Laleh Fakhraei Faruji is a Ph.D Candidate in Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch, Department of Literature & Foreign Languages, Tehran, Iran.
If asked, most of us would probably say that our biggest memory problem is forgetting things we want to remember. Due to the importance of forgetting, and implications of theories of forgetting in language teaching, the researcher in this paper provides a brief account of forgetting and its definitions, and then explains the relationship between rote and meaningful learning and forgetting. Forgetting is always referred to in negative terms, and described as a state or condition where memory does not work normally and seems to be faulty. However researcher argues that forgetting is not always negative; rather, in some occasions, it may be the most efficient thing one can do in order to retrieve memories.
According to Cubelli (2010, p. 35), etymologically, the word “to forget” derives from the Old English word forgytan, which is composed by for- (passing by, letting go) and gietan (to grasp).
Why do we forget? This question was once one of the most prominent topics of research on memory. The original work in this area was done by Ebbinghaus (1885, as cited in Levy et al. 2010, p. 135), who carefully documented the rate at which he forgot nonsense syllables.
Different scholars provided various definitions of forgetting. Tulving (1974) defined forgetting as “the inability to recall something now that could be recalled on an earlier occasion”. Davis (2008 as cited in Roediger et al., 2010, p. 2) defined the strong form of forgetting as complete loss from storage, by saying that forgetting is “the theoretical possibility that refers to a total erasure of the original memory that cannot be recalled, no matter what techniques are used to aid recall”. Roediger et al. (2010, p. 3) referred to the weak form of the concept of forgetting and stated that all events that have been encoded and stored from age 7 persist in the nervous system, and the inability to access them now is due to retrieval failure.
Different theories of forgetting has been developed over the previous years. However, as Wixted (2004) argued it is still debated whether forgetting is an active process (e.g., it occurs via interference in the acquisition of new information) or a passive one (e.g. it occurs as a result of decay of information over time).
Ausubel (1968, as cited in Brown, 2000) provided a plausible explanation for the universal nature of forgetting. He argued that rotely learned materials do not interact with cognitive structure in an effective way. These materials are learned through the laws of association, and their retention is influenced primarily by the interfernce effects of similar rote materials which have been learned immediately before or after the learning task. Lefrancois (1988), and Roediger et al. (2010) referred to these processes as proactive and retroactive interference. According to Roediger et al. (2010, p. 10), proactive interference refers to the negative effects of prior learning on retention of new information, whereas retroactive interference refers to the negative effects of encountering new information
on remembering old information . You can see the process of rote learning and retention in figure1.
Figure 1. Schematic representation of rote learning and retention (Adapted from Brown, 2000, p. 84)
According to Brown (2001, p.86) interfering effects have little influence on meaningful learning, and the amount of retention for meaningfully learned materials is highly efficient. For example, addresses can be better retained as part of a meaningful set, compared to phone numbers, which are isolated entities, and can easily be, forgotten.
It does not mean that meaningfully learned material is never forgotten. But in the case of such learning, forgetting takes place in a much more intentional and purposeful manner, because it is a continuation of the process of subsumption by which one learns; According to Ausubel (1963, as cited in Brown, 2000, p. 86) forgetting is really a second or “obliterative” stage of subsumption. It means that it is a “memorial reduction to the least common denominator”. In other words, it is more economical and easier to retain a single inclusive concept than to remember a large number of more specific items. Therefore, the importance of a specific item is incorporated into the generalized meaning of the larger item. In this obliterative stage of subsumption, the specific items become gradually less identifiable as individual entities in their own right, until they are no longer available and eventually be forgotten. It is this second stage of subsumption that operates through what (Brown 1972, as cited in Brown, 2000, p. 87) has called “cognitive pruning” procedures.
Pruning is the removing of unnecessary material and clearing the way for more material to enter the cognitive field. This is analogous to pruning a tree, which leads to its greater and fuller growth. You can see the process of meaningful learning and retention in the building blocks analogy of Brown (2000) in figure 2:
As you saw subsumptive forgetting, or pruning, is not haphazard or chance; rather, it is systematic. Therefore, as Brown (2000, p. 87) argued, “By promoting optimal pruning procedures, we have a potential learning situation that will produce retention beyond that normally expected under more traditional theories of forgetting”.
Schematic representatio n of meaningful learning and retention (subsumption) (Adapted from Brown, 2000, p. 84)
Explicit memory: “Remembering” and “knowing”
Several theories of recognition memory distinguish between experiences of ‘‘remembering’’, and “knowing” (Gardiner & Java, 1993; Jacoby, 1991; Mandler, 1980; Rajaram, 1993).
The basic paradigm for exploring the role of conscious recollection in memory involves requiring people to make judgments regarding the nature of their memories for recalled or recognized items (Gardiner, 1988; Tulving, 1985, as cited in Rajaram, 1993), instead of assuming the involvement of conscious recollection on the basis of successful memory performance. Rajaram (1993) identified two types of experiences: One type of experience, which subjects judge as “remember,” refers to those items for which they have a vivid memory, a subjective feeling of having seen the item during the study episode, and a conscious recollection of it occurring on the study list. The other type of experience, which subjects judge as “know,” refers to items for which they can tell (usually with certainty) were on the study list, but cannot recollect the actual occurrence. It is assumed that this judgment is made on some other basis because the subject does not remember actually seeing the item on the study list, and does not have a conscious recollection of it. For example, while describing a recent visit to a national park, one may recall all the details and mentally relive the events that took place. This would be an example of a “remember” judgment. On the other hand, there are times when we meet someone on the street whom we met at a party a few days ago. Although we know that we met this person at the party, we may not remember actually meeting the person, or his/her name. In this case, the recognition of this person would be classified as a “know” judgment, not a “remember” judgment.
