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Cognition and Instruction/Decoding Processes in Learning

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While encoding processes store new information into long-term memory, retrieval processes access previously stored information in long-term memory and place it into our conscious awareness [1]. This chapter will examine the theory and research behind the reconstruction of memories, as well as some errors that occur during the reconstruction of memories. Further, the recall of specific events will be discussed; specifically the use of episodic memories during retrieval processes and the phenomenon of flashbulb memories. This chapter will also look at relearning by reflecting on the history of research on this topic. We will also examine two different types of practices for the relearning of information, as well as what occurs after brain injury. Lastly, this chapter will discuss the use of testing as a retrieval practice and the research surrounding this topic.

Contents

Encoding ProcessesEdit

Before we are able to decode information, it must first be placed in to our long-term memory, which is referred to as encoding [2]. There are several strategies that students can use in order to successfully encode the information that is being learned. When encoding simple information, three distinct strategies can be used. Elaborative rehearsal, defined as “any form of rehearsal in which the to-be-remembered information is related to other information”, is a deeper encoding strategy than maintenance rehearsal, which is simple repetition of information [3]. Mediation is a simple elaborative encoding strategy that involves relating information that is difficult to remember with something meaningful [4]. Another commonly used strategy is mnemonics, in which new information is paired with already learned information. This gives meaning to the new information, which allows it to be more memorable [5].

In order to encode more complex information one may use other strategies, such as activating prior knowledge, using guided questioning, or using the levels of processing approach [6].

Reconstruction of Memories and InformationEdit

Definition and examplesEdit

In previous chapters, we have learned about the encoding process and its role in constructing memories. In this chapter we look at the retrieval process and its use of reconstructive memory. When information is taken into the brain during encoding, only selected key elements of the situation are stored in long-term memory.[7] This storage is aided with the structural help of schemata, mental frameworks that help organize knowledge.[7] Think of how you recognize that a dog is a dog. Your schema for "dog" may include, four legs, barks, has a tail, and so on. Some people may include in there schema for "dog" that they are pets, while other may include that they can be dangerous and can bite. The individual componets that make up a schema work together in constructing one's perceptive of that schema. When we want to retrieve certain information for recall, the schemata will be activated and the stored pieces of information will be combined with general knowledge, thereby reconstructing the memory into a whole. Therefore, reconstructive memory can be defined as the way in which the recall process reassembles information by building upon the basis of limited key details held in long-term memory with the general and domain specific knowledge in one’s repertoire. The reconstruction of memory allows our minds to deal with fragments of information, which is far easier to handle than taking on every piece of information we come into contact with all at once. The reconstruction of memory is not a fully accurate system of retrieval; mistakes can arise out of the reconstruction process that can distort the original information. This section will focus on reconstruction of memories and information, give specific examples and definitions, provide an insight into the research in this field, and examine the errors that can arise during the process of memory reconstruction.

To give a basic image of the concept behind reconstruction, think of a jigsaw puzzle and the box that holds its pieces. The individual puzzle pieces come together in creating a unified image, but are stored as individual units within the box. When the pieces are reconstructed in a meaningful way, starting with one piece and it being connected to another piece and so on, the entire image comes together as a whole image. The completed puzzle is now a single entity and now too big to fit into the box. In order to have the puzzle stored properly in the box, it needs to be deconstructed and have its individual pieces put back into their original container. The idea here is that memories and information are deconstructed for easy storage, yet have the ability to be reconstructed in collaboration with general and domain specific knowledge in order to become a single unit of meaningful information.[7]

