
In comparison to compacted repeated retrieval, research suggests that repeated retrieval with spacing between each test showed a 200% improvement in long-term retention, according to Jeffrey Karpicke and colleagues. Visualized with the story of cranberry – as a child adds cranberries on a string without any knots, the berries fall off – active recall is similar to tying the knot after every cranberry.
“Part of why retrieval practice effect is [effective] is due to this [extraction of] something from your memory. Anytime you think hard to generate something from memory… this seems to really enhance [the long-term] memory,” Dr. Roediger said. And practice retrieval is effective in testing what you actually knows. You may believe that you have fully understood a concept as you follow through all of the steps in a textbook. However, afterwards when you try to attempt the same question on your own, you are unable to solve it from start to finish. Oftentimes, when we assume our understanding on a certain topic, we are often merely familiar with the concept.
“Another part that [retrieval practice is effective] seems to be effort. Rereading something… is relatively passive. And whereas if you have to generate something from memory… you really have to think [about it].” Dr. Roediger said. Passive learning, like rereading, creates an illusion to fluency, making us think that we have already mastered it. And active retrieval helps to break this illusion.
“Most of the time I complete practice problems related to the unit and then I can check my answer and see my progress in learning the material,” Cesarine Cross, a freshman in CHS, said.
Similar in that band-aids cannot heal bruises, insights on human memory do not provide us the optimal learning method. However, band-aids can prevent the wounds from exacerbating and speed up the healing process; understanding of human memory helps us make more intentional and effective study and review plans.