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August 03, 2018 Friday 04:01:16 PM IST


Cover Story

I usually ask my students to recollect lessons of their yesteryear classes. Many wouldn’t. The many animate and inanimate things that surrounded them inhabit their permanent memory, but whatever they were supposed to have ‘learnt’ lies submerged in foggy, vague memory. It is somewhat amusing when we read it in the context of the human brain’s colossal power. Paul Reber, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, says the brain’s storage capacity is something close to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). If our brain were to work like a digital video recorder, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours (more than 300 years) of TV shows.

That is the magic of learning. That learning is essentially for a lifetime and not for academic scores needs to be instilled amongst our students to create a resilient and vibrant learning environment.

However, we often confuse memory with learning. Memory is related to but is distinct from learning. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skill and memory is the expression of what we have acquired; if acquisition occurs instantly, that’s “making a memory”, according tothe American Psychological Association (APA). Memory is a brain-wide process often described as distributed processing, a set of encoded neural connections in the brain stored in a scattered manner that needs to be reconstructed to recollect. Let’s delve into the art of memorising what we learn.

Historically,the Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic (VAK) Learning Style and the Learning Pyramid have been widely accepted as the common methods of learning. The VAK learning model was developed by psychologists in the 1920s,classifyingthe ways people learn. VAK uses the three main sensory receivers of the visual, auditory, and the kinaesthetic to determine a person’s dominantor preferred learning style. In 1946, Edgar Dale of the National Training Laboratories atBetel inMaine (US) developed the Learning Pyramid or Cone of Learning, whichcame to be regarded as the founding pillar of learning. It illustrates that active participation of the learner in the learning process results in higher retention of learning. Lewis Howes, an American author, entrepreneur, and former professional Arena League football player, well-known for his popular ‘The School of Greatness’ show on motivation and performance, says, “better memory comes down to three things: motivation, observation, and mechanics. MOM”, which in many ways ably complements our experiences on the ground. 


Activity oriented or experiential learning has decisive outcomes, both in memorising and producing desired results. Some of the new initiatives and schemes of the government in education have been activity-centred with a practical orientation. For instance, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) launchedby Government of India in 2001,was rooted in the founding principlesof the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), an initiative ofthe Government of Kerala in 1993. In 2012, Kerala’s Department of Higher Education launched what was calledthe Additional Skill Acquisition Programme (ASAP), focusing on activity-based learning. The edifice of ASAP’s Foundation Module (Communication & IT skills Training) is built aroundgamification. Gamification is nothing butthe process of adding games or game-like elements to a task or a problemso as to encourage active participation of the learners through discussions and mutual instruction. Specifically, it includes creative teaching, audio and video tools, ‘real-world’learning, brainstorming, classes outside the classroom, role play, introducinglessons like a story, storyboard teaching, stimulating classroom environment, puzzles, and games.Instructors are also trained to handle game-based modules. In addition, technology can be used to foster a conducive environment for active learning, thereby forging long-term memory.

At the same time, it is equally important to understand the difference between understanding and remembering. Learners may not necessarily remember or recall information even if they have understood what the teachers have taught them or even by virtue of what they have read themselves. Beyond understanding, sustained learning will depend onthe intensity of learner engagement in activities that will lead to storage and retrieval of relevant information from long-term memory.


We often envy people who can recall dates, names, facts and so on in an instant. For instance, the longest sequence of objects someone could have memorised in aminute was 50 — a feat achieved by Mrunali Gouri Kodhe of Nagpur (India) in 2017.David Andrew Farrow is a two-time Canadian Guinness World Record Holder for recalling accurately ‘Most Decks of Playing Cards’in a single sighting. A fantasy of eidetic or photographic memory!But such prodigiesdo use certain techniques to memorise things.

It is largely agreed that we remember things better and remember them longer when we adopt semantic encoding. In a way, our memory depends on our ability to connect and,of course, on the precision of coding in terms of audio and visual effects. 

Repetition and Recitation are often regardedas outdated concepts of memorising,but it continues to have assiduous followers and is being practised widely.   

The scientific fact is that our short-term memory needs to be activated severaltimes over in order to increase its durability. When we repeat ourselves over and over again, a certain number of neurons get activated. In the wake of repetition, more and more dendrites grow and interconnect, resulting in greater storage and recall efficiency. (A dendrite is a short, branched extension of a nerve cell, along which impulses received from other cells at synapses are transmitted to the cell body.) The Hermann Ebbinghaus learning curve estimates that only 21 percentof information we learn is retained after one month of learning. Spaced repetition technique is often regarded as a panacea to forgetting. Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) was a German psychologist who leda pioneering experimental study on memory and is known for his discovery of the ‘forgetting curve’ and the ‘spacing effect’.

Organising things is of paramount importance. The chunking technique refers togrouping items, finding patterns in them, and organising them. In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual or discrete pieces of information are brought together into a “meaningful whole” (Neath & Surprenant, 2003). Further, Mnemonics refers to any system or device designed to aid memory — usually, patterns of letters, ideas, or visual associations, such as ROYGBIV to remember the colours of a rainbow.


Mind palace orloci is the Sherlock Holmes of style of memorising things. In this technique, the subject, for instance,ordersthe layout of buildings, or the deploymentof shops on a street, or any specific place made up of a number of discrete loci. This is variously described as memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique. The link, mind map, tree, acronyms, acrostic, rhymekeys, key words, storytelling, image-word association, chaining, detailing, visualisation, dramatising, single lining, hand copy, walking, cheat sheets are hoary techniques to memorise things. (An acrostic is a poem, word puzzle, or other composition where certain letters in each line form a word or words.)

Above all, a nutritious diet, exercise, and good sleep are necessaryfor sharp memory. British psychologist Nicolas Dumay saysthat good sleep not only protects our brains from forgetting memories but also helps us retrieve memories better. In other case studies, researchers have found that taking a nap of 45-60 minutes immediately after learning something new could boost one’smemory by nearly 500 percent. Adequate supply of oxygen to the brain catalyses our memory. The National Institute on Ageing, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Maryland(US), observed that an aerobic exercise, such as running, is linked with improved memory. Running triggers high levels of a protein called cathepsin B, which travels to the brain to trigger neuron growth and new connections in the hippocampus, an area in the brain believed to be critical for memory.

Rather than processing a heap of information, micro learning helps in memorising and lifelong learning. Mobile learning enables convenience, mobility, and a virtually enabled understanding,resulting in higher probability of retention. The increasing popularity of virtual reality kits, learning apps, online tutoring, 3D dimensional techniques, live scribe and smart pen, among others, are visible examples of this pattern of effective learning. Further exploration ofnewer strategies such as Computational Thinking, Crossover Learning, Embodied Learning, Stealth Assessment, and Analytics of Emotionscould yield surprising results.

Industry 4.0 compels us to compete with technologically driven enterprising resources. The time has come to devise new tools and techniques to help hasten the process of learning and the capacity of the human brain to capture, process, retain, and recollect data with greater speed and accuracy. 

Dr. Paul V. Mathew

A Programme Manager at Additional Skill Acquisition Programme, Department of Education, Government of Kerala.

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