Bartlett's Research on Memory ReconstructionEdit

The nature of memory recall has been under debate for many years, with the question: is recalling information from memory a reproductive process or a reconstructive process?[7] After several experiments regarding memory reconstruction, many cognitive psychologists agree that remembering is a reconstructive process.[7] One experiment that widely impacted this debate was done by British psychologist Frederic Bartlett and was expressed in his book Remembering:A Study in Experimental and social psychology.[8] The experiment involved a group of students who read a short story from an entirely different culture; the fact that the story was from a different culture was to ensure that the material as not too familiar to the students. At various lengths of time since the original reading, students were asked to reproduce the story to the best of their abilities. Two years after the original reading, one student was asked to reproduce the original story. The only pieces of information the student could reproduce were the names of the two main characters in the story, Egulac and Calama. After some thinking, the student was able to connect several other aspects of the story to the vivid names that she originally remembered; although these aspects did not match the original story exactly, it was clear that they were inspired by the original content. This experiment shows that remembering can be an active process that combines key points of interests that are stored in long-term memory with prior knowledge in order to produce a whole product that closely matches the original.  This experiment supports the reconstructive nature of memory because the student started with a main point of reference, then actively tried to make connections, ultimately reconstructing the original story, or at least a story that resembles the original).[8]

Errors in ReconstructionEdit

The work done by Bartlett sets the stage for addressing the errors that can arise during memory reconstruction. As stated earlier in section 1.2, the student in Bartlett’s experiment was able to reconstruct her memory of the story, but the reconstructed memory did not exactly match the original content. Bartlett was able to show not only that remembering is a reconstructive process, but also that this process is vulnerable to errors and is not fully reliable in reproducing completely accurate copies of the original experience. There are two main topics related to memory reconstruction errors: confabulation and selective memory.

Confabulation is one error that arises out of memory reconstruction. Confabulation is the unintentional fabrication of events displayed as real memories in one's cognition. It is a common problem that can affect those who have suffered from a brain injuries or psychological diseases. Confabulation occurs when the key pieces of information in long-term memory that starts the reconstruction process of producing the memory is lost; this loss can be caused from brain trauma. The brain makes up for this loss of information by coming up with new information that seems right, resulting in the invention of a confused memory. Confabulation can present itself in a wide degree of severity, depending on the individual and their medical condition.[9]

Selective memory is the active repression of negative memories, or it can be seen as the active focus on positive memories. This causes errors in the reconstruction of memories because the recall process is disturbed. When a person actively represses negative memories, those memories will be forgotten. The forgotten material will not be recalled because even the proper cues will not connect to the repressed material.[10]

Recalling Specific EventsEdit

While reconstruction of memories occurs when people try to retrieve memories from a general information and memory storage, retrieval of specific bits of information- like specific life events- occurs under a slightly different process [11]. In this section the recalling of specific events will be looked at. We will discuss the role that episodic memory has and how this type of memory functions. We will also examine a phenomenon known as flashbulb memories and how it works.

The Role of Episodic Memory

Episodic memory is defined as the “storage and retrieval of personally dated, autobiographical experiences” [12]. Appropriately named, this type of memory focuses on life events, like recalling childhood events, where you vacationed last summer, and even what you had for breakfast last Sunday. These types of memories are retrieved with the help of associations that link the event to a specific time or place [13]. Robin, Wynn, and Moscovitch studied the effects of spatial context on the recall of specific events [14]. These researchers were interested in whether actually being in the context or simply hearing auditory cues about the context will enable the recall of events [15]. Robin and colleagues found that locations, compared to people, served as a better tool for recall when participants were asked to either imagine or recall an event- although both were better when they were highly familiar [16]. It is interesting to note that Robin et al. [17] found that even when there was no location specified for the scenarios provided, the participants were much more likely to generate a spatial context than a person. The researchers state that “participants spontaneously added location information to the person-cued events when none was specified” [18]. Furthermore, when spatial cued events were compared against person cued events, it was discovered that the recall of memories was much more vivid and detailed [19]. Thus, the researchers concluded that spatial cues were much more effective for accurately recalling specific events [20]. This study portrayed how the location and time of various events is a salient factor for retrieval of episodic memories.

There is an ongoing debate among psychologists whether episodic memory and semantic memory, which is defined as a “memory of general concepts and principles and associations among them”, are different types of memory [21]. Researchers are investigating brain activity in people with amnesia who are no longer able to retrieve episodic memories [22]. A study on individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease, a type of dementia characterized by progressive degeneration of the brain, found that people with amnesia have significant impairments in all domains of episodic memory [23]. The greatest impairments were evident in acquisition of memory, delayed recall and associative memory [24].

