Cognitive Science: An Introduction/How Cognitive Science Can Help You Get Through School

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How can cognitive science help you get through school?[edit]

Introduction[edit]

Through school, students are subjected to at times extreme amounts of learning requirements, to achieve knowledge in multiple topic areas they may not even be motivated to learn anything about. Additionally, they are expected to demonstrate the mastery of this knowledge, through tests, exams and presentations. Thus, an effective and efficient memory is critical for school success. By understanding how the memory works and the underlying processes of practice we can develop better methods to optimise our learning strategies. This chapter will take a closer look at how psychological principles and theories can be used to aid this endeavour at school. In this context, a number of terms first need to be explained and clarified.

Memory and learning strategies are part of what we call cognition. Cognition means a group of mental, internal processes involved in making sense of the environment, and deciding what actions to take. These processes include attention, perception, learning, memory, language, problem solving, reasoning and thinking (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Of these, particularly the study of memory is of interest in the classroom in order to facilitate achieved learning. Cognitive science is referred to as the interdisciplinary study of the human mind. It examines what cognition is, what it does and how it works.

Cognitive science promotes scientific interchange among researchers in various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence. This chapter, due to its psychological focus, will examine the use of cognitive psychology. Furthermore, the practical use of psychological methods and knowledge to overcome problems in real-world situations such as educational settings is referred to as applied psychology (Egidius, 2002). Several tools from the field of experimental cognitive psychology can be applied to how we can move items from our short-term memory to our long-term memory, and how memory-efficiency can be maximised.

A common term for any learning technique that aids information retention is mnemonics or mnemonic devices. Mnemonics are strategies or techniques that can be used to more effectively encode information in one’s working memory, as well as enhance the meaningfulness of information while it is being coded. These strategies are all based on storing the information in an organised manner, so it can more easily be retrieved (McCabe, 2010). Due to space restraints, the current chapter can only detail a limited number of mnemonic strategies. Specifically, the types of mnemonics discussed in this chapter include: (1) Chunking, (2) Memory palace / "method of loci", (3) First letter mnemonics, and (4) Activating prior knowledge / invoking schemas.

Whilst reading through the chapter, keep in mind the two central questions: 1) How can we move items from our short-term memory to our long-term memory? 2) How can memory-efficiency be maximised?

The following section will briefly review these individually as the backdrop to the four types of mnemonics listed above.

How can we move items from our short-term memory to our long-term memory?[edit]

Memory is a person`s ability to encode, store and retrieve information. There are a number of different theories and models when it comes to memory (e.g. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). But based on the common features of their theories we can identify two different metaphysical storage divisions for memory in the brain. The first memory store is the working memory and the second is the long-term store (Sternberg, 2009).

The two storage divisions function in different ways. The leading theory of the working memory (formerly referred to as the short-term memory) is derived from the work of Baddeley and Hitch (1974). According to their theory, there are four different parts of the working memory: The visuospatial sketchpad, the phonological loop, the central executive and the episodic buffer.

The first component, the visuospatial sketchpad is specialized for spatial and visual coding, such as shapes and colours, or the location or speed of objects in space. It is also involved in tasks which involves planning of spatial movements, like planning one`s route when walking (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). The visuospatial sketchpad can be divided into separate visual (visual cache) and spatial (inner scribe) components (Logie, 1995).

The phonological loop is specialized in dealing with sounds or phonological information. The loop consists of two components; the phonological storage and the articulatory control process. While the phonological storage is linked to speech perception, the articulatory control process is linked to speech production. Because of this, words presented auditory are processed differently than those presented visually (Stenberg & Stenberg, 2012).

The third component is the central executive. This is the most important component in the working memory system. The central executive is a versatile system responsible for processing, coordination of various processes, reasoning and problem solving. How involved this component is depends on the task complexity – The more complex the task is, the higher the involvement is (Stenberg & Stenberg, 2012).

