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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Myth of the Importance of Retention of Information

I heard the other day about a professor who tests his students on line continuously during his lectures and found that his students retain more information than students to whom he simply lectures.

My first thought was shock that he put students through this (although lecturing is so dull maybe it makes it more fun), but then I began speculating on the concept of “retention of information.”

We all, it seems wish we could retain more information and most people chastise themselves for forgetting things. I forgot to get English Muffins at the store the other day and I have been chastising myself because there was a practical consequence to that -- I can’t have them for breakfast.

But I have also forgotten nearly anything that I learned in college. I don’t chastise myself for that, since anything I really needed to know I have used a zillion times since and anything else, well I didn’t need to know it.

I did remember about the bubonic plague however -- you hear that story a lot. Yesterday, news came out of the UK that there never was a bubonic plague and the actual plague they had was was not caused by rats.

I retained that information, but it was wrong. Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, and most of all endless testing by schools and the anything but student-centric College Board, have convinced a generation of Americans that retention of information is the key to something very important. I am not sure what. Good grades I suppose. And good test scores. It is well to remember that tests, especially those in college are usually an attempt by professors to insure that students at least try to pay attention to what they are hearing about. We don’t learn much from lecturing and every professor knows it, so retention of information has become an idea that professors force students to dwell upon.

I looked up some tricks for retention of information that you can find on the web. Here are some excepts from one site:

Focus your attention on the materials you are studying.

Utilize mnemonic devices to remember information. 

Elaborate and rehearse the information you are studying.

Relate new information to things you already know.

Visualize concepts to improve memory and recall.

Teach new concepts to another person.

Pay extra attention to difficult information.

The gist of this is that key to the retention of information is to memorize better. Some of these suggestions are perfectly reasonable but completely useless to mention. If you can’t relate new information to something you already know than you can’t even hear it, in effect. Learning and listening depend upon retrieving what you have experienced yourself and checking to see how your experience relates to what you are hearing. This is how conversation works and it is why we always have something to say back when people tell us stuff (unless we simply don’t care what they are saying.) In other words, memory and learning are natural processes. Giving people a list of thing they do unconsciously is not of much use. Had the last line said “talk about new concepts” instead of “teach new concepts” I would make the same point. But it didn’t and “teach” is wrong. If we weren’t excited enough about what we heard in a lecture to talk about it with our friends, then we have no chance of remembering it, much less teaching it to someone else.

Here is another web site I found on the same subject:

GULP is an acronym for an effective four step process to improve short and long term memory.
Step 1:  G - Get It
Step 2:  U - Use It (sing or chant it)
Step 3:  L - Link It (make an acronym link; alphabetize it)
Step 4:  P - Picture It

This one just made me laugh. Alphabetize it? Is school so awful and listening to lectures so terrible and studying such a miserable experience, that we must resort to alphabetizing everything new thing have just heard? Or chanting it? I liked that one a lot. Why do they write this stuff? (This one is form a university web site.) The answer is obvious. Teaching is really broken. In fact teaching is so bad that not only do we not know what to teach (stuff you can’t remember) but we insist that you remember it. No one ever says why you need to remember any of this, of course. (“For the test” is the obvious answer.)

Here is another one:

Reading Is Not The Only Way To Learn
(And I thought reading was not even one way to learn. I guess I was wrong. I thought practice, thinking, and experience was how we learned.)
Memory Retention Is Based On Pressure
(It is? Do we push on our head in order to learn? Stress ourselves out in order to learn? Stand up on stage and recite what we have learned?  -- Actually I think this last one is what the author intended. It is a good way way to memorize a song or a part in a play of course. What it is has to do with education eludes me.)
And finally one last one:

Research is unanimous - using drawings in your class and study notes  
There is no “best way” to take notes – you need to experiment and test what works best for you.
One thing is for sure – when highlighting a book – don’t highlight every single line, only highlight what you are sure you’re going to have difficulty remembering.  
This one was written by the author of “Get The Best Grades With The Least Amount Of Effort”, a student guide that has been sold to thousands of students in more than 30 countries and translated into 4 languages.
Good. Now it is clear. No one cares about retaining information with the exception that we care about grades and test scores. We care about grades and test scores because we are forced into taking tests and working for grades by an education system that has abandoned the idea that we learn for any other reason. 
Let me make a radical suggestion: We learn so that we can do something we couldn’t do before. One of those things ought not be test taking, but in our world that seems to be the only one that matters. How sad.
I will put this simply: there is no reason to retain information, (with the exception of things like remembering the directions on how to get someplace you are going.) In other words, short term memorization matters. Long term memorization is basically of no use (except for maybe multiplication tables.)  

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