The end product of learning is information stored in the brain as memory. Yet, most of us are unaware of the mental mechanisms and learning techniques that will contribute so mightily to our success in life. After a career spent researching the problem, the UCLA psychologist and chairman of Amplifire’s Science Board, Robert Bjork expressed this dilemma succinctly…

“ Current customs and standard practices in instruction, training, and schooling do not seem to be informed by an understanding of the complex and unintuitive dynamics that characterize human learning and memory. Nor do we, as individuals, seem to understand how to engage fully our remarkable capacity to learn. Instead, we seem guided by a faulty mental model of ourselves as learners that leads us to manage our own learning activities in far from optimal ways.” —Robert Bjork, On the Symbiosis of Remembering, Forgetting, and Learning, 2011

Information coming in through our senses is encoded by the brain into the language of neurons. The information is stored in hierarchical and highly associated memory patterns throughout the brain. We retrieve the “trace” of a memory by using cues in the moment of perception to reconstruct details of the original input. And, the trace fades if not strengthened in some manner— by recalling, testing, or repeating the information. Science has revealed much about the optimal conditions for learning and memory, but most of the insights have not been readily adopted by educators.

Sadly, traditional methods deliver simply abysmal results. After a lecture delivered in the classic stand-up format, students will remember only 20% of the material within 24 hours and only 5% after a few weeks. This is a bleak statistic, especially when one considers the fact that all higher order thinking must be built on a solid foundation of easily recalled facts and concepts.

Why is memory fragile? As Bjork and his many colleagues have shown, brains are designed by evolution to forget. Learning that isn’t associated strongly with related information or that lacks emotional content is the first to become inaccessible to retrieval. Without employing certain non-intuitive strategies, everyone forgets.

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