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Memory and Sequence
June 24, 2010 - 9:53pm

I’ve received a couple of wonderful messages lately from readers, each touching on the theme of memory. Taken together, they’re pretty provocative. First (from an email):

Here's my incredibly important take-away that isn't really noted for
most people in higher education: kids forget things. Kids forget
what they did last week, kids forget what they had for breakfast, and,
most importantly, kids forget almost everything about academics that
they've ever encountered. They forget because, and this is pretty
cool, we know from actual psychological research, that you forget
stuff that you don't use regularly.

Why don't folks in higher ed notice this as much? My answer is
basically, we're not usually seeing the same students again in a class
that requires them to remember material that we've previously taught
them. I had a lovely student, 3.9 GPA because she got a B freshman
year in one of my senior-level advanced mathematics courses this past
semester. She had previously taken a junior-level course with me,
exactly one year before. I tried to make reference to things she
supposedly knew from that course. She had no idea what I was talking
about... (She's the diligent and talented sort rather than the
maniacal using your typology--still my fav DD post). I can tell loads
of similar stories from every level of teaching that I've done.

and second:

One of the things we (meaning me and my colleagues who teach calculus and trig) talk about regularly is the fact that we all know that certain students knew skill "X" when they passed the previous class - including my own - and forget it within a month. We have to do our best to ensure that we each know that such regular occurrences are not the fault of the instructor, since we can't evaluate what happens a month later, and yet work on ways to reduce how often those situations occur. When I have control, like when students from my own Physics 1 class don't remember to draw a free-body diagram in Physics 2, I make it clear that the failure is completely unacceptable.

It’s true, and it’s a bear to address.

I recall a student I tried to advise at Proprietary U. He was several semesters into his program, and he was choosing classes for the following semester. I mentioned that course x was next in the sequence, and required for his program; he objected that it covered a software package he didn’t know. I responded that the software package was covered in the class he was currently finishing. His response, which haunts me to this day: “but that was over a month ago!” His tone suggested that I was being completely outlandish; he was just mannerly enough not to end with “duh!”

Some of that is just a cost of doing business. Memory can play weird tricks. (For example, I remember vividly a history professor in college mentioning that England experienced five eclipses in 1678. That factoid has yet to prove useful, but decades later, it’s still in there. I don’t even know if it’s true!) But it’s also true that thoughtful course sequencing -- which presupposes both thoughtful curricular design and steady academic advisement -- can provide reinforcement of key skills.

It also suggests the limits of passing judgment on previous instructors based on current performance. It’s hard enough to judge teaching success in the moment, but judging it later requires differentiating between ‘never got it’ and ‘got it but lost it.’

Some classes focus more on skills than on specific content, so the style of memory involved is different. But there, too, it’s largely about repetition and effort.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found an elegant way to address leaky student memories?


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