Arthur Shimamura: Active Learning AND Testing: The Key to Long-Lasting Memories
Arthur Shimamura is Professor of Psychology, Director of the Shimamura Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, and a faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley. His research interests include cognitive neuroscience, frontal lobe function, and basic memory research. He has published extensively, including recent articles in such journals as Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, the Psychological Review, Neuroimage, Memory, the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and the American Journal of Psychology, and he is the co-editor with Janet Metcalfe of the collection Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing (MIT Press, 1994). Professor Shimamura is a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award from the UC Berkeley Division of Social Sciences, has been Scientific Advisor for the San Francisco Exploratorium Science Museum, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to examine art, mind, and brain.
Talk by Arthur Shimamura for the How Students Learn Working Group on March 8, 2011.
Professor Shimamura began by describing what he called “The Student’s Dilemma” — the (mistaken) belief most students have that learning is a passive, bottom-up process in which perceptions are stored in memory. Researchers and good teachers, on the other hand, know that efficient learning is an active, top-down process that depends on using our knowledge to guide and organize our perceptions. In top-down processing, we select and elaborate on what is perceived, actively shaping our learning as it takes place.
To illustrate some of the challenges that we face when working with perception and memory, Shimamura showed a video clip from the BBC documentary Brain Story (2000). In the clip, Harvard researcher Daniel Simons describes an experiment that confirms “change blindness.” Students who have agreed to participate in a psychology experiment come into an office and hand a form they have filled out across the counter to a young man. The man ducks down behind the counter and then crawls away out of sight, and a second man, wearing a different-color shirt, with different eye color and a different hairstyle, stands up to hand another sheet to the student. When called into the “experiment room,” students are asked about what just happened, and a staggering 75% did not notice the switch! Shimamura explained that it is unclear to researchers at this point why some people notice the change and others don’t, and that it might not indicate significant differences between their brain chemistry — it might simply be chance that they were paying attention to information that turned out to be relevant in this scenario! Instead of actively cultivating top-down processing in order to learn about the identity of the researcher behind the counter, the students were relying on passive, bottom-up modes of interacting with the world around them.
Given this difficulty in perceiving information when we are interacting passively with our environment, Shimamura recommended that we rely on elaborative encoding. In order for our students to perceive and remember information, we need to make new information meaningful. We can create meaning by putting new information into the context of things students already know, either explicitly or by using comparative metaphors and analogies that help students engage their prior knowledge. We can encourage students to apply their learning to everyday situations, making it tangible. We can also enhance learning “circuits,” or the progressive cycles of building new knowledge, through top-down control — the focus created by the pre-frontal cortex.
Shimamura explained that the pre-frontal cortex, a region located ahead of the frontal motor areas that takes up about 28% of the total brain, is critical for engaging in thought-processing and controlling our thoughts. Before cognitive psychologists had access to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), most of their understanding of the roles of the different regions of the brain came from studying people who had traumatic brain injuries. People with injuries to their pre-frontal cortex, Shimamura told the group, had a problem called perseveration, the uncontrollable repetition of the same response or small group of responses to a question. Although they still retained, in general, the same knowledge they possessed before their injuries, they had trouble recalling all of it because they couldn’t exercise the focus and control over processing their thoughts that the pre-frontal cortex enabled. For example, when asked to list animals, a person with an injury to the pre-frontal cortex might be able to list a few, but would then perseverate, repeating the same animals over and over instead of moving on to others. However, when asked directly about different animals, the person would be able to describe each of them accurately. Thus researchers concluded that they still had knowledge, but they didn’t have access to it or what psychologists call volitional control over it.
Shimamura emphasized that, in order to learn, people need to organize new information and to integrate it with their prior knowledge. To assist them, instructors can categorize or group related material, and create and share outlines of the information being covered. Learning is strengthened, Shimamura said, by practice in generating the new information — repeating something that you’ve just learned to a friend, or briefly summarizing a chapter to yourself after you finish reading it. Thus, in order to improve our teaching, we need to capitalize on the generation effect — improving student learning by encouraging students to generate, or recapitulate, information as they process it. Students might be asked to self-generate or test what they’ve learned. Even very simple retrieval exercises, such as filling in the blanks in “QUARREL = F_GHT,” improve memory more than passively reviewing information, such as reading over “QUARREL = FIGHT.” This enhances brain circuits important for learning. We can also improve our everday memories by remembering that teaching is the best way to learn; telling people what you know, or generating the information, helps solidify what you’ve learned.
Shimamura concluded by reminding the audience of a once-popular study technique known as “SQ3R.” In order to enhance learning when reading, students should first survey the text for two to four minutes, then spend another two to four minutes formulating questions about what they are going to read. The central step, of course, is to do the reading. After reading, students should spend two to four minutes summarizing their reading to themselves, and then two to four minutes reviewing, asking whether they have answered the questions they generated at the beginning. (Examples of detailed descriptions of how to implement the technique can be found on line, for example SQ3R: A Reading Technique and The SQ3R Study System.) The SQ3R technique was introduced as a study method for college students by Francis Pleasant Robinson in his book Effective Study (Harper & Row, 4th ed., 1970); it was taught as a study strategy for decades, but is now largely forgotten. Shimamura pointed out that the SQ3R mnemonic technique incorporates all of the most important ways of learning and encouraging memory; he teaches it to all his students on the first day of class.