Research School Network: 15 myths about memory and learning

15 myths about memory and learning

by Durrington Research School
on the

Education is rife with learning myths. Over time, they harden into fact and then further ossify into our most cherished beliefs. And like Japanese knotweed the longer we leave them to grow and develop, the harder they are to weed out. Here are fifteen of the most common learning myths we have encountered as a research school.

Myth 1

We only use 10% of our brain.

In fact, we use almost all of our brain almost all of the time. What is true, however, is that scientists only understand about 10% of how the human brain works.

Myth 2

We are more likely to remember something if we discover it for ourselves.

Despite its intuitive appeal, there is no empirical to support this belief. Actually, the evidence suggests that novice learners learn better through explicit, teacher-led instruction rather than through discovering something on their own.

Myth 3

Men and women learn differently.

While there are some differences in the form and function of male and female brains, there are more similarities than differences. Most gender differences in learning can be attributed to environmental rather than biological causes.

Myth 4

We learn better when teaching is tailored towards our preferred learning style.

The notion that teaching should be modified according to whether a student is a visual, audio or kinaesthetic learner is the most persuasive edu-myth of our generation. Please note: there is evidence to support dual coding, the process of combining visual and verbal materials to enhance learning.

Myth 5

Your brain is a muscle that can be trained.

Although practice usually leads to learning, brain-based learning programmes are not supported by evidence. This is because learning is domain-specific not global. Put simply, if you practise using a brain-based programme, you get better at the brain-based programme. It will not improve your memory in other domains.

Myth 6

We do not need to remember facts now we have the internet.

Good readers need wide-ranging general knowledge to successfully access, interpret and determine the validity of online reading material. The internet offers a wealth of opportunity – but only for those who know a lot in the first place. See here.

Myth 7

Performance is always a sign of learning.

Learning involves the transfer of material from working memory to long-term memory. A student’s performance in a lesson – for example, answering a question correctly – is no guarantee that they will still know – or be able to apply – this information in a fortnight’s time.

Myth 8

Rereading notes and highlighting are effective revision strategies.

These revision strategies have been shown to be the most popular amongst students. Unfortunately, they are also very ineffective. Instead, students should be encouraged to use retrieval practice (regular testing from memory) and distributed practice (spacing out practice sessions over time).

Myth 9

We are good judges of how much we will remember.

Research shows that we routinely overestimate how much we will remember and underestimate how much we will forget. To encourage automaticity – effortless recall or performance – students should overlearn by practising beyond the point of confidence.

Myth 10

Forgetting is the enemy of memory.

One of the most counterintuitive findings from memory science is that the process of forgetting actually helps learning. When it is hard to retrieve information from long-term memory, the likelihood of recalling this piece of information in the future will be increased. This is known as desirable difficultly – the more effort put into retrieval, the greater the learning.

Myth 11

Memorable lessons should always contain unique and unexpected experiences.

Memory’, in the words of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, is the residue of thought.’ This means that teachers should encourage students to think about semantic meaning. If they do not, students might remember the nature of an exciting activity rather than the important underpinning concepts.

Myth 12

Stories are only for English lessons.

It appears that the human brain is pre-wired to remember stories. Teachers can tap into this phenomenon by telling stories to exemplify key learning points, and by designing lessons that mimic the elements of successful stories – i.e. through interesting characters, central conflicts and problems followed by solutions.

Myth 13

Learning is visible.

We cannot see learning. It occurs in an invisible place – the long-term memory. Teachers and school leaders should be aware that busy, engaged and hard-working students are not necessarily learning. What we see is often a poor proxy for learning.

Myth 14

Cramming is an effective revision strategy.

Although cramming is better than no revision at all, it is unlikely to lead to durable learning. Teachers should encourage students to space revision over time, and design schemes-of-work that allow students to revisit material at regular intervals.

Myth 15

We can always trust our memory.

Memory does not work like a video tape; it does not record our experiences perfectly. Individual students will each remember very different things from the same lesson. Students will also learn misconceptions which can be hard to dislodge.


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