Goal directed forgetting
Forgetting is always referred to in negative terms, and described as a state or condition where memory does not work normally and seems to be faulty. However, according to Johnson (1994, as cited in Van Hoof et al., 2009) efficient memory functioning involves both the successful remembering of previously learned material, and the successful forgetting of irrelevant, invalid, or out-of-date information. For example, according to Anderson, et al. (1998, p. 104) “to avoid disability emotions or dysfunctional personal relationships, we may want to forget past events in our lives that are painful or embarrassing”. Markovitch & Scott (1988) put it this way: Learning and forgetting are complementary processes which construct and maintain useful representations of experience.
Anderson et al.(1998, p. 104) provided some cues to forget as: implicit cues, and explicit cues.
In both real world situations and analogous research paradigms, cues to forget, although clear, are typically implicit (Anderson et al., 1998, p. 104). As we park our car in the morning, for example, we do not tend to instruct ourselves to forget the event of having parked our car in a different spot the preceding morning, no do there tend to be signs posted that instruct us to do so.
In other real world and laboratory situations the cue to forget can be more direct (Anderson, et al., 1998, p. 104).; for example, we have probably all been told something like: “forget what I just said. I was reading the wrong number, here is the correct one”, or “forget those directions; it is hard to get there that way. Here is the way you should go instead”. Similarly, a defining characteristic of directed forgetting research paradigm, at least with human subjects, is that the cue to forget is explicit. Subjects are instructed at the beginning of such studies that on occasions they may receive an instruction to forget some of the material previously presented to them for study and, if so, their memory for that material will not be tested later. Or subjects might be later unexpectedly told that materials they had just been studying for a later memory test will not be tested after all. For example they might be told that incorrect materials had been presented by mistake, and they are then presented with the current material to study for a later memory test.
Retrieval Induces Forgetting (RIF)
Many details of the events take place during a day are only a little different from details of the day before. For example, you may park your car in the same lot every day, but the location of your car may vary from day to day. With many memories linked to your car’s location in the lot, how are you able to recall the current spot? Green & Kittur (2006) argued that to retrieve today’s parking spot, your memory system must discriminate that target memory from many related, competing memories. According to him such discrimination is facilitated by the inhibition of competing memories. This idea which was first proposed by Anderson et al. (1994, 1998, 2000 and confirmed by others like Ciranni & Shimamura, 1999; Dunn & Spellman, 2003; Jakab & Raaijmakers, 2009) suggests that the very act of remembering may cause forgetting. Veling & Knippenberg (2004) provided the example that retrieving information from a particular category (e.g., retrieving the phone number of an old friend) can induce forgetting of related information within that category (e.g., the phone number of a family member), compared with information about an independent category (e.g., one’s groceries).
Teaching implications of theories of forgetting
Lefrançois (1988, p. 74) provided some implications of the theories of forgetting in teaching as follow:
Regarding the issue of interference, Lefrançois (1988, p. 74) referred to the idea of transfer as the effect of new learning on old learning and claimed that ransfer can be either positive or negative. Positive transfer occurs when previous learning facilitates new learning. Negative transfer occurs when previous learning interferes with current learning. One of the obvious ways of teaching for positive transfer, while at the same time eliminating negative transfer is, to relate new material to old material, and to emphasize similarities and differences. The similarities should facilitate positive transfer; and knowledge of differences should minimize negative transfer.
Lefrançois (1988, p. 74) also listed a number of memory aids, or mnemonic devices which make use of specific retrieval cues. Rhymes, patterns, acronyms, and acrostics are some of common mnemonic devices.
According to Brown (2000, p. 88) the notion that forgetting is systematic also has important implications for language learning and teaching. In the early stages of language learning, certain devices (definitions, paradigms, illustrations, or rules) are often used to facilitate the subsumption process. These devices can aid meaningful learning at early stages. But in the process of making language automatic, the devices are just meaningful at a low level of subsumption, and at later stages of language learning they will be systematically removed.
Novak (1998) identified concept mapping as a powerful tool for the facilitation of meaningful learning. Concept maps are tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts or propositions, indicated by a connecting line between two concepts. Words on the line specify the relationship between the two concepts.
He believed that concept mapping serves as a kind of template to help to organize knowledge and to structure it, even though the structure must be built up piece by piece with small units of interacting concept and propositional frameworks. Many learners and teachers are surprised to see how this simple tool facilitates meaningful learning and the creation of powerful knowledge frameworks that not only permit utilization of the knowledge in new contexts, but also retention of the knowledge for long periods of time (Novak, 1990; Novak & Wandersee, 1991, as cited in Novak, 1998).
One can conclude that knowledge of characteristics of long-term memory; the causes of forgetting, and also the knowledge of what can be done to impede the process of forgetting has considerable value for teachers in general, and for language teachers in particular.
Brown (2000, p. 89) stated that while we are all fully aware that our dependence upon devices like definitions, paradigms, illustrations, or rules, is gradually decreasing in language learning, Ausubel’s theory of learning gives explanatory adequacy to this idea. He maintained that language teachers might help their students to “forget” these interim, mechanical items as they make progress in language learning and instead help them to focus more on the communicative use (comprehension or production) of language.
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