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Let Me Elaborate… On A Way To Improve Memory

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay.

This is part 2 in a series on what we know about how we learn and how this knowledge should inform how we teach. The series is intended for teachers, students, and developers of education technology who want to be more informed about how learning works. Click here for part 1.

One of the perennial criticisms of our educational system is that students just “memorize isolated facts” instead of engaging in deeper forms of reasoning. The key word here is “isolated” — memorizing facts is… actually pretty important. When we reason, we have to reason about something; without at least some facts, it’s impossible to reason coherently at all. Getting new information into our heads — and making it stick there — is one of the most basic forms of learning. Isolated facts, however, are not very useful and not very memorable.

Elaboration is about connecting facts (and concepts and ideas) to each other.

What it is.

In everyday conversation, we use the word elaboration to mean something like “intricate details” (as a noun) or “to add details to” (elaborate as a verb). But psychologists use the term in a special way.

In cognitive psychology, elaboration is about linking information that we want to remember to information that we already know. The purpose of elaboration is primarily to improve our memory for the new information. An additional benefit is that it begins to organize our knowledge in a more coherent way.

Elaboration comes in many forms — almost too many to mention. The mnemonic device is a form of elaboration: “Roy G. Biv” links the colors (and the color spectrum) to a pronounceable name. The “memory palace” is a form of elaboration: Sherlock Holmes links new information to a place he already knows extremely well. Chunking is a form of elaboration: you can remember a seven-digit number more easily if you break it into two “chunks” rather than thinking about seven unrelated digits. Visualizing can be a form of elaboration: you link the new concept to something that you can create in your imagination.

What’s common among all of these methods is that they recruit something you already know (or can readily create) to help you remember something you don’t currently know.

Elaboration is a form of encoding — that is, it happens as we try to put new information in our heads.

When we read something and forget what we’ve read, it’s often a problem of encoding. The material wasn’t meaningful to us — we never linked it to what we already know. That makes it really hard to remember again. Elaboration makes encoding more effective — so that we can pull out the right idea at the right time.

How it works.

The power of elaboration rests on two key ideas:

1) Organized knowledge is effective knowledge.

2) Actively thinking about ideas is better than passively accepting them.

Let’s take each one in turn.

Organized knowledge is effective knowledge.

Let’s contrast two metaphors for how memory works: memory as bucket and memory as network. The memory as bucket metaphor says we pile stuff in our heads like water in a bucket. The more water (or information) we put in, the more total water (or information) we have. This metaphor fails because it doesn’t account for how we get information out again. When we solve a problem, perform a task, make an argument, or take a test we need to take the information that we put in and pull it out. With a bucket, we just get a bunch of water everywhere.

“Memory as network” is a better metaphor. Think of each memory or piece of information as a node embedded in a vast network of other memories. Really meaningful (and memorable) information has lots of links to other memories. Hard-to-remember information — like that guy’s name that you saw that one time six years ago and never saw again — is sitting there on the periphery connected to only a few pieces of other information, making it hard to get to.

Without being connected to anything, new memories are little nodes just sitting out there, unconnected to anything else. Even if they remain inside our heads, we can’t pull them out effectively, making the memory — essentially — lost to us. Consider how many news articles we read, and what we glean from them. Much of what I read simply doesn’t stick. Part of the reason is that I haven’t spent time to embed it in my memory.

Elaboration begins the process of organizing knowledge.

Actively thinking about ideas is better than passively accepting them.

This is the central idea behind “active learning” and an idea that has been repeatedly validated through research. It’s also a complicated idea: there are different ways that people can “actively think” about things, and the effectiveness of doing so depends on the context and the task and the prior knowledge of the student. There are plenty of ways of doing “active learning” badly, which we’ll talk more about as the series continues. But as a general principle, it’s a good idea.

When students create their own elaborations, it takes effort — more effort than re-reading, more effort than listening to a lecture. This cognitive effort helps make the to-be-memorized thing more memorable.

How we know it works.

Research on elaboration stretches back to the early days of memory research, even before people agreed on a label for it. The typical study asks people to memorize a list of words. And asks at least one group of participants to do some sort of elaboration — visualization, extending the words into a sentence, relating ideas to each other — something.

