Knowledge construction is the centre of students’ learning – finding ways to remember lots of information and then recall it effectively is key to ensuring their success. The trick is to be able to distinguish the important stuff from the irrelevant information and remembering only what matters.
Although our memory works in wonderful ways, it can sometimes let us down. So, how can students optimise their ability to build knowledge, without forming misconceptions?
Here’s what we know about knowledge construction and memory, and how you can teach your students to use them to their advantage.
Knowledge building and schemas
Before we talk about how to optimise knowledge construction, you need to understand how the process of creating new memories actually works.
When we learn information, we create a schema for it. Psychologists define this as “a structure that people use to organise current knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding.” In other words, a schema is like a little box of information we have in our brains about a certain subject or topic.
For example, your schema for a friend of yours might include information about their appearance, personality, what their favourite food is, and lots more. This box will then help you learn new things about them, because you already have an essential understanding of them and existing information to anchor the new one to.
When students learn information in class, they will form schemas in their minds that group different pieces of knowledge together. After that, any new information that fits within this “box” can be encoded into it, so that information can be retrieved easier when it is next needed, like in an exam.
The problem is that when a schema becomes too strong and overgeneralised, it can make links and connections with new information that don’t quite add up. This can lead to students creating false memories. For instance, if you gave your students a long list of words to remember that contained “snow”, “dark” and “cold”, they might falsely remember that it also contained the word “winter.” The reason would be that they would have placed that word in the schema they created due to it fitting quite nicely.
As you can see, schemas make learning a lot easier for it, which unfortunately also makes them fallible. That is why you need to know a few ways to minimise the opportunity for misconceptions to embed themselves in your students’ memory.
The memory’s stages of processing
In order to form a schema, the information goes through three stages of memory where information gets processed:
- Encoding – This is where the brain transforms information into a format that it can store – the brain’s equivalent of writing something down.
- Consolidation – When information is encoded, it’s usually very detailed and contains knowledge that may not be needed, such as the time and place where you first learnt it. Over time, the consolidation process will sieve out this irrelevant knowledge, so that only the important stuff remains.
- Retrieval – This means bringing information back to the forefront of the mind, so that we can remember it.
When students encounter new information, this can update a memory and change it to fit what they now know. In this way, memories are altered over time without them necessarily being aware of it.
It’s also important to know that these three stages of memory are a cycle – it doesn’t end after the retrieval stage. Bringing a memory back to the front of your mind is believed to alter and update it with new information. The memory would then be reconsolidated into an existing schema, meaning that even schemas are continuously adjusted to optimise knowledge.
However, we mentioned previously that schemas are not always adjusted correctly, with new information sometimes being carelessly placed in the wrong “box”, if you will. So, how can you as a teacher make sure that this doesn’t happen to your students? Here is some advice based on the three stages of processing…
How can you optimise knowledge construction for your students?
So, now you know about the different stages of information processing and how schemas are formed, how can you help your students ensure their knowledge is correctly remembered and retrieved when it’s needed?
Here are our seven favourite tips that recent research suggests you use…
- Elaborate on what you say
This tip aims to improve the encoding stage in your students. By explaining what you mean further than you might think is necessary, you will help your students relate a new memory to as many existing memory traces and schemas as possible.
This will allow them to best place the information into the correct schema, helping to avoid overgeneralisation and misconceptions.
- Use visual cues when you teach
These cues could simply be pictures on a whiteboard that accompany what you tell your students. Using visual cues will help make the memory as vivid as possible and strengthen the encoding stage, because this method allows students to combine different sensory systems – this is what Dual Coding rests on.
- Bring up information from earlier
When you do this, students need to reactivate previous memories. This is thought to help link the new memories to existing schemas better during the encoding stage.
- Tell your students to get enough sleep
Whilst this tip is a little more out of your hands, you can still do your bit by stressing to your students the importance of getting enough sleep each night, especially after a tough day of learning new information. Most consolidation happens when we are sleeping – our minds are subconsciously getting rid of irrelevant information so that we are just left with what we need.
It is recommended that students should get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night. There are lots of tips you can teach your students to maximise the amount of sleep they can get. Getting parents and carers informed and involved can also greatly help.
- Take regular breaks between learning
Try setting your students a fun task that gives their brains a rest from learning new information every now and then. Much like when we are asleep, the brain will use this down time to consolidate and process the newly acquired knowledge.
- Set little quizzes to test knowledge
Giving your students quizzes gets them to use the retrieval part of their memory processing and strengthens their memory further – this is, after, a form of Retrieval Practice.
This is also a good way for you as a teacher to assess how much of the information they have actually processed, and to see if your teaching methods are working.
- Get your students to teach one another
Also called the Protégé Effect, this requires your students to call upon their stored knowledge to make others understand the content. This is a specific form of Retrieval Practice and helps them process the information more deeply, because they need to truly understand what they are talking about if they are going to teach others.
Whilst there are lots of techniques you can use to help your students optimise their knowledge construction, you should remember that each student is different and will learn in different ways. Make sure that you are using a good array of techniques to ensure they get the most out of their learning.
Hopefully you now have a brand new schema on knowledge construction filled with the information we just gave you – it will help you give your students the best possible chance of success.