How Do Humans Retain Information?


People often say that to fully absorb something you must repeat that action, fact, or word over and over again. Aristotle believed that humans remember by comparing and contrasting items (pg. 254). Aristotle also focused on contiguity. Contiguity is "whenever two or more sensations occur together often enough, they will become associated" (pg. 254). This principle is closely related to the idea of conditioning. Classical conditioning relates an involuntary response to a certain event. For example, Ivan Pavlov learned to train his dog to salivate at the sound of a bell tone because he had specially taught the dog to associate the sound with food (pg. 255).

While classical conditioning mainly deals with natural responses, operant conditioning teaches people how to behave in certain ways depending on the environment (pg. 256). Operant conditioning plays a major part in the classroom. This type of conditioning deals with reinforcing and punishing certain behaviors. There are positive and negative reinforcements (pg. 257). For example, a positive reinforcement would be five minutes of extra recess for a well behaved class. This would reinforce the idea that good behavior is desirable. A negative reinforcement would be subtracting an activity, such as clearing the dinner table, if the child received an A on an assignment. Punishing a behavior teaches children that unwanted behaviors will be accompanied with something undesirable, such as more chores, or being placed in timeout.

Operant conditioning can be used on an individual child or in a group setting, such as a classroom or team. By clearly outlining what is acceptable or non-acceptable with reinforcements and punishments, children are taught how to behave. While younger children will learn things such as classroom behavior, proper treatment of adults, and manners through operant conditioning, as they grow they will be able to continue this learning by association on their own.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is the work of behavioral scientist Albert Bandura. The textbook defines this theory as one, "that emphasizes learning through observation of others" (pg. G-9). Bandura mentions several types of learning that comprise of social learning theory. Basic observational learning is a person or animal watching another person or animal learn (pg. 279). With observational learning, a person or animal must be deeply concentrating on the person or animal they are watching learn. Whether they know it or not, simply watching the other learn initiates mental work that assists them in learning the activity as well (pg. 279).

Another key piece of Bandura's social learning theory is the difference between retaining knowledge and the way a person actually behaves based on that knowledge. Bandura performed his famed Bobo doll experiment in 1965 (pg. 279). In simple terms, three groups of children watched adults beat up a doll. One group saw the adults be rewarded, one group saw punishment, and one group had no consequences at all. When each group was given the chance to be rewarded for beating up the doll, they did so, but the group that had seen the punishment did so less aggressively, even though they knew it was bad behavior. This experiment showed that rewards do affect performance of an activity, despite what a child has learned (pg. 279).

For children in school, being taught themselves, as well as watching others be taught, makes a lasting impression on them. Whether they demonstrate this learning is another matter. Bandura's work shows that, "performance is not an indication of their learning" (pg. 279). Just because a child has learned something, does not mean they will perform it well or correctly. The SAT is a an example of this. Students study long hours and know the materials, but freeze up during the exam because of the pressure associated with the high-stakes test.

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Information Processing Theory

How do humans create memories? How do we remember things big events such as graduation, birthdays, or our first date? What about the little things, like the smell of a favorite meal or sound of the waves? The information processing theory consists of sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory (pg. 293). Each of these, along with the combination of the three, allow humans to remember things on purpose, and not on purpose. Obviously memory plays a huge part in learning. Students must remember the facts, concepts, and words they learn. The information processing theory explains how the brain functions in order to remember information.

Sensory memory can be described as what a person remembers from the surrounding environment. This category includes the five senses. In a classroom setting, attention is one of the most important parts of sensory memory (pg. 296). In order to have all senses in touch with the surrounding environment, students must be paying full attention to the teacher or task at hand. If not full attention is being given, the brain cannot fully absorb the surrounding situation in order to remember it.

Working memory also plays a major part in learning. This type of memory is, "the interface where new information is held temporarily and combined with knowledge from long-term memory" (pg. 297). Working memory helps figure out information being giving to a person at the time it is being giving because of the assistance from long-term memory. For example, if someone is given a math problem, it would be held in the working memory while the long-term memory retrieved the previous math knowledge to help solve it (pg. 297). Clearly, working memory is necessary to learning.

Long-term memory, as just explained, is essential to learning and education. If a student does not retain certain information, such as basic addition, into their brains, how can they further build on the subject? Long-term memory is split into two categories: explicit and implicit. Explicit deals with things a human consciously learns. Implicit is more natural instinct (pg. 305). Both of these combined allow students to retain information that they can build upon as they move through their schooling.

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