One of the striking examples of elaboration in action is research that asked people to remember a list of words by getting them to think about how “economic” the word was. “Trade”? Pretty economic. “Blend”? Less economic. Researchers compared people doing the “is this economic or not” approach with two other groups: one crossed out the vowels in the to-be-memorized words and the final group copied the to-be-memorized words. Students in the “economic” group remembered almost four times as much than those in the “cross out vowels” group and nearly twice as much as the “copy words” group.

After two days, the economic group some of the words that they had remembered after an immediate test. The words they remembered were more often words related to the concept of “economic” — trade, industry, budget, sale, etc. This illustrates what elaborations can do: structure relationships between otherwise unrelated information.

Not all elaborations are created equal. In a series of experiments, researchers explored how sentence-elaborations help students remember adjectives. Suppose you want to remember the word “slow” by creating a sentence. One sentence might be: “The diamond was too expensive for the slow man who was fired from his job.” Another sentence might be: “The diamond was too expensive for the slow man to hand down to his son.” The first sentence makes the adjective meaningful (he’s too slow, he got fired, he’s got no money). In the second sentence, the adjective is irrelevant (he’s slow… and he wants to hand a diamond down to his son but he can’t for some unknown reason; he probably doesn’t have enough money). Which is a more effective elaboration? The first one.

More recent research has explored the effectiveness of specific learning strategies that incorporate elaboration and compared elaboration to other memory strategies, like retrieval practice. We’ll dig into this research a bit later.

How to implement it.

There are so many ways of incorporating elaboration into the classroom that it’s hard to evaluate them all. Getting students to write sentences incorporating new vocabulary words is a form of elaboration (if the sentence isn’t “my vocabulary words are:…”). But so is concept-mapping. And so is asking students about personal experiences that illustrate the to-be-learned concept. Asking students to explain a new idea to themselves (or to summarize or teach it) also touches on the idea of elaboration. Providing students with an analogy can also be an elaborative technique. In some cases, particular forms of elaboration have their own lines of research — like concept-mapping, self-explanations, and analogies. More on all of these later. For now, here are some things to keep in mind:

Meaningful beats irrelevant. Creating precise, meaningful elaborations outperforms the “is the word related to ‘economic’ or not?” types. Putting new information into our existing knowledge network helps us remember it, but putting it where it belongs helps us use it more effectively. Meaningful elaborations let you use information more effectively in the future. Irrelevant elaborations don’t help (and can, in some circumstances, hurt).

Student-created and teacher-created elaborations can both be useful. So far, we’ve talked a lot about student-created elaborations, but teachers can also provide elaborations. Teacher-created elaborations offer an advantage and a drawback. The advantage is that teachers can spend time to create really good elaborations. It’s the same kind of advantage that a well-organized book or presentation provides. Teachers likely know when the new information will be relevant, so they can connect the new information to the relevant prior knowledge. The disadvantage of teacher-provided elaborations is that they lose out on this “active learning” effect that I talked about earlier.

It’s worth considering how students will continue to build on the knowledge that they’re learning now. Suppose I learned the color order by memorizing the “Roy G. Biv” name. Then I can recover the color order if I remember “Roy G. Biv”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. That’s a fine way of remembering it. But what does this name have to do with anything? It’s kind of like the old Columbus rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s catchy and it’s stuck with me since early grade-school. And it’s a kind of elaboration. But it doesn’t tell me anything beyond the bare fact of the year that Columbus set sail.

I might use a different way to remember the color order. I know the words “infrared” and “ultraviolet” describe parts of the visual spectrum that we can’t see, which tells me that the red is on one side of the color spectrum and violet is on the other side. And I can infer that orange comes after red, and yellow after orange, etc. In fact, I can almost visualize a color spectrum (like a number line) moving from infrared to red to violet to ultraviolet. This takes more effort initially, but it’s also a more useful way of organizing my knowledge (I can add knowledge about X-rays and other forms of radiation to this spectrum as well).

Some research even suggests that students can be explicitly taught elaboration strategies over time. Elaboration takes time and effort, so we can’t elaborate every possible piece of new information (nor would we want to). But making a habit out of elaboration — trying to build off of what you already know to make meaning out of something you want to know — will make you a more effective learner.

For further ideas about incorporating elaboration into the classroom, see here and here.