Emotion and memory
July 25, 2011 2 Comments
I was speaking with a few of my friends the other day in Italian when all of a sudden I realised that the word I was looking for was not there anymore. In my brain it felt like there had once been a link between the idea I wanted to express and the word available to call upon. I had known the meaning of the word, how to conjugate it, how to pronounce it, how to spell it, but I had simply forgotten it. It’s not an easy pill to swallow.
One thing that has been on the forefront of my mind for a while now is how to include memory in learning and teaching, which led me to discuss the subject with someone in my staff room, who talked about how she had written down some snippets of students’ conversations and at the end of the week stuck them on the walls of her classroom and asked students to share what they remember about it.
Which got me thinking, could there be a link between the emotions people feel when learning and the amount they remember afterwards? I had a look around the Library at work for Memory, Meaning and Method: some psychological perspectives on language learning by Earl W. Stevick (1976). A couple of things stood out to me in particular:
“Emotions do not merely expedite or inhibit memory… they actually provide the principles on which memories are organized”
“People learn best from utterances in which they have a strong personal stake, or ‘investment’”
These remarks, from Rapaport (1971) and Curran (1968) respectively, suggest that emotion may play a powerful role in the creation of memory. Just as adding the amount of information known about a word (its collocations, how it appears in a sentence, its pronunciation) can add to a learner’s understanding, increasing the amount of personal investment there is in the experience could result in higher retention. That said, the learner plays a passive role in this process, not realising at the time that these positive experiences forge stronger bonds in their mind.
So, I looked over the notes made throughout the week in class and, on Friday morning, took some small snippets from each of the conversations from which lots of language emerged. I wrote these on post-it notes and stuck them around the room at the start of the lesson. I asked my class to identify if they remembered the conversation from which the quote was taken and to share a little about what happened in that conversation. This part was to take them back to the experience surrounding the memory. After that, I wrote two questions on the board:
1. How were you feeling at that point?
2. What had you done before this conversation?
3. What did you do after?
Everyone returned to the fragments they remembered most clearly and journeyed back into their memories to retrieve some of this information. The results were varied; about a third of the class did not remember the parts of the conversations; either they had been absent or part of a different group. Those that did came out with a surprising amount of information. After I asked everyone to write down everything they now remember about one of the quotes. The results were quite interesting. What surprised me was the amount of extra information about learners’ days emerged: what we spoke about after, that one was feeling nervous at that point and that one thought Henry VIII was good-looking because he was ginger. In addition to which a lot of chunks of language looked at after the conversations and ones that came out during the conversations were recalled.
Could there be a link between the amount of emotional involvement in each speech act made during a Dogme class and the amount of memory students were able to access five or six days later by journeying back into their minds?
I’m going to try it again next week and see what the results are.
Are there any ways of enhancing students’ memories that have worked well in your classrooms?