Encoding and retrieving or offloading and forgetting?

This thoughtful blog post from Blake Harvard (“How ‘Google It’ Impacts Learners”) got me thinking about the relationships between long-term recall and technology. 

In the blog post, Blake discusses a study (“Google Effects on Memory…”) that indicates there may be a negative relationship between the easy availability of information online and our ability (willingness?) to put in the cognitive work needed to recall that information on our own, and use that information long term. If we know we can “just google” that information, we may be less likely to encode it into long term memory (we may encode how to FIND the information rather than the information itself.)

Often, “just googling” information makes sense, and in some ways this is a useful cognitive strategy: cognitive psychologists talk about “cognitive offloading” – doing something physical to reduce cognitive load demands. I often use google keep notes for this purpose: I make “crib notes” with details I often have to include in emails about research requests, Zoom room numbers for colleagues, and other details. Instead of memorizing the phone number for the car repair shop in my neighborhood, I just have to remember that I can google it quickly. Could I encode and memorize these details? Sure. But just “offloading” them to technology lowers my cognitive load when I have to use these details for repetitive tasks. 

But as teachers, we need to be wary of our students over-using cognitive offloading. There is some information that is so useful for students that we want to encourage them to semantically encode that information into their long-term memory so that they can use it later, and students may not be great at differentiating between information they can safely offload and information they should spend time encoding. 

Some information provides important context as students tackle more difficult questions later, and if students can’t retrieve that contextual information from their long term memories, they may have trouble transferring the information into a new context. When I taught introductory psychology, I eventually figured out that my students needed to understand psychological perspectives REALLY well so that they can use them in later chapters to identify appropriate theories for different research questions. Some colleagues shared clever mnemonic devices with me that might help students memorize the names of the perspectives, but these mnemonics didn’t help students UNDERSTAND the perspectives, so instead of using the mnemonics in class, we spent extra time semantically encoding the meanings of the perspectives so that students could use them later. Students need guidance about what they can safely “offload” and what they need to deeply process. 

This difference may relate to how we assess student learning: there’s a reason why we sometimes ask students to retrieve information without “cues” (e.g. closed book tests) and sometimes we decide it’s fine if students use their notes (or google) instead of retrieving the information from long term memory (e.g. open note tests). Sometimes we deliberately set up assessments that require students to retrieve important information from memory, and this practice can encourage students to encode important information in ways that encourage long term memory, and (potentially) far transfer. We can make assessment decisions in order to communicate to students what information is so important that they need to be able to retrieve it whenever they need to, and what information doesn’t need to be memorized (it can be safely “off loaded” to notes or other resources they use during an assessment). 

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