Words in mind

This is number 34 in my learning theories series. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have offered a number of useful theories that aid our understanding of learning. In this series I have been providing a brief overview of each theory, and how each can be applied in education. All the previous posts in this series are linked below. The last post in this series featured the stages of cognitive development model proposed by Jean Piaget. In this post I examine a cognitive theory - spreading activation theory - adapted from a hierarchical model of memory proposed by Ross Quillian and Allan Collins. As usual, this is a brief and concise explanation of the theory, and if you wish to delve deeper, you are advised to read the associated literature.

The Theory

In human experience, memory and recall are the twin cognitive processes upon which all learning is based. To retrieve an item from long term memory, the brain traverses a large network of information. Sometimes, although the information is in long term memory, it cannot be accessed. This is due to a number of possible reasons, but often is due to weak connections. Spreading Activation is a primer theory - it explains how we create shortcuts by strongly connecting information. According to this theory information is thought to be organised in hierarchies, and it is easier (quicker) to retrieve ideas and words that are closely related together than to retrieve words that are less closely related. If you are primed with a key word before being asked to retrieve another word, the recall is often quicker.

If I asked you which of these breathe - cat, dog, tapir, axolotl - you might take longer to answer for some than for others. The speed at which you respond is dependent on your knowledge. Familiar animals are more quickly recognised as 'breathing' than less familiar animals such as axolotl or tapir. Because the latter are farther down the chain of association, it will take longer to be able to decide whether or not they breathe. If however, the primer word 'animal' is first introduced, all can be identified as 'breathing' and the response is usually much quicker.

How it can be applied to teaching and learning

In computer science, the spreading activation model has been one of the key influences on the development of semantic networks. Semantic networks operate on the principle that knowledge can best be represented as a set of concepts that are related to each other. To enable students to remember ideas and concepts better, associations can be made with objects, images, sounds, actions, tastes, aromas and other memorable sensory experiences. Stephen Heppell has written about the positive impact aromas such as baking bread can have on learning in schools. There has been research into the impact of different lighting schemes in classrooms (red light wakes us up in the morning, blue lights have a calming influence). Helping learners to make connections between movement and visualisation is a common technique in physical education and sport.

All of these methods have elements of spreading activation. Priming students with key words after they have learnt more complex content can enable them to associate the two, and promote better recall later on. When I was studying for my first degree and I needed to remember lots of names, dates and theories, I did myself a big favour. For each new theory or experiment I learnt, I created a flash card with these three elements on it, and placed it strategically somewhere in my home. As I moved around my home each day and encountered the cards, I recalled each experiment and its impact. Later, when I needed to recall the name of a psychologist or experiment, I would simply visualise the location of the flashcard in my home which would activate the three elements. This in turn would activate the memories of what the experiment was about and its impact.

Previous posts in this series:

1.  Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
2.  Argyris Double Loop Learning
3.  Bandura Social Learning Theory
4.  Bruner Scaffolding Theory
5.  Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
6.  Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
7.  Dewey Experiential Learning
8.  Engeström Activity Theory
9.  Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
10. Festinger Social Comparison Theory
11. Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
12. Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
13. Gibson Affordances Theory
14. Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
15. Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
16. Hull Drive Reduction Theory
17. Inhelder and Piaget Formal Operations Stage
18. Jung Archetypes and Synchronicity
19. Jahoda Ideal Mental Health
20. Koffka Gestalt theory
21. Köhler Insight learning
22. Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle
23. Knowles Andragogy
24. Lave Situated Learning
25. Lave and Wenger Communities of Practice
26. Maslow Hierarchy of Human Needs
27. Merizow Transformative Learning
28. Milgram Six Degrees of Separation
29. Milgram Obedience to Authority
30. Norman The design of everyday things
31. Papert Constructionism
32. Paivio Dual Coding Theory
33. Piaget Cognitive Stages of Development

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Words in mind by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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