Memory and Learning

By 26/09/2019 November 7th, 2019 Education, Pedagogy

As a computing teacher / lecturer, I am constantly surrounded by learners / students. And because of this, I am constantly reviewing how I teach and asking myself “What is the best way they can learn?” “How best can I activate their memory and learning skills?” I recognise that they all learn in different ways and they all have different motivations for learning. For some it’s a reluctant, “I’m here so I might as well” but for others there is a clear career path planned out and this is but the present part in that journey.

So the questions I ask myself:

“How can I help my students learn quicker, faster or in a more effective manner?”

“Is there a systematic way they can learn, but learn and remember the skills?”

Being honest, as a teacher I will probably spend my career trying to answer these questions. If you’re a teacher you probably will too. If you’re not a teacher, then these questions can be asked of yourself, by yourself, to yourself, about yourself. Being able to learn faster than others will be the ultimate competitive advantage you could ever have in your career. So can it be taught?

I’m at the stage in my career where I am researching and writing about things that interest me, but are also connected to the process of teaching systematically – it makes most sense to me. I believe pedagogically, that learning can be systematic and planned. I am also in constant conversation with my wife (who is also a teacher) about the nature of intelligence (IQ) – is it fixed or fluid? Is there a ceiling that we can’t move past, or is there room for us to continually grow, learn and improve. I think sometimes we are discussing different ideas, but that’s OK because I am constantly learning, thinking out and refining my own ideas.

Research has clearly shown that when we teach what we learn, something happens in our minds. We suddenly notice mistakes in our current thinking. We begin to have deeper creative insights. Our ideas become sharper and undergo the refining process. We can remember what we learned for longer. We can identify patterns more effectively and more clearly. We receive feedback and this improves our idea further. This is called the Explanation Effect Mental Model

It can also be applied to ourselves, when we write these concepts down by journaling, mind mapping, or talking out loud we retain them with greater precision and clarity (Blatchford, 2016).

Hovarth (cited in Blatchford, 2016) contrasts what is happening when we write versus typing on a computer:  “There is a real linearity to a computer…when you are typing, you are always going straight, whereas with handwriting, you are circling, you’re going up and down, you are drawing lines backwards — it’s very different. The very nature of handwriting means you have to write and organise as you are thinking, and that kind of organisation affects how you are interpreting the information. It’s the way the hand writing forces you to organise your thoughts that leads to deeper processing.”

I have always found personally, that when I write something down, I remember it – this formed much of my exam revision processes, but it’s interesting to know there is a scientific basis to this – so how can we leverage this in our classroom teaching? Is this the only aspect to focus on?  Especially when there is a momentum around using technology:  iPads, or OneNote (something I use myself) does this improve and activate our learning memories or are we fooling ourselves into thinking that activity equals productivity?

A colleague of mine is a great believer of getting students to write out programming code – this might seem laborious, but the science is behind it, and it does bring results, so is it wrong? I don’t necessarily think this is the case, but it will depend on our intended learning outcome.

The Explanation Effect

Simmons (2019) tells us that we’ve experienced the power of the Explanation Effect mental model if we have ever:

  • Learned something new about what you were teaching as you were preparing for or actually teaching it.
  • Started unconsciously deliberating on (even dreaming about) a presentation days before you actually delivered it.
  • Started explaining an idea to someone else only to realise that you didn’t actually understand the idea as well as you thought you did.
  • Got new ideas from a student, reader, or conversation partner that helped take the idea to the next level.

Simmons goes into more details as to what is happening on a deeper level that creates this ‘magic’ of the Explanation Effect mental model


Learning is NOT just about taking in information. In my experience coaching hundreds of people on learning how to learn, almost no one has a system for processing information. It’s almost as if people just expect the learning to happen automatically after they read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a lecture, or have a life experience. Looking at text and expecting to learn is not far off from looking at food and expecting to get its nutrients. We need to digest our life experiences just like we digest our food. Without some form of active processing, almost everything we read is lost within weeks.