The fourth component is the episodic buffer. Baddeley added this component in 2000 (Baddeley, 2000). The episodic buffer plays a key role in the binding processes in working memory. The episodic buffer is believed to integrate information from phonological loop, visuo-spatial scratchpad and long-term memory into a comprehensive, multimodal episodic representation. By integrating information from these components, we can make sense and meaning out of the information. It is also believed that some of the information in the episodic buffer continues to be stored in long-term memory (Stenberg & Stenberg, 2012).

The main task for the working memory is to store information over a short period of time. Because the components have limited capacity, only a small amount of information can be remembered (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). According to Miller (1956), a person can remember seven (plus or minus two) words or numbers. This will of course vary from person to person but seven short words or numbers are perceived as the average storage capacity of working memory. In contrast Cowan (2001) believes that there is in general only room for four objects in working memory. Because of the limitation of working memory, your brain needs to transfer the information to long-term memory in order to remember the same information at a later time. The long-term memory aims to store information over a longer period of time and differs from working memory in that it has virtually unlimited capacity (Eysenck & Keane, 2010).

The transference of information from working memory to long- term memory may occur through a variety of processes. But as a general rule, the more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to enter the long-term memory. Additionally, people tend to more easily store material that they can relate to. The process whereby you create connections or associations between new information and information already stored, is referred to as consolidation (Stenberg & Stenberg, 2012).

Later I will describe some different techniques used to enhance memory and to facilitate the recall process – the final process of remembering. Recall means finding and pulling out information stored in your brain’s long-term memory (Sternberg, 2009).

How can memory-efficiency be maximised?[edit]

There may be several reasons why mnemonics bolster memory. First, they translate arbitrary, abstract, meaningless information into more meaningful and often more concrete information, sometimes connected to the senses. Of particular importance is visualization. Some researchers recommend using interactive, dynamic, distinctive, and possibly even bizarre images (McDaniel & Einstein, 1986; McDaniel, Einstein, DeLosh, May & Brady, 1995). The integration of two or more information codes (e.g., verbal, visual) is consistent with Paivio´s (1986) dual-coding theory, which specifies that information is remembered better if it is derived from two or more different sensory inputs. Mnemonics can further enhance memory by providing multiple routes to retrieval. Secondly, mnemonics improve your memory by connecting new knowledge with existing knowledge in a way that gives the new knowledge meaning – a process referred to as elaboration (of existing knowledge)(Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Thirdly, mnemonics support encoding from short-term memory to long - term memory because mnemonics typically require additional energy and focused attention on the information you are trying to remember, which in itself increases the chance of remembering (Bellezza, 1996). Below I will describe some different techniques used to enhance the memory process.

Chunking[edit]

The first method or strategy we will go through is chunking. Chunking is a phenomenon whereby individuals group pieces of information, or “bits,” into larger, interrelated units of information, or “chunks” (Buschke, 1976; Gobet et al, 2001; Miller, 1956) As we have seen, the working memory is the stage where the information from the senses is processed for storage in the long-term memory. Because of the limitation of working memory, only a finite number of chunks can be worked with in tandem at a single time – generally no more than seven (plus or minus two)(Miller, 1956). Consequently, the larger the size of the chunks, the larger amount of information can be worked with at a single time (Miller, 1956).

There are several ways to chunk information, and the type of chunking technique you will use depend on the information you are chunking. For example if you are supposed to remember a phone number – 92430274, you can chunk it into four different chunks: 92, 43, 02, 74. This is an example of chunking the information by organizing it into equally sized groups. Another way to chunk information is by finding patterns in the information. For example imagine you are supposed to remember the number sequence 2, 4, 6, 8. Instead of remembering the individual numbers, you can remember that the numbers are every second number of the number sequence. A third way of chunking is by organizing the information based on its meaning. For example, you can chunk a foreign language by grouping the words into categories like household items or activities.

Method of loci/Memory palace[edit]

The method of loci, also called the memory palace, is one of the oldest known mnemonic strategies (Bellezza, 1981). Historically, the strategy was used as a memory tool by Greek and Roman orators to give speeches without the aid of notes. Today it is used by many memory contest champions in order to recall faces, digits and lists of words (Squire, 2011). In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement that uses visualization to organize and recall information. The techniques are based on the assumption that you can best remember places that you are familiar with. So by linking items that you need to remember with a place that you know very well, it will help you remember. The location will serve as a clue to remember (Yesavage & Rose, 2007).

