Views from Cognitive and Social Psychology
In his talk, Professor Shimamura focused on three areas related to how humans learn to remember: top-down processing, elaborative encoding, and mnemonic skills. He described efficient learning as an active, top-down process that depends on using our knowledge to guide and organize our perceptions. In order for our students to perceive and remember, we need to make new information meaningful, a process known as elaborative encoding. Meaning might be created by putting new information into the context of things students already know, encouraging students to apply their learning to everyday situations, and enhancing learning “circuits” through top-down control and metacognition. Shimamura reminded the audience of a once-popular mnemonic technique known as “SQ3R,” in which students “survey, question, read, recite, and review” their classroom texts — an old-fashioned technique now supported by current cognitive science research on memory.
Professor Kihlstrom’s talk described the history of cognitive psychology and the shifts in the definition of “learning” that have occurred in the field since its late-19th-century inception. He argues that, following the cognitive revolution, “we now think of learning as a relatively permanent change in knowledge that occurs as a result of experience.” He elaborated the three basic stages of memory processing: encoding, the process by which a new trace is laid down in memory; storage, or what happens to the encoded memory trace over the retention interval; and retrieval, or gaining access to stored knowledge so that you can use it to solve problems. To translate these principles into practical strategies, he recommended the “PQ4R” study strategy, to “preview, query, read, reflect, recite, and review” material — a similar method to the “SQ3R” technique described by Professor Shimamura. To complement this cognitive psychology approach, Kihlstrom also explained the contributions that social psychology has made to understanding how people learn, including the different forms of learning understood in social learning theory, the effect of testing to encourage retention, the lack of peer-reviewed research and evidence to support popular conceptions of learning “types,” the nature of procrastination, implicit theories of learning, intrinsic motivation, and caring about learning.
Cognitive and social psychology fundamentals:
Strong memories depend on “top-down processing,” in which learners consciously select and elaborate on what they perceive, actively shaping their learning as it takes place. “Bottom-up processing” — passively allowing perceptions to occur and hoping to automatically construct a field of knowledge from them — is more common, but far less effective; it tends to result in weaker memories.
People remember information better when it is meaningful to them — for example, it is probably easier for you to remember your date of birth than it would be for you to remember a random string of six numbers. Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon, known to psychologists as “elaborative encoding,” by making course content meaningful to students in any of a variety of ways.
Cognitive psychology research suggests that tried-and-true mnemonic techniques, such as the “SQ3R” or “PQ4R” method, take advantage of the way the mind and brain privilege memories that have been repeatedly encoded.
There is little research evidence supporting the idea that people have distinct, fixed “learning styles,” and no clear evidence that students perform better on tests or assignments when instructional methods are tailored to their self-reported learning styles. In order to support robust learning, teachers should encourage all students to be actively engaged in the learning process and to develop a “style repertoire,” or the ability to learn from content presented in a wide variety of forms.
Recent research indicates that moderately stressful exercises in memory retrieval, such as tests, enhance learning for the future (in addition to being valuable assessment tools). Testing may therefore be seen as another study tool, rather than simply an end goal.
In order to minimize procrastination, instructors should set firm deadlines for clearly-defined stages of projects and assignments. Students tend to prefer external constraints that help them to spread their work out over the course of the semester. Research shows that it is possible to teach people how to set their own deadlines, but that external requirements tend to be more effective.
Anderson, J. R. Learning and Memory: An Integrated Approach. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley, 2000.
Key learning principles:
- Students learn best when they take control of and organize their new knowledge.
- Learning improves when new information is made meaningful for students.
- Repetition and simple mnemonic study techniques can be extremely effective.
- Testing encourages learning and can be used as a study tactic, in addition to a final assessment.
Inspired by these talks:
Activities for the college classroom designed and implemented by members of the How Students Learn Working Group, Spring 2011. See what’s already under way at UC Berkeley to address the learning principles described in these talks by Professors Shimamura and Kihlstrom.
|Professor Amin Azzam||Course Revision for Increased Student Engagement||Educational Leadership (online Public Health course)|
|Seda Chavdarian, Senior Lecturer||Using Authentic Literary Texts in Second Semester French||French 2|
Activities to try:
Resources for post-secondary instructors looking to implement some of these learning principles in the classroom.
The PQ4R Method from Professor Kihlstrom’s notes. It’s a long document, so do a search (ctrl-f or cmd-f) within the page for PQ4R.
Tools for Learning from Rod Allrich at Purdue University.
These articles, recommended by Professor John Kihlstrom, explore the current state of research in cognitive and social psychology as they relate to learning. Some articles may require access through the UC Berkeley library or proxy server.
Ariely, D. and Wertenbroch, K. “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment.” Psychological Science 13.3 (May 2002): 219–224.
Pascarella, E. T., Seifert, T. A. and Whitt, E. J. “Effective Instruction and College Student Persistence: Some New Evidence.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 115 (Fall 2008): 55–70.
Pashler, H., et al. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9 (Dec. 2008): 105–119.
Roediger, H. L. and Karpicke, J. D. “The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1.3 (Sept. 2006): 181–210.