Friday, July 18, 2008

New Thinking About Memory

For several years, researchers presented memory types as being semantic or episodic. (Other memory types also exist—e.g., muscle memory.) Semantic memories hold factual content, such as Albany is the capital of New York. Episodic memories may also hold factual content but within a context commonly thought to be narrative in structure. For example, I can recall being a narrator for the first third of my second grade class’s dramatic presentation of Bambi. Notice how the memory includes contextualized information, actually forming a small narrative: “Once upon a time, Kevin narrated the opening portion of the play Bambi performed by his second-grade class…” Recalling that Albany is New York’s capital lacks the same potential for plot.

Dr. Robert A. Burton (2008) suggests a new view of memory types. Semantic memories remain those “that require only memorization,” but rather than episodic memories, Burton suggests perceptual memories as a better label. Perceptual memories require “decision making, logical analysis, or reasoning,” and can undergo “revisions, augmentations, and diminutions” (p. 85). Perceptual memories, in other words, require cognitive processing that exceeds memorization.

This does not negate the reality of memories stored in episodic structures. We certainly can tell stories and can even weave plot and drama into memories of common experiences. However, Burton’s suggested change recognizes that we use more than narrative to process and structure new data as we construct memories.

Constructing semantic vs. perceptual memories requires different approaches to learning. Combined with multiple rehearsals, comprehension can empower low-level learning—i.e., things “learned” by rote. For example, if I merely memorize the Gettysburg Address, my sole concern is restating the words in their correct order. I can accomplish this by identifying Lincoln’s words in their correct order, and repeating them until I easily recall and restate the entire speech.

But if I want to understand the Gettysburg Address—if I want to grasp the meaning of Lincoln’s words—so I can use my understanding in future problem solving, decision making, logical analyses, or reasoning, my mind must engage additional processes. I must construct perceptual memories. Why? Understanding taps into perceptual thought, thinking that overlays the new data with known experience and weaves the two to produce meaning. Such thinking requires more than restating and sorting details; it requires elaboration.

The Architecture of Learning™ instructional design model aids teachers in distinguishing instructional material types and in designing teaching that fosters authentic learning. Burton’s view of semantic vs. perceptual memories supports the roles of both comprehension and elaboration in learning, and the greater role one may have over the other according to the memories being formed and the material being taught.

Want to know more about Dr. Burton’s work and writing? He’ll be discussing his book On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You’re Not on an upcoming episode of The Brain Science Podcast.

Burton, R. A. (2008). On being certain: Believing you are right even when you’re not. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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