Boosting Memory the Hard Way

I’ve been reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, et al., and I’ve gotten far enough along to extract four fundamental factors in boosting memory: recall, interleaving, spacing and elaboration. In fact, I woke up this morning to find that my never-sleeping brain had organized those factors in a tidy little acronym: RISE. I could hardly resist the urge to head straight for the computer and put this epiphany in writing. After all, I now had the answer to every memory-related question and didn’t want to forget any of it.

Wait, what? How could I forget any of it? I had read and reflected. I had recalled.

I had an acronym.

By the time I got to school and dealt with the myriad surprises that only seem to occur between the hours of 7:30 and 8:00 am, I was already forgetting RISE. What did the E stand for: emotion, encryption, endothermic…? With the help of WordByLetter.com, I was able to narrow it down to a few thousand possibilities, such as:

ewords

A while later, when “elaboration” finally came to mind, I decided it was time to put Make It Stick to practice. I had found the core of the knowledge, but my vision had become too narrow. It was time, in fact, to reflect through RISE. It was time to make a more personal connection and bring this knowledge into the realm of my own world.

What does the spark of knowledge look like to me? How do I see this process play out not only at work but in the world around me? My answer came with the sunrise. Dawn, then, would be become my mental template for recall and reflection about these memory-boosting techniques.

Screenshot (4)

The sun (spaced recall) doesn’t rise at exactly the same place or time every day. To boost students’ memory, I have to vary the timing and variety of assessment and other recall activities, reactivating knowledge right before the moment of forgetting. Like the sun, spaced recall is how we drive back the cold and darkness of forgetting.

The sun isn’t the only thing that makes dawn beautiful. There’s also the landscape replete with trees and hills (interweaving) that break up the monotony. Likewise, rooting knowledge in personal reality and experience avoids the problem of stone-cold unmemorable information.

The last bit of our landscape is the sky and the clouds (elaboration). The beauty of dawn is not so much in the sun itself but rather its effects on the color of the atmosphere and the horizon. If we take away all these extra elements, the sun is nothing more than a star flying through space like any other.

I had fun drawing my little sunrise. It looks so much more interesting than the word RISE typed on a page. But there’s more to it than visual appeal. Visualizing this scene required reflection, and that’s an element of memory that RISE left out. Reflection is the simultaneous end and beginning of the learning process. Having built my initial knowledge, I reflected on its real structure and implications. After that reflection, I’ll start thinking about applying the knowledge. Later still, I’ll reflect on how the application went and what I can do differently next time. Maybe my landscape will change.

We’re taught in school to invent and use mnemonics at every turn: FOIL, ROY G BIV, DR MRS VANDERTRAMP, and so on. There’s a certain utility to acronyms, but there’s also a downside. I remember what FOIL stands for, but I don’t know what kind of algebraic problem to apply it to. I know the purpose of DR MRS VANDERTRAMP, but I’d have to mentally sift through all the French verbs I know to remember which ones go in it. I wonder how much of my brain space is occupied by information that I can’t actually apply.

I fell into the acronym allure, but thanks to a wake-up call from Make It Stick, I avoided another pitfall frequently discussed in the book: a false sense of mastery. Arranging four words into the shape of one word is nowhere near mastering all the concepts in a 300-page book. At best, I condensed the information (and perhaps too much). I should’ve known right away from reading Make It Stick that “easy” learning is hardly learning at all. My goal should’ve been to create challenge for myself, not ease. Building a meaningful visual organization of the concept was much more thought-provoking than finding a word that contained the letters r, i, s and e.

I really should’ve known this all along. The deepest learning that I’ve ever experienced has come from my training in druidry. In 20 years of studying Celtic lore, I’ve never once encountered something as stark as an acronym. Instead, I’ve been presented with rich, beautiful visuals with strong and deep interconnectivity (interleaving). Learning is cyclical and requires activating prior knowledge (spaced recall) over the span of whole seasons and years, and it also evolves into bigger concepts (elaboration). Reflection is both the ends and the means. How do we write a poem without reflecting on the nature of things? Why write a poem if it encourages no reflection or imagination? Most importantly, the factual knowledge of druidry is merely the foundation to a search for truth that must be absolutely personal. The learning is hard. I often feel starved for information and structure, and I often feel like I’m generating more questions and problems than solutions, just like Make It Stick says I should.

I woke up this morning with the feeling that I was bringing Make It Stick to a close. This afternoon, I feel like I’m just beginning to crack it open.

Overall, I found Make It Stick to be an interesting read. The data isn’t overly hefty, and as much as I tend to dismiss anecdotes about topics that have no interest to me, I’ll admit that the authors make good points in their narratives. There was a little confusion in the prose at a times, but perhaps that’s a good thing. The process of deciding whether the authors were for or against particular methods probably kept me more engaged than straightforward statements.

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