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November 9 2008

E-Coaching Tip 61 (#3 Fall 2008)

Steps in Memory-Making: What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference!

What do you think is the percentage of the key concepts in your course that your learners integrate into useful knowledge? Is it 10%, 30%, 50%, or closer to 80%? How confident are you about your estimate?

Data on exactly what students master during a course is difficult to obtain, but we do have data summarizing results from a test on core physics concepts from students in 14 different traditional lecture-based courses. The research suggests that mastery of core concepts from lecture-based physics courses is consistently about 30% or less (Hake, 1998 in Weiman, 2008). Are you surprised that it is that high? Or that low?

Does this mean that students' memories aren't working very well? Would you agree with the Queen's observation to Alice in L. Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backward?"

Well, probably not. What it probably means is that lectures are inefficient tools for developing mastery of concepts. Why might this be so? And, of course, we would like to know if we would get similar results from students in online courses.

Using a Memory Process Model to Increase Learning

This tip is about the steps in creating long-term memories and how we might use a memory process to increase the percentage of learned concepts in our students. This is the question: What change(s) might I make the learning experiences in my course to increase the likelihood that students will integrate and apply core concepts?

This tip includes some exciting research about how we can probably increase mastery of concepts by getting more sleep! That is a welcome finding for all of us! Imagine this instruction to our students. Read the instructions on solving quadratic equations, solve or work on 2 or 3 of these problems and then take a 20-minute nap!

A Look at a Memory-Making Process Model

How does memory work? Is it a one-time event or a series of events? Here are two useful definitions:

  • Memory is the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information. (Long, n.d., Wikipedia, etc.)
  • Memory is a linear process beginning with "sensory registration and finally leading to the consolidation of some information into long-term and/or remote memories." (Loftus, 1996 in Long, n.d. (a). During the first stage--acquisition--an event is perceived and information about it is initially stored in memory. In the second stage--storage or retention--information is resident in memory. In the final stage--retrieval--memory is searched and pertinent information is retrieved and communicated.

So what does this mean? It definitely means that memory is not a one-time event.

Acquisition of knowledge -- whether declarative or procedural knowledge -- begins with a stimulus which results in sensory registration or memory. Attention is required to move the sensory data into short-term memory. The next step is consolidation-retrieval processing that results in the knowledge being integrated and connected with other memories in long-term memory. (Long, n.d, adapting Loftus, 1996 model.)

Here is a diagram of the steps in the making of memories:

Note that the approximate time for the data to reside in sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory (Atkinson-Shiffrin, 1968) reinforces the need to build attention and processing time for core facts, concepts and applications.

Definitions of each of these process points are at the end of the tip for those of you who would like a little more clarification on each of these memory process events.

Teaching Strategies with the Memory-Making Model

At this point, let's go back to the question for the tip. What teaching strategies are important to use for the students to master concepts? Here are a couple of thoughts.

We often design our online courses on a weekly basis. In fact, one of the ecoaching tips encourages setting up a weekly rhythm for your course, mapping to some of the topics and modules within a course.

Thinking about memory as a linear process with at least 3 to 5 steps suggests strategies such as the following:

  • Structure the initial learning of core concepts into steps, creating experiences that ensure processing time for stimulus, sensory registration steps. This approach supports the acquisition step, requiring attention to the stimuli.
    • Ask questions such as, "What "caught your eye?" Had you "heard" or "talked" about ideas such as these before?
  • Process or engage the learners with the concepts, making connections and relationships to existing or earlier concepts. These activities help to move knowledge into short-term memory, preparing it for movement to long-term memory, supporting the retention stage.
    • Ask questions or design dialogue experiences that elicit engagement, such as, "Can you describe how these concepts might be linked or related to other memories or knowledge that you have?" What do you know already that is similar or different from these ideas?
    • Do you see a pattern emerging in this data? Can you draw a map with your team colleague showing the relationship of these data?
  • Consolidate ideas with opportunities for creative use of the concepts in complex unstructured contexts
    • Ask questions, such as, "Can you reproduce, write, describe what those ideas mean to you?" This is a great use of the student blogs, by the way!

Of course, then encourage students and remind yourself to refer to key concepts regularly as the course proceeds and find linkages and connections in current happenings.

How Sleeping Helps the Encoding of Memories

As promised earlier some exciting current research suggests that sleeping is important to learning and memory. Researchers are still working on determining precisely how the brain strengthens and enhances memories but what does appear certain is that "Sleep does something to improve memory that being awake does not do." Simply stated in one of the "fast facts" from the article, "Sleep makes memories stronger, and it even appears to weed out irrelevant details and background information so that only the important pieces remain." (Stickgold & Ellenbogen, 2008, p. 24)


Our memories work in complex ways. We are still learning exactly how they work. But what we do know is that memory and learning take time with repeated exposures and practice. And now we know as well, that it is important to sleep regularly!

We also know that our memories work more or less well most of the time, but that they don't always work the way we wish they might. And they definitely only work backwards, unlike Carroll's Queen who gets giddy from working with her memories that go forward!

How does your memory work? Write to us (Judith Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad) at ecoach@designingforlearning.info with your questions, comments, insights!

Memory Stages and Process Definitions From Long (a) (n.d)

  1. Stimulus - Sensory Registration. In this step an event or object is perceived, such as seeing, hearing, reading, touching, moving.
  2. Attention - Short-Term Memory. In this step, sufficient attention is devoted to an event or object that information moves into "temporary storage." Short-term memory has limited capacity and thus information or knowledge must be consolidated or stored quickly or it is lost.
  3. Consolidation-Retrieval into and from Long-Term Memory. Long-term Memory is "memory that has been consolidated or stored so that it is available after distraction."
  4. Remote Memory. Represents the storehouse of information that was acquired early and serves as the foundation for later memories.


Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model. Retrieved on November 10, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atkinson-Shiffrin_memory_model

E-Coaching Tip 34 (Spring, 2007) Threaded Discussions and Knowledge Construction. Retrieved on November 5, 2008 from www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip34.html

Illinois Online Network/ Educational Resources. Assessing Learning Objectives Bloom's Taxonomy. Retrieved on November 10 2008 from http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/assessment/bloomtaxonomy.asp

Kandel, E. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. (Paperback ed.). New York Norton.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.

Long, C. L. (a). (n.d.) Neuropsychology/Behavioral Neuroscience. Retrieved on November 2, 2008 from http://neuro.psyc.memphis.edu/NeuroPsyc/np-ugp-MEMORY.htm

Long, C. L. (b). (n.d.) Summary of the General Memory Process. Retrieved on November 2, 2008 from http://neuro.psyc.memphis.edu/NeuroPsyc/np-ugp-memoryx.htm

Stickgold, R. & Ellenbogen. J. M. (2008) Quiet! Sleeping brain at work. Scientific American Mind (August/September 2008) 19 (4), 22 - 29.

Wieman, C. (2008). Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science. Retrieved on November 3, 2008 from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ff0814s.pdf

Steps in Memory-Making: What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference!



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013