As the diagram below shows, absorbing information is just the first step in the universal process for learning, which I call the learning loop.

The information we absorb must be transformed in our brains to make it understandable and usable. Then, we must take action in the real world to get results. Finally, feedback from the real world helps us improve the whole learning process before we go through the loop again.

Teaching is powerful because it helps at ALL four stages.

When we incorporate teaching into our daily lives, we exponentially increase our learning potential, build deeper relationships with those around us, and make a bigger impact on the world.

Not only that, teaching is compelling on a whole other level NOW because we live in a digitally connected world…

  • When you give knowledge away, not only do you also keep it, it actually grows stronger in your mind.
  • The leverage of teaching is almost unfathomable.
  • The Internet allows us to share our knowledge on a whole other scale.
  • Teaching is on track to becoming one of the most lucrative professions.
  • Teaching may be the future of the sharing economy.

At the end of the day, we are ALL each other’s teachers on some level — whether it be as colleagues, friends, mentors, parents, or spouses.

The Modern Learning Pyramid

Seneca once stated that, “while we teach, we learn.” Socrates pioneered the Socratic Method which uses dialogue to both teach and learn. Aristotle lauded the power of teaching repeatedly, calling it “the highest form of understanding.”

Despite these case studies and the mounting research, in today’s modern world, the value of teaching is drastically under-appreciated at all levels of society. I can think of no better example than the old saying we’ve all heard before:

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

As a result of the research and case studies on the Explanation Effect, we can reframe this cultural meme toward something much more accurate:

“Smart people do. Wise people do and teach.”

Now that we understand WHY teaching to learn is so powerful, let’s dive into HOW we can actually take action to reap its value.

Average? Or Brilliant?

According to Model Theory, we all use mental models in our thinking – probably without realising it. “Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations,” according to Mental Models. Less formally, a mental model is a simplified, scaled-down version of some aspect of the world: a plan for some particular section of reality. We can present the model as a blueprint, a symbol, an idea, a formula, and in any other way that s applicable, suitable or appropriate. Whether we are aware of it, we create models in our own minds to help explain to ourselves, or others of “how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on (Simmons, 2017).

As a general rule, the more effective the model, the more effectively we are able to act, predict, innovate, explain, explore, and communicate ideas while using the model. The worse the model, the more we fall prey to costly mistakes. This works in education as the great models for learning are more popular. This of course ,is self-evident – no one willingly chooses a poor or ineffective model for learning – it won’t help us learn!

This then works out individually – the difference between great thinkers and ordinary thinkers is that, for ordinary thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For great thinkers, it is conscious and proactive. This means that great thinkers will identify issues, create strategies and generate new ideas (which may find their way to the market place) quicker than those who are ordinary thinkers.

While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (i.e. — across fields), these great thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” In another interview, Musk gives an example, “I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”

One of the most effective and universal mental models is the 80/20 Rule: this is the idea that 20% of our input can give us up to 80% of our output. This idea can be applied to our personal lives (productivity, diet, relationships, exercise, learning, etc.) and our professional lives (hiring, firing, management, sales, marketing, etc) and result in much greater productivity.

To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Looking at all the things on my to-do list, what is the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results for me?” If we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy or have been recommended to me, which ones could really change my life or impact my way of thinking positively?” If we’re considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?”

In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.


In short, there is probably far too much that has been said in this post to conclude in a nice simple manner. The topic of how we remember, access memory or assimilate new material is a topic we will be learning about for a long time to come. Part of the beauty of this topic is that we all learn differently! Some learn better through doing, a hands-on approach. Others learn by listening and assimilating into their practice by considered experiment, or trial and error. But when we all get to our destination, it doesn’t matter so much how we get there, but that we get there in the most efficient way possible to maximise our learning.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

Michael Johnston is a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. Michael has research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, instructional learning design, blended learning and education. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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