In my latest #tiegrad class I was asked to reflect on a highly memorable learning experience and link it to my understanding of learning and memory.
Sadly, I can probably count on one hand the number of highly memorable learning experiences I have encountered. With this in mind, I don’t know why I am so surprised to see some of my students unengaged and unmotivated. As it turns out, learning experiences are more often than not largely forgetful because it is a complex and individual experience:
“Learning is not simply a process of absorbing information from the environment. Rather, it is a process of making—actively and intentionally constructing—knowledge and understandings.” – Ormrod (2010)
One of my most memorable learning experiences occurred recently. For six weeks in November of last year I attended prenatal classes with my wife and unborn child. These six sessions, although highly engaging, did not involve a lot of ‘hands on’ work, nor was there time allotted to practice the skills necessary for a healthy, active, and participatory labour experience. This contradicts some of the learning strategies we use in schools and classrooms around the country while creating robust learning experiences for students.
Why was this experience so memorable?
For two main reasons:
I was highly motivated about the content because I could see how the skills learned in the classes would help make my life easier during a transitional time in my life. I had enough life experience to know that there was a real benefit for me to retain as much information as possible in an effort to retain a healthy work/life balance. Retaining information is sometimes difficult for me. Most of the time, especially during professional development opportunities my district offers, I do not move information from my working memory to long-term memory very effectively. Why? I think I am an automated learner, and are not actively engaged in my own learning – especially when my life is busy and my mind seems full. In our text, Design For How People Learn, Dirksen talks the steps required to move information from working memory to long-term memory. She uses the example of ‘shelves’ on which information can be stored, much like a well organized filing system in the brain. The more shelves one can place important information the better chance one stands of retrieving it when needed. “Anything that you do remember becomes part of a series of associations – you don’t learn anything in isolation.” – Dirksen.
When it came to prenatal classes the information was easy to encoded because I had enough life experience to see a direct and immediate need the information. It was easily retrieved during the lengthy labour process because I filed it away on many ‘shelves’ including being a support to wife, being a good husband, be an advocate for my wife during labour, and being able to care for a newborn.
Another reason why this was a memorable learning experience was because the content evoked strong emotions within me all the learners present. The use of role-playing was highly effective during class, and helped a great deal prepare my wife and I for a very different birth experience than we had planned. One of the last activities we completed in our prenatal class was to role play what it would look like if labour did not go to plan and an emergency cesarean section was required. Our instructor, Michelle, did an excellent job of explaining how a cesarean section was vastly different from a natural birth. She directed the fathers in the group to role-play what would happen in this scenario. After the session I knew at what point a caesarian would happen, how my wife’s care would be transferred from midwife to obstetrician, that we would separated for a short period of time before and after birth, that the operating room would be full of doctors and nurses, that the room would be painfully bright, and that I would be with baby directly after surgery and not, ideally, my wife.
“Even though we know it’s not real, role-playing can be an effective way to create the feel of the emotional context, especially if you have effective playing the part.” – Julie Dirksen
In summary, in each of the six prenatal lessons the information that caught my attention the most, information I moved from sensory register into short-term memory, was information that evoked strong emotions, and information I needed in order to be the best support I could be for my wife. As working memory tends to hold information for only a few seconds I needed to encode this information into long-term memory, quickly. I used many associations to encode the information as mention above. I placed the information on several ‘shelves’ with labels such as ‘best practices for being a supportive husband’, ‘skills required to be a great first time father’, ‘baby’s needs’, ‘worst case scenarios’, etc. Having numerous associations helped me easily retrieve information when I needed it, even under stressful and unexpected conditions. “Learners are especially likely to retrieve information when they have many possible pathways to it – in other words, when they have associated the information with numerous other ideas in their existing knowledge.” – Ormrod (2010)