Let us say you would want to remember the following items – Horse, cream and apple. The first step is to select a place you know well, such as your home. After selecting a place you should visualize a route or a path, such as the path from your bedroom to the kitchen. While visualizing that you are walking through the path in your mind, you should emplace and connect the items you are supposed to remember to each specific location. For example as you visualize your house, imagine a green horse standing on top of your bed. You should not only try to imagine it visually, but also try to smell. Then enter the hall. Try to imagine a bowl of cream standing next to the staircase. Then, try to imagine a shining bright apple at the top of the stairs. As you can see, the images themselves are crucial – they should be highly detailed, bizarre. The more creative, vivid and unusual you make your mental images, the easier you will find it to remember (Squire, 2011). Retrieval of the items is achieved by visualising your home by walking through each room in your mind. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (e.g. Ross & Lawrence, 1968; Crovitz, 1969; Crovitz, 1971; Briggs, Hawkins & Crovitz, 1970; Lea, 1975).

First letter mnemonics[edit]

The two most common first letter mnemonics are acronyms and acrostics. Acronyms are created by combining the first letters from a group of words you are trying to learn into a new word (or word-like) unit (McCabe, 2010). This is particularly useful when you want to remember words in a specified order. Let us say you would want to remember the following three brain structures – Septal area, Anterior cingulate cortex, Fornix, Amygdala, Reticular formation and Inferior colliculi. Then you can use the mnemonic SAFARI. This technique is easy to use but the strategy has some disadvantages. A challenge with the method is that the acronym itself may be easy to remember, but the elements may still be difficult to retrieve. Like acronyms, acrostics also use the first letter of each word when trying to remember. But instead of making a new word, acrostics are when you use the letters to create a sentence (McCabe, 2010). For example, let us say you are supposed to remember the words - Animal, Mice, Correlation, Olympic, Frog and Dance. Then you can remember the sentence - A man came over for dinner. In common with acronyms, acrostics can be very easy to remember and are of particular use when you want to remember a list of words in a specific order. But an advantage with acrostics over acronyms is that acrostics are less limited. So if your words do not form a word that is easy to remember (acronyms), you can make a sentence (acrostics) instead.

Activating prior knowledge/invoking schemas[edit]

According to psychological constructivists, all humans use categorical rules or scripts to interpret the world. New information is processed according to how it fits into these rules, called schemas. If the new information fits well with previous knowledge, the schemas will be extended. If it is not, then the schemas will be rebuilt. In this way, the schemas function as a general building blocks of knowledge and provide a foundation to connect new information with old. The better you can relate the new information to what you already know, the easier it is to learn (Swiderski, 2011). For example, it is easier to learn and remember new information about a person you already know, like a close friend, than a total stranger (Anderson, 1981). The process of integrating new information into stored information can continue for a long time after the initial experience (Squire, 1986). Let us say you met a friend many years ago. At that time you started organizing knowledge about that person. However, as you continue to acquire new information about your friend, you will integrate that with your existing knowledge.

Summary and conclusions[edit]

There is no doubt that an effective and efficient memory is critical for school success. The understanding of how the memory works and the underlying processes of practice are therefore important. The current chapter has described some different techniques to enhance memory. This chapter is not meant as a complete review of all the available techniques but as a starting point from which you can try out the different techniques. Which strategy is the best is impossible to answer because it depends on the task and any individual`s preferences. But it is important to bear in mind that these techniques require practice. Studies have showed that you don’t need a “special” memory to be good at memorizing; what you need is experience and practice (Ericsson & Smith, 1991). However, even though practice is a very important factor to facilitate achieved learning, it is not by itself sufficient – you also need the right strategies. It is like the famous American football coach, Vince Lombardi, said: "Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect" (Squire, 2011).

It is to be hoped that this chapter has provided some tools for such perfect practice when it comes to maximising memory-efficiency in school. So by practicing on this technique you will be maximize your memory and enhance the learning process by helping you remember the things you need to remember.

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