How Memory Works

Kenneth Higbee describes two different processes involved in memory. The first is short-term memory, defined as how many items you are able to perceive at one time. Higbee found that information stored in short-term memory is forgotten in less than 30 seconds (and sometimes much faster) unless you take action to either keep that information in short-term memory or move it to long-term memory.1

Although short-term memory is significantly limited, it has a number of uses. It serves as an immediate but temporary holding tank for information, some of which might not be needed for long. It helps you maintain a reasonable attention span so that you can keep track of topics mentioned in conversation, and it also enables you to stay on task with the goals you are pursuing at any moment. But even these simple functions of short-term memory fail on occasion. If the telephone rings, if someone asks you a question, or if you’re interrupted in any way, you might find that your attention suffers and that you essentially have to start over in reconstructing short-term memory.

short-term memory How many items you are able to perceive at one time. Memory that disappears in less than 30 seconds (sometimes faster) unless the items are moved to long-term memory.

The second memory process is long-term memory, which is the type of memory you will need to improve so that you will remember what you’re learning in college. Long-term memory can be described in three ways. Procedural memory is knowing how to do something, such as solving a mathematical problem or playing a musical instrument. Semantic memory involves facts and meanings without regard to where and when you learned those things. Episodic memory deals with particular events, their time, and their place.2

You are using your procedural memory when you get on a bicycle you haven’t ridden in years, when you can recall the first piece you learned to play on the piano, when you effortlessly type a letter or class report, and when you drive a car. Your semantic memory is used continuously to recall word meanings or important dates, such as your mother’s birthday. Episodic memory allows you to remember events in your life: a vacation, your first day in school, or the moment you opened your college acceptance letter. Some people can recall not only the event but also the very date and time the event happened. For others, although the event stands out, the dates and times are harder to remember immediately.

Connecting Memory To Deep Learning

It can be easy to blame a poor memory on the way we live; multitasking has become the norm for college students and instructors. Admittedly, it’s hard to focus on anything for very long if your life is full of daily distractions and competing responsibilities or if you’re not getting the sleep you need. Have you ever had the experience of walking into a room with a particular task in mind and immediately forgetting what that task was? You were probably interrupted either by your own thoughts or by someone or something else. Or have you ever felt the panic that comes from blanking on a test, even though you studied hard and thought that you knew the material? You might have pulled an all-nighter, and studying and exhaustion raised your stress level, causing your mind to go blank. Such experiences happen to everyone at one time or another. To do well in college, however—and in life—it’s important that you improve your ability to remember what you read, hear, and experience. As one writer put it, “There is no learning without memory.”3 On the other hand, not all memory involves real learning.

long-term memory The type of memory that is used to retain information and can be described in three ways: procedural, semantic, and episodic.

Is a good memory all you need to do well in college? Most memory strategies tend to focus on helping you remember the bits and pieces of knowledge: names, dates, numbers, vocabulary, graphic materials, and formulas. However, if you know the date the Civil War began and the fort where the first shots were fired but you don’t really know why the Civil War was fought, you’re missing the point of a college education. College is about deep learning, understanding the why and how behind the details. So don’t forget that although recall of specific facts is certainly necessary, it isn’t sufficient. To do well in college courses, you will need to understand major themes and ideas, and you will also need to hone your ability to think critically about what you’re learning.

Myths About Memory

Although scientific knowledge about how our brains function is increasing all the time, Kenneth Higbee suggests that you might have heard some myths about memory (and maybe you even believe them). Here are five of these memory myths and what experts say about them:

  1. Myth: Some people are stuck with bad memories.

    Reality: Although there are probably some differences among people in innate memory (the memory ability a person is born with), what really gives you the edge are memory skills that you can learn and use. Virtually anyone can improve the ability to remember and recall.

  2. Myth: Some people have photographic memories.

    Reality: Although a few individuals have truly exceptional memories, most research has found that these abilities result more often from learned strategies, interest, and practice than from some innate ability. Even though you might not have what psychologists would classify as an exceptional memory, applying the memory strategies presented later in this chapter can help you improve it.

  3. Myth: Memory benefits from long hours of practice.

    Reality: Practicing memorizing can help improve memory. If you have ever been a server in a restaurant, you might have been required to memorize the menu. You might even have surprised yourself at your ability to memorize not only the main entrees, but also sauces and side dishes. Experts acknowledge that practice often improves memory, but they argue that the way that you practice, such as using special creative strategies, is more important than how long you practice.

  4. Myth: Remembering too much can clutter your mind.

    Reality: For all practical purposes, the storage capacity of your memory is unlimited. In fact, the more you learn about a particular topic, the easier it is to learn even more. How you organize the information is more important than the quantity.

  5. Myth: People use only 10 percent of their brain power.

    Reality: No scientific research is available to accurately measure how much of our brain we actually use. Most psychologists and learning specialists, however, believe that we all have far more mental ability than we actually tap.

deep learning Understanding the why and how behind the details.