Research on people with amnesia inspired many psychologists to investigate the functions of implicit memory; this type of memory is an automatic and unconscious way of memory retention [25]. It is interesting to note that often times our memories are not available to our conscious mind for recall, but can still influence our behaviour due to a previous event [26]. Early theorists believed that the “inability of such individuals to transfer verbal materials from [short-term memory] to [long term memory] played a critical role in their amnesia” [27]. However, this view was not adequate, as it became evident that individuals suffering from amnesia were not impaired in all kinds of long-term verbal memory [28]. Further studies have revealed that individuals with amnesia have the ability to use implicit memory when completing various tasks, like spelling, suggesting that there is no division between semantic memory and episodic memory [29].

Flashbulb Memories

Moving forward, flashbulb memories are another type of memory for recalling specific events. This type of memory is of an incredibly specific nature and is tied to events with an emotional relevance to the individual [30]. For example, individuals may experience flashbulb memories when remembering the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Although flashbulb memories may be considered to be perfect accounts of the event or events that have occurred, research has discovered something quite on the contrary. It has been found that flashbulb memories are not actually as accurate as previously assumed [31]. This gives rise to the debate on whether flashbulb memories are a “special class of emotional memories,” or whether they should be categorized as ordinary autobiographical memories [32].

RelearningEdit

Relearning is a process of acquiring of once lost information, while using much less time compared to the initial attempt of learning the same material. It provides an accurate demonstration of how memory can store the smallest traces of information without us realising that we remember anything about it. Proof to that is how much faster we can relearn seemingly lost information compared to first tries of learning it[33]. A good example would be the case when a learner memorizes meaningless set of words and then after some time, when it is impossible to recall any of it, he or she repeats the process. The comparison between the amount of time that was needed to memorize the words for the first and the second time would demonstrate that the second attempt was shorter in duration. Next section demonstrates how similar experiments were done by prominent researches in the past.

History of Research on Relearning MethodEdit

Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the first researchers who examined relearning method in his work. He practiced it by memorizing nonsense syllables to the point when he could repeat them without an error[34]. After some time, when the memory of it was completely gone, he relearned the same set of syllables and compared the number of attempts made during the initial and subsequent sessions. The fact that the second try required less time to succeed in recalling suggested that some information retained after initial session[34].

However, relearning method stays underused in modern memory research and more widespread approaches like recall tests took its place[35]. One reason for that is an apparent insufficiency in measuring any visible savings while relearning complex materials, which usually require deeper understanding alongside the sheer memorization[36].

Distributed versus Massed PracticeEdit

Although it is unclear how exactly relearning occurs, research indicates that the way in which learners practice their studies has a major impact on both learning and relearning. There are two ways of practice that can cause quite different learning outcomes. One is distributed practice - a certain amount of study sessions which take place regularly over time (e.g., working on improving a skill for several weeks or years). The opposite is massed practice, where learners make one-time intensive effort of working on a task (e.g., preparing for a test overnight)[37].

Subsequent retention of information proves to be more successful when using distributed practice method. At the same time, if the goal of a studying is to pass a test or just use certain knowledge once or twice, massed practice might be a better choice[38]. Thus, the purpose of the learning activity could influence which of these practices learners adopt in a given activity.

A number of non-experimental studies had examined the effect of distributed practice on mathematical knowledge retention. In particular Bahrick and Hall (1991) analyzed how much the subjects remember from school algebra and geometry classes after 1 to 50 years later. Results of the study indicated that the more different-level classes of the same subject student took in school (which means that he or she was exposed to certain amount of repetition of the same material), the better student’s memory of the subject was[39].

Massed practice can be beneficial too, in particular while meeting two conditions. First case is when the goal is not understanding, but particular behaviour, which would generate stimulus-response linkages. Second example is when it is used by an expert who already holds sufficient amount of knowledge in the field[40].

Relearning after Brain InjuryEdit

Another interesting domain, where relearning occurs as a necessity, is the cases of people forgetting sometimes not only declarative, but even simple procedural knowledge that we all have been trained to perform since early childhood. When brain injury results in dysfunction between different parts of the brain, motor and cognitive functioning suffers. In that case, damage can cause problems in performing even regular every-day behaviour. Observational learning appears to be one of the most useful relearning tactics for individuals with such injuries. When watching others performing a needed activity, patients form a mental representation of it[41]. If accompanying by a proper reinforcement, such practice can produce positive results for patients who is capable of focusing their attention on the object, can plan and execute their own behaviour[41].

