The Problem: We Learn to Forget

We’ve all heard the expression, “Use it or lose it.”  It applies to skills; it applies to possessions; it applies to memory; and it applies to learning.

“Teaching to the test” simply puts knowledge into short-term memory.  If what we learn is not reviewed through a “spaced repetition” process, we will retain little of what we learned.  Further, the base of knowledge essential upon which to build additional knowledge and expertise will erode.

That’s not to say that everything that we learn will make its way from short-term memory to long-term memory, but if there are short-term and long-term storage areas for knowledge, then there needs to be a “medium-term” location, where knowledge is easily retrieved, but isn’t filed in that “long-term” mental filing cabinet.

Think of it this way.  The computer has an area to store files, such as a hard drive or a connection to a cloud drive.  But depending on how you store things, the address for it could be really long, even if you give a file a short name.  The document’s name is actually the entire path to the location where the file is stored and a file name is limited to 260 characters. Therefore, if a WORD document titled “links.docx” is on Jane Doe’s Desktop, the actual name of the file may be something like C:\\Users\jdoe\Desktop\links.docx

That’s way more than 10 characters.

This isn’t a problem for most people…unless you’re the supremely organized type that likes to create a very deep filing structure, setting up folders on your computer by year, then subject, then sub-subjects, with long folder names so you know exactly what’s in there, to the point that it takes 7 or 8 clicks to get to the document you’ve filed. If you try to archive or backup that document, you’ll either get an error message that says something’s wrong with the file…but the message won’t tell you that the “path” (that file name with slashes in it to separate the nesting levels) is too long, or the file just won’t be backed-up…which could be problematic if it’s a very important file.

And when your brain stores ALL kinds of information, since your senses pickup things you’re not even cognitively aware of, the filing system your brain uses is, simply put, “godly” (as opposed to “ungodly”).

The key to connecting short-term memory and long-term memory is the connection between the two; that is, the ability for electronic impulses to connect through the synapses among the ends of the nerve cells.  Constant repetition helps to build the neural sheaths which allow information to travel faster without taking circuitous routes to get where information needs to be for things to make sense or connect previous learning to a new situation.  That’s different from connecting ideas that were never connected before.  That’s the essence of creativity, and why it sometimes takes a while to develop a creative solution.  However, once that solution is formed, the more it’s “practiced,” the stronger and faster those connections become.

When teaching to the test or cramming for the exam takes place, the data is stored in short-term memory.  Then, without constant exposure or repetition, to build the myelin sheaths around the nerves, the information usually never makes it to long-term memory.  Perhaps just bits of information do, but without other important bits that make the rest of the data make sense.

This is why life-long learning is an important construct for everyone, and not just for those who need to retain certifications, become experts in their field, or keep up to date on new technologies or procedures.  But there’s a problem with life-long learning.  More about that next week.