This week we are studying short-term and long-term memory as well as encoding and retrieval of memories in my “Learning and Cognition” course. We have been asked to reflect upon our evolution as a learner from high school to graduate school, our strategies to encode and retrieve information, and techniques we could implement this year. I must mention just a few highlights from my elementary days because they are pertinent to my evolution as a learner. First, elementary school was VERY easy to me – I grasped new information quickly and subsequently became bored when teachers needed to repeat information over again resulting in several parent conferences and a great deal of “line writing.” I cannot recall developing any learning strategies, but certainly skills must have developed steadily over time. I can remember being in Kindergarten and deciding I wanted to be an astronaut which pretty much drove the next ten years of my education making math and science my favorite subjects. In fifth grade, I also came to the realization that I was destined to be a nurturer, as my mother had recently had my little sister.
High school was not as easy as elementary school for a variety of reasons, but I was still quite successful. I already knew math and science were my forte and reading and writing were a struggle, but I had already established effective coping techniques. I was a slow reader so I avoided it when I could, and the subtleties of literary concepts were not as comfortable as hard facts, logic, and proofs so I looked to my favorite subjects for assistance. Although writing was a struggle, following the thesis-writing formulas usually produced “A” papers although they were neither creative nor profound. Much like my current course mates, learning must have been superficial – absorb just what I needed to pass the test only to delete the information once the task was achieved – so short-term strategies were plentiful but no true long-term learning occurred. In tenth grade, I believe I experienced great strides in overall learning when everything seemed to “come together” into a bigger picture. My English teacher was amazing! She taught grammar and literature with a very logical, formulaic approach – just what I needed! It finally made sense, and grammar actually became my biggest strength on the ACTs. I also took German that year, and studying the grammar of another language helped me understand my own language more deeply. My German teacher often said that people who are good at math learn languages very easily because grammar was so formulaic and logical. Being in band and knowing how to read music, which is also considered another language as well as being very mathematical, really assisted with the synthesis of how everything is related and connected. The summer between tenth and eleventh grade was when I realized that the plans that drove my last ten years did not jive with my need to be a nurturer. I had two years to develop another plan before college, and I became lost. Then distractions came along, which would almost destroy me. The need to connect with others became very strong; I had never really needed people before, and my family moved around so much that I never made long-term friends. That year was the first time in my life I had attended school with the same people for more than two years, plus throw teenage hormones and dating into the mix, and BOOM! I tried to hold on, but I allowed teenage drama to overwhelm me which made the second half of my eleventh grade year a living hell! I had a lot of family support to get me back on track, and I learned I thrive on stability, routine, and self-discipline.
I headed to college with a strong support system, at least I thought so, but I was not at all confident with my direction. Classes were fairly easy, but for the first time in my life, I actually had to study, and I had no idea how to do so because college required more long-term memory access. I never needed to develop learning strategies and study techniques in the past – everything just came naturally – so I struggled with relearning how to learn. Then, like all ambitious students, I began to join extracurricular activities – not the silly stuff of high school when you just show up to meetings and get voted as an officer but never really do anything. These activities actually required time and effort, all of which I was willing to give, but not on such a wide scale. I spread myself too thin. Then my stable relationship began to collapse. My personal implosion sent an already shaky relationship over the brink; we are both better people now which makes me feel it was after all for the best. But I lost that stability and support I needed, and my world began to crumble again. So there I was at the end of my sophomore year of college spread way too thin, still no career direction, with a personal life spiraling out of control. Then just when I was not looking, along came the person who would eventually force me to put it all back together again. Chris and I dated for a few years while I stumbled through more college. I was so frustrated and dissatisfied with my educational experience, and he needed the nurturer that I was, so I dropped out of school to support him while he finished his bachelor’s. I learned a great deal about customer service and how to be an employee during this period. We were supposed to marry after his graduation, but so many events out of our control prevented that from happening, but we were committed to following through with the plans we had already laid. It was his turn to support me now that he had a stable job. I found a degree program at another university that I could complete in exactly the minimum amount of credits required to earn a degree from there – 45 hours, which I managed to complete in 12 months. There were no distractions from extracurricular activities, I had the financial support and emotional stability I needed to focus, and the courses were so engaging that I fell into another synthesis zone. By this point, I was so motivated to focus and finish my coursework, this seemed to be the only real strategies I needed, but reflecting back on that time, I did develop some tactics. My professors usually provided us with study guides, so I worked through those as I read the textbooks. When reading, I focused on text organization, major themes, and how the information would be used practically without really knowing what I would do with the degree. I’d never read so much in my entire life, but it never seemed like a burden because I wanted and needed it. Once again, I viewed my world as one big interrelated picture because my courses were related and often covered the same material which also enhanced my long-term memory. I also took notes during lectures; of course, I could not write down everything my professors said, so I had to learn how to summarize quickly what I just heard. I also developed a color-coding technique for my notes and textbooks – I highlighted vocabulary word in red, their definitions in blue, main ideas and important points in green, and any features or aspects of the main idea in yellow. As a final research project, I conducted an experiment in color-coding and wrote a paper about it. I still use this method today with my own students.
It’s been almost fourteen years since earning my bachelor’s, and my life-experiences and on-the-job training have driven my learning during this time. I’ve worked my way through several “mini careers,” each with their own skills and knowledge sets. Even becoming a parent was a a subject to be studied and evaluated. I read as much as I could about everything I already didn’t know but needed to understand. Once again, I realized everything I was studying whether professionally or personally was related and part of a bigger picture. Working in childcare helps one be a better parent; being a parent helps one be a better teacher. Having emotional stability and reliable routines again helped me thrive during those years. I learned something very important about myself too; one of my strengths is having an analytical mind. Perhaps this is why absorbing as much information as possible and synthesizing it into a whole works well for me as a “learning strategy.” I also like to experience systems then try to figure out better, more efficient methods to make those systems operate, and I do this with almost every aspect of my life – parenting, teaching, keeping my house, marriage, etc. I live it, reflect upon it, analyze it for weaknesses, develop and implement new methods, and continuously reflect on progress. It makes perfect sense that I was often bored in elementary school because I had figured the system out quickly and developed the most efficient strategies available at the time. Later high school years and college were phases of falling out of sync only to redevelop new, more efficient strategies. My desire to work on a master’s is the product of falling out of a sync again. I have been absorbing the profession of teaching for several years now, I’ve observed the weaknesses of the system, and now I need to process these weaknesses with others to develop a better way. I realize this doesn’t really answer the question of what strategies or methods I use to encode and retrieve long-term memory, but it does for me because I just incorporate new information into what I already know, perpetually reformulating and synthesizing. I have found that while reading our textbook I again rely on the structure of the text, I always preview what I’m about to read to access my prior knowledge, I pause every few paragraphs or so and reflect back on how I have experienced what I just read in my work or life and look forward to how it could be utilized in the future. Having stability, routines, and self-discipline are my study techniques; they work for me. But it makes me think about what the vast majority of my students are missing from their lives and preventing them from thriving.