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By Michelle Kueh
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  • science
  • learning
  • memory
  • teaching

The Science behind Memory and Learning

Let’s explore how you can leverage the mechanics of memory to your advantage in the classroom. It may sound technical, but in reality, it’s not that complicated!

By understanding how memory works, you will be able to introduce or strengthen practices in the classroom that will benefit your students and yourself. As an example, how do we ensure information processed in the working memory is retained, and embedded for long term use?

How memories are formed

Before we can go into the practical uses of memory formation, let’s start with a quick theoretical introduction. So, how do we form memories? There are three simple steps to it:

  1. Encoding - getting the information - this is the moment you perceive and process it
  2. Storage - maintaining the information - this step actually causes physical and chemical changes in our brain!
  3. Retrieval - recalling the information to use it when you need it

In learning, this means that a student:

  1. Hears the information, either from your explanation or during an exercise\
  2. Stores it in their brain, where it will sit until they need it again\
  3. Retrieve the memory with the next exercise or when they need that knowledge

Step 2 and 3 are the steps we’ll be discussing here and how using these two in a loop will help the students to store information in long term memory.

Thinking fast and slow

So, you want students to remember what you tell them for a long time. To achieve this, we need both the fast thinking, and slow thinking system.

At a young age, the working memory (system 2) is key in a child’s development. This is the memory that helps you understand things, to process information and to make decisions. You are using your working memory right now, to read this text and to put it into context with the rest of this article. The working memory is what makes you understand. In the case of young children, the basic components might not be mastered yet, but the working memory will try to retrieve anything that it can and use it to solve the problem in front of them.

When a child gets proficient at a certain skill, they demand less of the working memory. Solving the problem will take less energy and time each attempt until automaticity is achieved. Automacy reduces the load on the working memory and doesn’t take up attentive resources, the information shifts to system 1, the fast thinking system. This means the working memory can focus on more complex tasks, which is how a student solves problems that are more difficult each time and develops their learning.

Triggering the shift

The shift from system 2 into system 1 is what we want to achieve. So how do we do that? Practice is the short answer. To be more precise, practice by using the same information to solve different types of problems. In the teaching world, this means creating varied lesson plans so that students digest the information in different ways. This way, the working memory gets triggered until that magical shift happens and automacy is achieved.

Creating these varied learning experiences can be difficult and time consuming. Keeping students engaged while having to do multiple activities can be even more challenging! That’s where online resources can come in handy.

The science behind gamified learning

Resources incorporating game theory help to build long term memory and also automatically increase the difficulty of the task. For example:

In our game Jetstream Riders, students see 14 x 9, which the slow thinking system can solve. However, they will see many of these problems in a row, which are slightly different each time triggering system 2 to recognise it. This means that the brain doesn’t just see 14 x 9, it also recognises different aspects of it such as addition, simple digit multiplication and quick times tables multiplication.

Connecting all of these dots, the fast thinking system (system 2) can solve this question extremely fast, and quicker each time. This means that the working memory can focus more on the more difficult questions, without putting too much effort into the simpler questions. As a consequence, system 1 experiences fatigue at a slower pace and deep understanding gets formed. Now that is what we call success!

Of course, you can achieve this with classroom activities too, however it will be much more difficult to present each student with the level of difficulty to develop their deep understanding. Online resources, such as our games and activities on Mangahigh, will adapt automatically which makes sure the students are working at the appropriate level of their understanding. It’s a win-win!

If this has made you curious about using gamification to trigger long term memory, we’d love to invite you to try out our activities and games. You can get a free trial here, or speak to our team directly if you’d like to know more about the science behind the magic!

By Michelle Kueh
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