Testing as Retrieval PracticeEdit

When thinking of a test, most students will only consider its outcomes in the form of a grade or a conclusive estimation of their abilities and knowledge, while research proves that testing can be a solid learning tool itself. Depending on the desirable outcomes, tests can be designed and implemented into the curriculum in much more useful ways than just for assessment purposes.

Testing EffectEdit

The principle of the testing effect states that if being tested during the time of study by undergoing smaller tests and quizzes on the material, students will perform better on their final test[42].

Under certain conditions tests can provide much more positive impact on students’ future retrieval of information, than spending the same amount of time on rereading the material. That standard tends to be confirmed even if no feedback follows the test and performance on the test itself is not perfect. Thereby, after initial studying of the material, it would be more beneficial to undergo some tests on it, than rereading the text again[43].

However, better effect takes place if detailed feedback for the test is provided or if performance on it was successful. Research indicated that the number of successful tries increases long-term retrieval effect respectively. Even better conditions are provided when those testing practices are distributed across several days and take place repeatedly[44].

Several reasons form the basis of tests providing more positive impact on students’ retrieval outcomes than simple rereading of study material. One of such reasons is practice on the retrieval, when learners have an opportunity to work on their abilities to find and extract needed material out of their memory under small pressure of a challenge. Also, if there is a resemblance between practice and final tests, such actions will put retrieval processes into right context, which provides additional connections between encoding and decoding conditions[45].

Research on Testing for RetrievalEdit

Despite the fact that students usually assume that primary goal of being tested is to be evaluated afterwards, cognitive psychologists have been aware of tests’ ability to enhance retrieval for a long time. Several research methods were used to verify it. First, it required the students to learn new material and then take or don’t take a test on it before the final exam. Results proved that those who took the additional test performed better on the final one. With such a method some researchers have questioned whether positive results depended on test itself or they were caused by additional reminders about the material in the test. Due to that additional type of research was conducted and it required students to either take a test after initial learning or restudy the material without taking a test. Final tests again showed that student who took additional test performed better on the final one. As for the nature of the material being tested, equally beneficial results were found for remembering words, texts or illustrations. Overall, there were conducted numerous studies which proved tests to reinforce learning outcomes[46].

GlossaryEdit

Alzheimer's Disease: A type of dementia characterized by progressive degeneration of the brain.

Confabulation: The unintentional fabrication of events displayed as real memories in one's cognition.

Distributed Practice: a certain amount of study sessions which take place regularly over time (e.g., working on improving a skill for several weeks or years).

Episodic Memory: Storage and retrieval of personally dated, autobiographical experiences.

Implicit Memory: An automatic and unconscious way of memory retention.

Massed Practice: practice, where learners make one-time intensive effort of working on a task (e.g., preparing for a test overnight).

Reconstructive Memory: The way in which the recall process reassembles information by building upon the basis of limited key details held in longterm memory with the gerneral and domain specific knowledge in one's repetoire.

Schemata: Mental frameworks that help organize knowledge.

Selective Memory: The active repression of negative memories, or the active focus on positive memories.

Semantic Memory: Memory of general concepts and principles and associations among them.

Testing Effect: the influence that taking tests makes on learning and retention of information.

Suggested ReadingsEdit

Bartlett, R.H. (1932). Remembering: A Studyin Experimental and Social Psycology. Cambridge University Press.

Irish, M., Lawlor, B. A., Coen, R. F., & O'Mara, S. M. (2011). Everyday episodic memory in amnestic mild cognitive impairment: A preliminary investigation. BMC Neuroscience, 12doi:10.1186/1471-2202-12-80

Lanciano, T., Curci, A., Mastandrea, S., & Sartori, G. (2013). Do automatic mental associations detect a flashbulb memory?. Memory, 21(4), 482-493.

ReferencesEdit

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