Building A Web Of Knowledge

The cognition unit is, by far, my favorite unit of study in AP Psychology. I love introducing my students to the different facets of memory: short-term memory, long-term memory, explicit/implicit processing, encoding, storage, retrieval, forgetting, et cetera. I believe it to be extremely valuable for students (and teachers) to understand how memory works and then how to capitalize on this knowledge; how to take notes and study best. It’s a bit like simply being the driver of a car vs. being a mechanic. Sure, I can drive a car with very little knowledge of what’s going on beneath the hood, but by knowing how to change the oil, change a belt, and diagnose different potential problems, I can save time/money and take better care of my car. I see understanding memory in the same light. Obviously, people learn without any real understanding of the brain, but by knowing a little something about the processes around committing information to long-term memory, learners can be more efficient and effective with their studying. 

In relation to short-term and long-term memory, here’s an analogy I use to help students understand why knowledge is so important for understanding and retention of material. I look at knowledge and schemas a bit like a spider’s web. An actual web that has more connections and links will be much stronger than a web with fewer and will do a better job at catching bugs. The web that has very few attachments is more likely to break and simply doesn’t have the same ability to trap any bugs that may fly into it. 

Knowledge and schemas a similar to that. Any topic that you’ve built a strong schema around is much more likely to ‘catch’ similar, applicable knowledge. For instance, if we’re discussing Skinner and operant  conditioning and my students can relate this to training their dog to perform tricks for a treat, they have a much better chance of remembering this information than someone who has never attempted to operantly condition. The former already have a schema formed around this information and their mental spider web is well-formed and ready to ‘catch’ related subject matter. The latter lack the ability to be able to relate the material to anything recognizable. Their web is either non existent or less intricate with its design, which may result in a starving spider and the inability to retain information.

So, how do we build stronger mental spider webs? Through acquiring more knowledge: experiences, facts, knowing stuff. The more information we know, the more connections a particular spider web (schema) has to relate to and ‘trap’ the new subject matter. Without a developed schema or web, the probability that new information may be properly encoded and stored decreases. This usually leads nicely into a conversation about the importance of memorization…yes, it can be important for learning. I know a lot of my students right now have been tasked with knowing different aspects of the periodic table. They are not thrilled about this and question, like most, why they need to memorize this information. I point back to the spider web analogy for acquiring new knowledge and discuss how memorizing and being able to retrieve those facts seemingly automatically not only frees up working memory space for other information, but makes the application of this knowledge (perhaps the elements atomic weight or chemical symbol) much more efficient, allowing for a much smoother building of knowledge. To really bring this point home, I ask them how much more tedious math class be right now if you never memorized multiplication tables. For the math problem seen below, can you imagine needing to count on your fingers/toes 3 x 2, 3 x 3, and 4 x 4 before completing the rest of the problem? How inefficient is that? Memorizing these mathematical facts are important.*

Usually, this helps my students to better understand why memorizing and knowing stuff is very important for more efficiently and effectively learning other stuff. They still don’t really want to do it…but hopefully they at least understand why they need to do it, now.

Build that web of knowledge. Catch more bugs. Learn more things. 

*No, I’m not saying memorizing is the end goal of learning.

4 comments

  1. I’ve always felt some memorization was important because it makes you more efficient when doing higher level tasks. I never had the vocabulary or knowledge to say it this nicely though! Thanks!

  2. Great post. I love the car analogy. However, I think that actually knowledge of underlying *brain* processes is not yet developed enought to actually make a practical difference in our learning strategies. Understanding memory on the cognitive level, behaviorally, is certainly important. But at the brain level, what we have learned has so far only served to explain what psychologists new for decades. So its not yet necessary to know whats happening under the hood in the brain, in order to be the best learner.

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