As discussed in an earlier question, memory is not ‘a static entity like the hard disk of a computer’. Memory is a process and by implication memory is not one organ in our brain. It is an ongoing process of capturing information as a result of learning and recalling information when needed. The act of recall by the memory is a function of effective coordination between the two types of memory:
- Short term
- Long term
Short term memory is the ‘working or processing memory’ much like the RAM memory in computers. It is the memory which takes information from the long term memory and processes it in the way required. For example, if one has to find the HCF of 34 and 24, the short term memory will work in the following manner: (this example is purely illustrative and greatly simplified):
a. Seek the meaning of HCF from Long term memory.
b. Seek the meaning of prime factorisation from Long term memory.
c. Factorise 34 and 24
d. Prime factorise 34 and 24
e. Calculate the HCF of 34 and 24
Short term memory for a particular task operates only for few seconds and each of the above steps must be done within those seconds. By implications, if Long term memory recalls do not happen in those seconds, the ‘brain will be locked down’. The action of short term memory is a function of speed of recall of the required data from long term memory and performing the ‘working’ (calculations). The involvement of short term memory in ‘work’ is the reason why it is also called working memory.
The backend memory – long term memory – on the other hand is about handling the recurrent references to it for data. The more you refer to it, the richer it becomes with increasing linkages with other information forming a network. The best network is one which leaves as many open threads for recall as possible so that the recall process for short term memory get faster and more accurate (and allow more of the critical seconds for ‘calculations’.)
Long term memory is dependent on the regimen of its management. The better the discipline with which memory is ‘recalled and refreshed’, the better the quality of recall. The quality of recall is essentially the speed and accuracy of recalled information (with respect to the target information of the recall.) For example, children will have better memory and better learning if they follow a routine to bolster their long term memory; whatever is learnt in a day in school must be revisited again the same day, within a week also and revised within a month again and followed by revision at the end of three months and six months.
Unfortunately, school education is not ‘memory management’ friendly. Schools do not ensure that there is frequent recall of the learnt content. Schools should ensure that:
a. all the teachers duly revisit every important piece of the prior knowledge in every topic/concept.
b. ‘pre-reading’ the content of the classes ahead is a far more fail-safe method of memory management than ‘post-reading’ (expecting children to revisit the content of teaching later in the day, everyday)
c. all the concepts covered in the syllabus must be assessed a few times over the period of a term.
d. remedial process should be focused on concepts.
No less importantly, memory management is very difficult for things just heard because one cannot really revise to perfection what is heard. Reading is far friendlier for memory management, compared to what is learnt out of doing, seeing or hearing.
Let us now explore ways of improving recall. We already know that the more the unique links to a particular content of memory the better the recall (just as it is easier to recall someone you met during an interesting vacation or especially pleasurable event). Here is a listing of the more important tools to improve memory management by multiplying anchors or recall threads:
a. Picture associated with the spoken, read or seen content. It improves visualisation during recall and forms a strong recall factor.
b. Story woven around content (in fact, stories are the ‘atoms’ of communication.) Maths and science need as much ‘stories’ as any other subject and stories always make easier recall
c. Reflex due to practice. When we practice any activity, it embeds into our reflexes. Practice helps (but only when it is thoughtful and not the ‘same question’ practice over and over again).
d. Mnemonics help in providing easy to remember anchors to recall lengthy content. Invent your own mnemonics of important things to remember.
e. Texts read is an obvious anchor for recall; our children mostly use this as the only anchor for memory. Children fail to generate additional links to the text read if they are not
f. Connection to prior knowledge helps in forming an extensive network of easily recallable information for better retention.
g. Frequency of recall/conversations – the more you converse the more you recall. For example, if children never discuss ‘acceleration’ outside classrooms, the concept of acceleration might never be clear in their mind. Multiple recalls leave a more ‘permanent memory’ of any content.
h. Reinforcement due to reading wide genre of books/content so that you can get multiple threads/contexts for recall.
i. Amount of independent writing – expression is the key to memory and recall and writing is perhaps the most structured form of expression for better recall.
It must be emphasised again that these elements of recall are not mutually exclusive and the more these elements are associated with a concept, the better the recall.
‘Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.’
— Oscar Wilde