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A Cognitive Model for Educators: Attention, Encoding, Storage, Retrieval (Part 2 of 14)

How People Learn: Attention, Encoding, Storage, and Retrieval
So how do people learn?  What are the mechanics of memory?  Can we distill thousands of articles and books to something that is manageable, digestible, and applicable to our classrooms?  

Yes.  In brief, the cognitive process of learning has four basic stages:
  • Attention: the filter through which we experience the world
  • Encoding: how we process what our attention admits into the mind
  • Storage: what happens once information enters the brain
  • Retrieval: the recall of that information or behavior
Almost everything we do or know, we learn through these stages, for our learning is memory, and the bulk of our memory is influenced by these four processes: what we pay attention to, how we encode it, what happens to it in storage, and when and how we retrieve it.

Here’s a closer look at each:


We are bombarded by sensory information, but we attend to only a small amount of it.  We constantly process sights, sounds, smells, and more, but our attention selects only a small fraction of it for conscious thought.  

Take a moment wherever you are right now and listen silently.  What sounds do you hear?  The whirring of air conditioning?  The murmur of voices nearby?  Or perhaps traffic--cars or people?  Or a light breeze through trees?  Or a ticking clock?  Chances are some of these sounds are nearly always present where you are, but our attention attenuates them, it filters them out, and it amplifies, instead, what is important to us.  The pieces of information we amplify--like the sounds we just paid attention to: the traffic, the voices, etc--they are what reach our brains and what eventually sit in our memory.  In this way, attention is a process of selection; it is the gateway to what we think about and remember.  In short: what we pay attention to is what we learn.


Once information passes through the gateway of attention, we encode it with other information we already know, either writing new experiences into our mind or attaching new experience to old.  

Consider again the sounds we heard a moment ago.  First, we noticed them.  Then, we identified them--but only because we could attach them to prior knowledge.  We’ve heard air conditioning before.  We know what traffic sounds like, or the murmur of people.  Because we had this prior knowledge, we could understand and attach the new sounds to something we already know--thereby developing new knowledge.  Imagine you had never seen or heard of a fan.  How would you understand the whooshing, whirring sound coming from the ceiling vent or window?  Or, if you had never seen a car on a road, how could you explain the sounds of traffic?  Because we can contextualize these sounds through our prior knowledge, we can remember and understand them.  This is how encoding works: it attaches new information to old information.


Once we’ve encoded information, though, it has something of a life cycle of its own inside the brain.  This is storage.  Assuming we never think about the new information again, the brain undergoes a kind of triage, rehearsing some information on its own, but forgetting most.  The consolidation and rehearsal of selected important information in the brain happens primarily, it appears, during sleep, but the forgetting of everything else happens almost immediately.  We'll look into this further later on.

For now, consider the sounds again.  If you never actively think of them again, they will fade over time in your memory.  But, if they left a strong impression on you--if you had a strong response (of interest!  of shock!)--then the memory of the sounds will last longer and with more detail than if you cared little for them.  In this way, the duration of the memory in storage depends on the strength of the encoding--and on some elements of sleep.  Again, more on all this in coming posts. 


Last is retrieval.  (But, sneakily, it is also first...!)  When we pull something something to mind, we access memories we’ve created before.  This retrieval of past memories is both the end and the beginning of the learning cycle, for retrieving something from memory brings it back into attention, re-encoding it, and starting the cycle of learning again.  

In this way, each time you recall the sound of the air, of the traffic, or of the people near you, you encode the experience again, strengthening it, and reinforcing the memory in your brain.  While reading this page, you have encoded the sounds of where you are at least a handful of times.  And the more you repeat the process, making it more a part of your prior knowledge, the more likely you will recognize it and direct attention to it at future exposures, retrieving and then re-encoding the memory.  In this way, retrieval is both the end of the cognitive process of learning, and the beginning!

And so, these four processes--attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval--undergird the learning that happens in all of our schools and classrooms, and the degree to which we understand them (scientifically or intuitively) influences the degree to which we can create the most effective learning environments.   It influences the experiences we create for our students, and it influences how we understand their cognitive behavior in class.  This becomes a real and useful, practical tool.

And it raises all kinds of questions:
  • How do I compel, direct, or invite my students' attention?
  • What do I do to encode information most richly?
  • How can I promote effective storage?
  • What kind of retrieval opportunities do I provide to most aid retention and transfer?
And more broadly:
  • How do these functions work?
  • How can I engage them on a daily basis and over an entire course?
The next handful of posts will delve into each of these questions.  We'll explore the four processes and the factors that influence them, and we'll examine the implications and opportunities they have for our work.  And so until then, keep an ear to those sounds surrounding you, and see if you notice changes in what you attend to and how you encode it...

This is the second of fourteen posts in a series about the role of cognitive science in education.


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