Learning and Long-Term Memory

“If we want to be effective in education, we need to help students build up the content of their long-term memories”

By some quirk of fate or coincidence, 1956 was the year that saw both the founding of TASIS by Mrs Fleming and the publication of one of the most significant articles ever in the field of education.

Written by American psychologist George Miller, it was titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” It helped to establish the powerful truth that short-term (or working) memory is limited both in duration and capacity. This is important because if short-term memory is necessarily constrained, then to be effective, education has to focus on something else.

There was a series of famous experiments in the 1940s that appeared to challenge the idea that short-term memory was limited for everyone. In these experiments, the test subjects were shown for a few seconds a chessboard in the middle of a game. They then were asked to reproduce the configuration of the pieces on the chessboard that they had seen.

Some of the test subjects were master chess players; others were novices. It turned out that the master chess players were consistently able to recall the exact positions of many more pieces than the novices were. A possible interpretation of these results was that the master chess players had a much more advanced visual short-term memory than other people do; perhaps this ability helped them to excel in chess, or maybe playing chess helped to develop their visual memory.

But it turned out that this interpretation was completely wrong. The experiments were repeated several years later, but this time a new twist was added. Some of the chessboards shown briefly to the test subjects were not from the middle of a real game but instead contained pieces placed at random on the board. In those instances, the master chess players were just as incapable of remembering the exact location of the pieces as the novices were. The master chess players were not relying on their visual short-term memory after all; they were using their long-term memory.

Master chess players, who had played thousands of games over many years and had deliberately studied the relative potential of the pieces in their various arrangements, had committed these patterns to long-term memory. When they were shown a chess board from the middle of a game, they recognized the configuration because they had seen it before and had memorized it. When they were shown a chessboard with pieces randomly distributed on it, they were as incompetent to recall the positions as anyone else was.

So if we want to be effective in education, we need to help students build up the content of their long-term memories. We need to give students not just practice in thinking but things to think with by teaching them to commit facts, details, and concepts to memory.

“We need to give students not just practice in thinking but things to think with “

Akbar Khan, the legendary and hugely successful former Head of Mathematics at TASIS England, used to repeat to his math students the following mantra: “Memorize the formulas. Memorize the formulas.” Akbar believed, correctly, that it wasn’t enough for his students to know how to do the mathematical operations; the students had to know them. By helping students to increase their knowledge (i.e., what is in their long-term memories), they will have greater possibilities of real achievement in their learning.

About the author: David Jepson, currently the Director of Studies for the TASIS Schools in Switzerland and England, began his long-time association with TASIS, The American School in Switzerland, in 1979. He has also taught in Massachusetts, New York, and California, and he additionally serves on the Board of a British school in Athens, Greece.