Remembering to learn by learning to remember.

In the second of our series, Tim Barnes PhD talks about contemporary neuroscience's impact on the world of academic coaching. 


We often think of the learning process as coming before the remembering process. After all, what are you remembering, if not something you've already learned? However, what if we could flip the system around, so that memory was a tool for learning? Evidence shows that we can harness this power to become smarter, more efficient learners. 

Education researchers have recently documented what they call a testing effect, where repeatedly quizzing a student on a recently learned fact helps them to solidify that fact better than repeated study sessions. [1] Hoping to reveal a brain mechanism or correlate for this effect, Wiklund-Hörnqvist and colleagues recorded brain activity while running a memory exercise for participants. [2] In effect, they wanted to see how remembering something could help you learn it. 

Subjects (mainly in their twenties) were given a “lesson” in a subject they (presumably) have no previous experience of: translating words between Swedish and Swahili. Each subject stared at a screen for a half hour, where each of sixty translation pairs was shown on the screen for five seconds, all repeated five times. Then each subject was tested on the word pairs while in an MRI scanner. After being shown one of the words, they were asked to push a button declaring how sure they were about their knowledge. Then they had to answer a multiple choice question about its translation into the other language: what’s the second letter in the other word? The key experimental condition was that sometimes they were given instant feedback on what the correct translation word was afterward, and sometimes there was no feedback. Words with feedback were presented three times in the testing period.

After collecting all the data, the authors analyzed only those responses for which the subjects said they were sure about their answers and then either got the question right every time (+++) or got the question wrong the first time and then learned from the corrective feedback (-++). The more active brain areas during presentation of effective corrective feedback were those that correspond to learning new rules or strategies for accomplishing a task. In other words, re-testing may help students consolidate learning by practicing remembering the relevant fact — reorganizing one’s mental filing cabinet in order to streamline fact retrieval.

Practically, this study reinforces what many tutors and teachers already know — practice-based learning is more effective than listening to a lecture. The testing effect, however, has only been verified when the student believes they grasp the content. So, for learners, testing oneself on the material as a first step may be a major tool for committing items to memory. So test yourself first, learn the material second, and there's a good chance it'll stay learned!

[1] Karpicke JD and Roediger HL (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science 319(5865):966–968.

[2] Wiklund-Hörnqvist C, Andersson M, Jonsson B, and Nyberg L (2017). Neural activations associated with feedback and retrieval success. npj Science of Learning 2(1):12.

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Tim Barnes