Memory, the road to understanding

Connection

Memory, the road to understanding

The first step to mastering a subject is retaining it. E T Arasu elaborates on the link between recollection and comprehension

Memory does not function in isolation. It is intrinsically connected with understanding. For centuries, this connection has not been convincingly taught to students by teachers. Perhaps the teachers themselves were ignorant about this connection.

The result is losing out on millions of hours of hard work students invested in cramming their subjects of study with little or no tangible benefits. The understanding versus memory has remained the least explored area of study. Had the connection been demonstrated in classrooms, there would be no herding of students into coaching centres and parents wasting their hard earned money in lining the pockets of tuition teachers.

Understanding is the key to memory. What is taught and what is learnt can be considered complete only when there is coherent and cogent understanding of the subject under study. Mostly what is taught and what is earnestly learnt does not last long in memory.

The instantaneous memory traces formed as a result of the teaching-learning process get weakened due to the onslaught of ever-bombarding inflow of information on the mind. As a result, even effective teaching does not guarantee indelible memory traces; students only remember having listened to an effective speech or having attended an effective class, but hardly the subject matter.

Effective teaching has components such as helping students comprehend the subject matter, ensuring learning outcomes as per the teaching learning objectives, recapitulation and reinforcement exercises.

The teacher may go through all these exercises and ensure the actualisation of teaching-learning objectives in the class. Yet, s/he cannot guarantee students retaining in their memory for a long period of time what they learnt  in class, as learning outcomes of teacher efforts and retention of subject matter over a period of time are distinctly different issues.

The instantaneous memory traces are the results of teacher-student efforts, which can first be converted to short-term memory traces and then subsequently to long-term memory tracks. The life of instantaneous memory may last for a few minutes to a few hours, whereas the short term memory may have the life of a few to hours to a few days.

The long term memory can be a permanent memory track amenable to recall at will in situations which could determine the future of the student – such as, at the time of writing the examination, at the time of facing interview questions and also at the time of using the acquired knowledge or skills to face practical problems in life. The type of memory the student possesses depends upon the mental exercises he undertakes during his school and after-school study.

Further, the life of memory traces depends upon the presence or otherwise of gaps in understanding that is either not recognised during classroom learning or lost in the continuous inflow of information. The lower-level understanding the student gains in the class masks the knowledge gaps inherent in any knowledge source – the textbook or the teacher’s lecture. These gaps raise their heads at the time of after-school study. In fact, when the student delves into the subject, he hitherto faces unthought-of doubts affecting his study.

Change is key

So long as the teacher focuses on lower-level understanding, the problem of hitherto unthought-of doubts emerging out of the blue will persist. The remedy lies in moving away from transactional teaching strategies to transformational teaching strategies and enlarging the scope of teaching — learning from lower to higher order understanding. While the lower-order understanding requires to know the subject matter ‘as-is’, the higher order understanding requires analysis, synthesis and application.

Higher order understanding focuses on micro-level comprehension of the subject matter which has answers to all inquisitive questioning of the students involving ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and so on. Taking the student through the micro-level comprehension processes, which are essential for the mind to grasp the subject matter, should form an integral part of teaching.

In reality, teachers take these processes for granted, and hence do not touch upon them. Leaving out these crucial processes are responsible for knowledge gaps and doubts, which the students often feel, as they sit for self-study or after-school study.

Bridging the gap

The matters that can fill in the knowledge gaps are links in the absence of which comprehending subject matter is difficult. Complete understanding of subject matter is an essential prerequisite for success in memory efforts. To attain this, the student should study the subject matter before classroom efforts; should be with the teacher as the subject is taught in the class; should review the subject taught at home — preferably on the same day; and should do referencing for reinforcement of study.

Striving for higher order understanding is the need of the hour which is gained through analysis, synthesis and application. Analysis endeavours to find out answers to the nitty-gritty of the subject matter. It is an attempt to find answers to what each component of the content means, why each component part of the content exits as it is and how the component parts are connected. The component parts may be concepts, constructs, general attributes, specific attributes, their role in the subject matter and so on. It is critical in its nature.

For example, let us take up the nominal concepts of ‘cat’ and ‘dog’. Both have a large number of similar general attributes such as – both are domestic animals, both have four legs, two ears, two nostrils, one tail etc. But what distinguishes a cat from a dog is the sound it makes: a cat mews where as a dog barks. From simple concepts like these to complex ones, thorough understanding calls for many mental processes which have to be scrupulously gone through.

Synthesis is a process of assimilation and seeing beyond ‘the sum total as greater than the actual sum of the parts’. This actually means 1+2+3>6. It adds the components of knowledge and creates new meanings and interpretations. It is extending the knowledge from the existing components of it. Synthesis is responsible for not only going beyond but also for many innovations and creativity.

Application consists of utilising the knowledge comprehended through analysis and synthesis systematically and logically. Application of knowledge is easy in known situations, whereas the same is complex in unknown situations, as the vital skills of problem solving, creative thinking and crisis management are to be systematically developed.

The learning process for a hundred per cent understanding should, therefore, consist of elements that would take the student through the journey of cognitive processes. The instantaneous memory’s transformation into long term memory is a long journey riddled with many difficulties. There are certain conditions of the mind which facilitate memory. As you talk to students who do well in studies, you get to know those conditions.

There are many activities which support the strengthening of memory, like, certain invigorating smells — smell of jasmine, lilies, sandalwood; certain special energy food supplements — rich omega, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates; certain exercises — yoga, pranayam, deep breathing, certain inspiring thoughts, constructive recreation and relaxation, and above all, uninterrupted sleep every night for at least six to eight hours.

In education, it is emphasised that every child can be transformed as a bright child by providing psychologically sound mind training and scientifically proven physical culture.

(The writer is deputy commissioner & director, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, Zonal Institute of Education & Training, Mysuru)

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