The Memory: 1

I've been lecturing on memory recently. It's a great topic because you can apply the results of research to your own memory and studying.

First, if there's anything the research tells us, it's that memory isn't one thing. As I've talked about before, we can remember specific memories (called verbatim traces), but we can also store more general information related to the memory (called gist).

This gives us an important clue about memory: it's not just about the memory--it's also about things related to the memory. It suggests that memories in our heads are very different from those in a computer. In a computer, each memory occupies a lonely little memory location on a chip--whichever one is available. In our heads, in contrast, incoming memories look for a good place to land. They want to stick to things that they are similar to. This is why it's hard to remember things if they don't make sense to you: the memories have nowhere to land.

Second, there's a neat effect known as context-dependent memory. It's the fact that where you are will influence your ability to remember things you learned in that location. If you come to class, you'll learn all kinds of neat psychology-flavoured bits (at least, if you're in my class you will). The words I say and the words that appear on the big screen do no exist apart from their context; rather, they are a part of the context (clever, innit? ;-) This is good reason to come to class--especially if the exam is held in the classroom. If you're just mooching the lecture notes off someone else, you're missing that experience. (Real keeners are known to study the textbook in the classroom as well.)

Again, this tells us that memories are more than just random bits that get stuffed into your brain. Yes, they do get stored, but the situation matters. Why? Recent research has used brain scans to analyze the brain while it's learning (or encoding memories) and again when it's remembering (or retrieving memories). The patterns in both cases are remarkably similar. If you learn something in one environment and then try to remember it in another environment, it will be more difficult because the patterns of brain activity (partially produced by your environment) will be a bit different.

So, here are the upshots. First, if you're trying to commit a definition to memory, try to remember an example of that as well. If you want to remember that episodic memories are about your personal life events, think of some significant event from your own life--like the last party you went to (if you can remember it).

Second, go to class. Maybe your final exam isn't in the classroom (although mine are--that's my choice), your midterms are. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bit of a free memory boost when you're writing an exam?

Why aren't you studying?

The Student/Faculty Ratio

There's a pretty clear trend in the student/faculty ratio that's been happening since the 1980s: it's increasing. In other words, there are fewer instructors to deal with more students. That means class sizes are increasing, right? Possibly yes, but not necessarily.

Huh? How can that be? The key word above is "faculty." This term is defined as (technically): "Full Time Equivalent continuing faculty." Don't worry about the Full Time Equivalent business--the "continuing faculty" part is the most important. This term means tenured or tenure-track faculty (in other words, Professors). This term does not include contract academic staff (in other words, me).

Although I don't have specific data, I know that the number of contract academic staff (CAS) has increased substantially over the past decade or two. Here's the situation, using last year's data. There are about 2,200 continuing faculty at the UofA. There are over 800 CAS--who are not counted in the student/faculty ratio.

I've read that the student/faculty ratio this year is around 22.2:1. So, for every professor, there are over 22 students. But if you factor in CAS, that number goes to 16.3 or so. The University, however, does not count me or my CAS colleagues--we don't exist. Literally, I don't count. (To be fair to the UofA, no institution counts their contract/sessional staff in the s/f ratio. Why not? I dunno.)

Despite the fact that I'm a nobody, I'm not too depressed. Students talk to me as if I actually existed. Plus, I get paid actual money. But I wish I were more valued. I've got a solution to this, by the way: get rid of CAS. No, don't fire us--give us continuing positions (called "conversion"). Until then, I will continue to haunt the hallways and classrooms as a ghost...

Why aren't you studying?

The Office Hour

I had my office hour yesterday, and I got a lot of work done. Oh yeah, I also had a student stop by to ask questions.

I used to have a lot of office hours, but then I also used to have a lot of students coming to ask questions. Gradually, however, the flow of students became a trickle, and I started to cut back on my office hours. So why the change?

The answer is probably the Internet. Email is one factor. I've put my email address on the syllabus for every course I've ever taught, going back to 1994. Every year since then I've gotten more and more emails (I got a grand total of 1 in '94--now it's more like 1 an hour). It's easier to fire off a message whenever you want, than to arrange to meet with an instructor at a mutually convenient time. I teach a lot of classes, and it can be tough to find time to meet with a student outside of my regular office hours. Sometimes I do, and then the student doesn't show up. Hey, at least call and leave a message so I can do something more productive with my time than catching up on I Can Has Cheezburger?.

Another factor is the web. Used to be, if you wanted to know how you did on a midterm (or even to get your final grade), you had to actually go to the department and look up your mark on a sheet of paper posted to a bulletin board. Since you had to walk all the way there in the first place, maybe you'd also stop by your instructor's office and talk to them. But if you can look up everything online, why bother traipsing all the way to the Biological Sciences Building? Some people don't even know where the Department of Psychology is!

Anyway, if you actually make the extra effort to come and see an instructor in person, that's probably going to stand out in their memory. And that, usually, is a good thing.

Why aren't you studying?

The Review Class

I don't do review classes.

Why not? Because reviewing is an individualized process. It's not really something that can be done in a classroom for a hundred or more students simultaneously.

Think of it this way. You might have trouble understanding a certain concept. Does everyone in the class have similar difficulty? If so, then a review might be warranted. But how do I know what students don't understand? I don't.

OK, I actually do--but to a very limited extent. If I get email from someone asking me to explain a concept again, I'll know that that person didn't get it the first time. But I almost never get questions on the exact same concepts from different students. If I did, I'd realize there were problems connecting the teaching to the learning. (That's probably my fault, in that case.)

Still, if I try to review a concept that, say, 50% of the class doesn't get, it might be beneficial. But the rest of the class--who got it already--are sitting there, yawning, chatting, texting, sleeping, kissing, etc., because they're bored out their minds. This isn't a great use of class time.

From my point of view, I've taught the material already. I've tried to do my best job to make it understandable--despite the complexity of some of the things I cover. If I just go over everything again...well, if no one understood it the first time, how are they going to understand it if I go over the exact same things again? Again, it's not worth the time.

Now, I'm not pessimistic about things. I have some hope that classroom response systems ("clickers") can help. Students bring these gadgets to class, and answer questions that the instructor puts into his or her PowerPoints. This is a great way of assessing learning because it's so immediate. I can present a concept, and right after, test to see if anyone is getting it. There are downsides, too: the clickers are an extra cost for students, and it's a real pain to come up with great testing questions.

I've done a research study on clickers, which found that students like them (when they're free). So there's still some work to be done. Maybe if more classes used clickers, I'd be more willing to use them in my classes. Answer in the comments: How many of your courses currently use clickers?

But back to the topic of reviews. If I as an instructor don't do review classes, what are students to do? Easy answer: do your own review. You should know the concepts you're having trouble understanding. Then what? Ask me for help, or ask the teaching assistant. That's what we're here for. This actually takes more of my time, because I'll be meeting students outside of class time, or answering email. But you'll end up with a greater understanding and probably a better grade.

Why aren't you studying?

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