(then we’ll forget about this and look at something else next month…..)

To round off this first three-part exploration of memory, I’m going to draw a few things together and throw in a few more memorisation principles. Of course, we could talk about memory forever and I will return to it in the future, but I’m also eager to explore other aspects of professional learning with you.

No apologies for going over a few things – that’s a key part of memorisation. You have to review, reconsider, re-set the challenge and so on. If you expect it to ‘stick’ in one go there’s a good chance you will be disappointed. In another TLC blog Malcolm Sloan mentioned Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve (1885, so not a new idea), which neatly summarises how quickly we are likely to forget something that we have only encountered once.

Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve


So we’ve established that staggered repetition, but not boredom, is important and that repetition should involve using information in different ways. You may recall that last week we finished with the idea of using Gagné’s Five Domains to help with this. Here they are again:

Gagné’s Five Domains of Learning

Intellectual: working with concepts and rules to solve problems

Motor: using movements efficiently

Verbal: articulating information

Cognitive: creating new solutions, managing own thinking and learning

Attitude: chosen behaviours

Let’s briefly consider how these might assist us, using a personal example of mine, but please, please quickly re-work this with one of your own. I am currently reading John Gibbons’s latest book, The Vital Nerves. Clearly, there is plenty of intellectual challenge in its contents, so domain one is very evident. I can add a motor dimension myself (domain two), physically plotting nerve pathways etc on myself, going through the movements that different nerves control etc. That leads us to something called embodied cognition, but that’s a whole different, future blog. Domain three could involve explaining some of what I have learned so far to someone else or record myself attempting to explain and then review that. Or I might attempt to explain it in a different format, such as a diagram or a picture. For domains four and five I could think about how this new information might assist with current clients, or with a client with whom I suspected a nerve issue but lacked the depth of knowledge to pursue that further. In this scenario the domains combine or overlap. How much does the client need? In what form? Which clients? When would it be helpful? Am I just parading knowledge for its own sake (not a good behaviour choice)?

Whatever approach I take, one thing is clear: as much as I may get a great deal from reading John’s book, if that is all I do I am likely to remember only a small amount of what I have read.

All of this leads back to a central point that has run through these blogs: we need strategy. Most of us have a few ideas for this that we have picked up along the way and I strongly advise that you continue to get to know your own memory in this regard, gaining a deeper understanding of the types of strategy that work for you. In Kenneth Higbee’s view, strategies work through some basic principles. Firstly, meaningfulness, whether that is relevance to you or your clients, connections with things you have learned before, patterns that you recognise. Secondly, organisation. Higbee uses the dictionary as an example. How come you can find the words you’re looking for in a dictionary? Ok, pretty obvious, but take away the organisational role of alphabetical order and dictionaries would be chaotic, annoying things. So what organisational rigour can you impose on information you are trying to memorise? How can you group it? Where are the unexpected connections and associations? Like the Robert Winston in last month’s learning blog, you can also create the associations for yourself.

Visualisation is the next principle. We often try to visualise things to recall them. I have known students remember huge amounts of information by turning it into a picture. The same picture might not work for someone else, of course and I should also mention that a small percentage of us simply do not think in pictures at all, so this approach won’t help. The final principle is attention. You won’t remember details that you didn’t pay attention to. There is a wider point here, about multitasking. Basically, with complex, challenging information and learning, it needs your undivided attention. Cognitively, multitasking is actually just switching rapidly between things, with mental energy wasted each time you have to re-connect. Though many of them probably never explained why, turns out there was good reason that some teachers insisted on your undivided attention.

Final Thoughts

Returning to where we started, let’s remind ourselves that memory, is not finite, is not a single structure, is not always easy, takes practice, regular use, planning and strategy. ‘Eyewitness’ testimonies show us that it is not always reliable either, so be kind to yourself as stressing about it or accusing yourself of having a ‘bad memory’ (you don’t have) won’t help. Amusing, embarrassing and relevant anecdote,……about 20 years ago I sat my kids down to watch the Steve McQueen film The Great Escape, must have been Christmas Day or Boxing Day. I repeatedly told them that the ending was brilliant. This was because as I remembered it, Steve McQueen soars over the barbed wire on a motorbike, to freedom in Switzerland. I’ll never recover from my children’s disappointment when Steve and the bike get tangled in the barbed wire and returned to the prison camp. Sometimes we remember what we choose to remember. I’m never living that one down.

Keep learning!