Teaching and Human Memory, Part I

Brian Taylor

November 15, 2011

Imagine you have a sore shoulder, so you visit a physical therapist and come away with a set of exercises that she says will help improve your condition. A month later, with your shoulder no better, you return and ask why the exercises aren't working.

"I have no idea," she responds. "I don't actually know anything about how muscles work. I do research on the depiction of physical therapy in American film and television. I have a book coming out next year from a major press."

"But," you respond, "then how did you know to prescribe those exercises?"

"Oh," she says, "I just used common sense. Plus I had a sore shoulder once, and they worked for me."

As ridiculous as that scenario might seem, it doesn't much miss the mark in describing how most faculty members teach without knowing much about how students learn. We devote at least part of our careers to making lasting impressions on the minds of our students, yet the vast majority of us have little or no knowledge of how those minds actually work.

We spend years mastering our disciplines, so you can hardly blame us for not devoting several more years to studying cognitive science. And, unlike our imagined physical therapist, many of us seem to get by well enough in the classroom by drawing upon our well of common sense and reflecting on our own experiences as learners.

But I see plenty of faculty members whose ideas, based on common sense and experience, about how to help students learn don't seem to work very well. And often enough, my own ideas don't work nearly as well as I expect them to. In those unhappy moments, I usually wonder whether a little more knowledge of how the gears spin in the heads of my students might help me do a better job.

Just as the fall semester was about to begin this year, I came across a journal article in College Teaching that provided what struck me as a beautifully concise summary of some key recent developments in cognitive theory and memory research—as well as some insightful reflections on what those developments mean (or should mean) for our classroom practice.

I devoured the article several times, bleeding fresh ink on it with each reading, and finally decided to write to the author to ask if she would be willing to share her expertise with readers of this column. The theories and applications that I pulled from her article and from our e-mail interviews provided me with enough material for two columns, so this forms the first of two parts designed to let faculty members reflect on whether some basic knowledge of the workings of human memory might help them do their jobs more effectively.

Michelle Miller is a professor and chair of the psychology department at Northern Arizona University. A researcher and teacher in the fields of language, memory, and cognitive psychology, she has devoted much of her career to thinking about the relationship between her research areas and her classes. She has worked on a course-redesign project on her campus to help improve retention and performance rates in large classes.

Miller's article in College Teaching opens with an explanation of why so few of us may count ourselves as even amateur enthusiasts for cognitive theory: The field remains a relatively young one and has evolved rapidly over the past several decades. If you did happen to pick up some ideas 10 or 15 years ago about learning and cognition in a how-to-teach seminar in graduate school, what you learned there might have been superseded or even overturned since then by new information and theories.

Equally troublesome, research findings at the edge of the field don't always translate easily into pedagogical practice. As Miller describes the dilemma, "a working understanding of memory processes is clearly useful for instructors, who work very hard to promote long-term retention of course material, and fortunately, there is no shortage of theoretical research detailing the inner workings of memory. On the other hand, when this theoretical research is translated into specific suggestions for pedagogical practice, it is too often misinterpreted, oversimplified, or substantially out of date."

In fact, she continues, many of us are very likely working under an out-of-date model of human memory, one that has shaped teaching practices in higher education. It divides human memory into three stages or parts: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. According to the researchers who developed the model, those "three components worked in concert to perform information processing—i.e., turning sensory experience into a 'code' that can be stored and retrieved when needed," Miller explains.

For teachers working in that model, the challenge was to determine the best methods for helping students encode information in such a way that it would transfer easily from short-term memory into long-term memory. If you have ever advised your students to process information through multiple senses—reading it, writing it down, speaking it aloud—then you were probably basing your recommendations on an informal or distilled version of that memory model.

Unfortunately, Miller points out, "vanishingly few cognitive researchers"—including the very scientists who developed the theory—support it anymore.

One major problem with the theory, she writes, is that short-term memory turns out to be much more complex than the model posits. Some teaching practices that have been commonplace, such as encouraging students to process information in multiple forms, may indeed be quite effective—but not exactly for the reasons that the model would suppose.

But more important, Miller says, this older memory model, like other theories of cognition and memory, does not take fully enough into account the function of memory: "You can't understand how a memory component works," she writes, "until you understand what it is for."

Considering memory from this functionary perspective has opened up new directions for research that pushes beyond the mechanics of short-term memory. And one result of the new research has been the happy discovery that our long-term memories have much greater storage capacity than we may have realized.

Unhappily, that capacious storage room creates a different problem for us.

"In long-term memory," Miller writes, "the limiting factor is not storage capacity, but rather the ability to find what you need when you need it. Long-term memory is rather like having a vast amount of closet space. It is easy to store many items, but it is difficult to retrieve the needed item in a timely fashion."

To help solve that problem, our mind uses cues: "Cues solve the retrieval quandary by triggering the information needed in a given situation. When we encode information, such as a name, we link it to other information that is present at the time—a face, a person's appearance, where we're standing when we are introduced. Provided with the right set of cues, we can retrieve that person's name. Without those cues, we are at a loss."

I expect that most of us can identify personally with the connection between cues and memories. The power of cues helps explain why a particular song may remind you of a memorable afternoon in Paris, or why, for me, the smell of stale beer always draws up vivid memories of my first-year dorm room.

Further reflection is likely to yield more-intellectual examples. One long afternoon over winter break in my sophomore year in college, I sat in a chair in my parents' living room and had my life changed by Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Whenever I sat in that chair, for many years afterward, detailed memories of O'Neill's play and its impact on my life would return to me. And I can walk into certain classrooms on my campus and immediately recall formative experiences I had in my development as a teacher.

But while we may be able to draw up endless examples of how our minds have created such connections between learned information and the contextual cues that accompanied our first encounter with that information, those examples don't translate very easily—as Miller points out—into concrete pedagogical practice.

If it turns out that the greatest memory challenge our students face is retrieving information from their long-term memories when they need it to perform on exams and assignments, and if that retrieval ability depends on the use of contextual cues during the information-encoding process, what does that mean for our job description as teachers? Do we have any control over the cues that accompany the encoding of information in our students' brains? Can we help them develop effective cues?

In next month's column, I'll draw on my conversation with Michelle Miller to provide some initial answers to those questions, and to help you see how developments in memory research translate into course design and classroom practice.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at