Memory, understanding, and how to learn more easily

More points from Barbara Oakley, learning expert – part 2

In the previous post, I wrote about Barbara Oakley’s take on testing – and how it actually aides learning even before we start studying a topic.  This post covers how memory works – how we move things from short to long term memory, why memorising helps understanding, and how we can aide longer term recall of things we’ve learnt.

We used to have to learn stuff by heart when I was in school.  I didn’t like it and always felt it was a waste of time.  I wanted to focus on understanding the rationale and structure of things.

And that’s the approach I’ve taken up until now.  It felt especially relevant now:  we’re in the age of instant recall – we’ve outsourced memory to machines.  It’s all a voice command or finger touch away.  The important thing is to understand the concept, not memorise it, right?

Wrong again. Memory and understanding are heavily related.  If we can remember something, chances are we understand it better.  It’s related to familiarity – the more familiar our brain is with something, the more we can get to grips with it.  I’ve experienced this learning a language.  Just the act of repeating and using a phrase allowed me to understand it more.  It could be just increased confidence, which definitely plays a role in speaking languages.

There is something about being able to use or visualise  a phrase or a picture that allows greater familiarity – not the familiarity of seeing it on the page again, or in your notes, more when you’re using it live, in anger, like giving a taxi driver directions in Rome, or sketching out a model in a workshop.   Oakley’s examples was mathematical equations and poetry, where memory seemed to aide understanding.

Back to  testing.  Testing helps recall, recall helps memorising, and memorising helps understanding, which all helps us learn.

Once we’ve feel like we’ve got something in our short term memory, then we pass it over to our long term memory.  This is important – if it sits in short term memory, then we’ll struggle to recall it at a later date.  We need to move it over.

Sleep seems to be critical in this process – it’s when the memories get laid down.  So good quality slumber  helps us learn.  Worth bearing in mind the next time you’re trying to absorb something – skip the late night drinks with your workmates.  Spacing out when we practice what we’ve absorbed over a longer time period also helps.

Short term memory has a lot less capacity than long term.  Like how much space I have in my backpack for papers versus a filing cabinet, it’s only good for smaller amounts.   7 pieces or chunks of information is the number I had always read about – established in 1955 by  George Miller as the amount we can hold in our heads at once, plus or minus 2 dependent on the context.  Think about your old landline phone number – 6 or 7 digits, whereas mobile numbers have at least 11 digits and people can’t remember them.

This is out of date now – it’s 4.  Oakley cites more recent research that backs this up by Nelson Cowan.   Another of my long held ideas knocked over – thanks, Barbara.

So when I’m learning, designing or explaining, I now try to group my sessions and concepts in chunks of four at a time.  And although I’m as fed up with seeing 2 x 2 matrixes to explain theories as everybody else, at least there’s a rationale for the number.

Some key take-outs:

  • Memory and understanding are mutually important. Use recall to help memorise things even if you don’t fully understand them yet – start asking yourself what you remember or what you know about the subject.
  • Sleep is critical to pass things from short term to long term memory.
  • 4 is the number to focus on when framing or learning – whether pieces of information, or larger concepts with more information behind each concept.