Developing Long-Term Memory in Short-Term Summer Courses

Student with a book on face

Short-term summer courses are often taken by students to accelerate their academic careers and meet program requirements in preparation for the Fall and Winter terms. These courses are typically intensive and condense a term’s worth of materials in just six weeks. Although enrolling in summer courses might appear less time-consuming compared to full-load terms, these courses contain just as much workload and in some cases, even more. The sheer amount of time and effort students invest to comprehend course concepts and complete assignments in a short amount of time are nothing short of an accomplishment. Thus, it is just appropriate that students receive a learning experience that ensures long-term academic success beyond the short time frame of six weeks.

What's the problem?

The main concern with these summer courses is that the learning environment primes students to encode most of the knowledge they’ve gained as short-term memory. Given the relatively short timeframe of these courses and the mental stress that comes with it, traditional pedagogies used in full terms are not as effective at developing and enhancing student’s long-term memory (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016).

Oftentimes, summer courses are still structured in a manner where students complete cumulative assignments that only use lower-level thinking such as memorization. Although this promotes the improvement of students’ knowledge retrieval, the retention of the information gained greatly decays over time as the mental process of fast-paced learning mostly engages the brain’s hippocampus which is where new memories are formed and retrieved from (Jonides & al., 2008; Schapiro & al., 2017; VanElzakker, 2008). 

Even though the information, encoded in memory engram cells, is also indexed in the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain responsible for longer-term memory) at the same time it is formed in the hippocampus, the lack of repetition and knowledge rehearsal in short-term courses prohibits students from synthesizing their memories as suggested by the theory of systems consolidation of memory (SCM) (Ghazizahdeh, 2018; Trafton, 2017; Tonegawa & al., 2018).

Thus, the engram cells stored in both the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex differ in utilization rate depending on the specific task at hand (Trafton, 2017). This dictates the strength of the memory and encodes it either as short-term or long-term (Cowan, 2008; Jonides, 2008). In the case of short-term courses, students simply don’t have the long time horizon to fully consolidate their knowledge and strengthen their memory as long-term in the prefrontal cortex using traditional pedagogies. 

Lower-level thinking does not promote long-term success

As mentioned earlier, memorization is more utilized for short-term courses as materials are extremely condensed. However, it is a well-known fact that repetition, instead of memorization, improves overall knowledge retention (Karpicke, 2016). Repetition in the form of knowledge rehearsal is not the same as memorization as the act of repeating involves experiencing the same learning process whereas memorization is closely associated with just knowledge retrieval (Karpicke, 2016).

Now that the difference is apparent, the reason why short-term courses utilize less knowledge rehearsal is that repeating high-quality activities under the same instruction is very time-consuming and labour intensive. Given the short timeframe, it is nearly impossible for instructors to frequently administer thought-provoking written assignments of the same calibre as time is a great limitation.  

Applied pedagogies should be suitable for fast-paced learning

Teaching strategies should be dynamic based on students’ learning requirements and the pacing of the learning process in order to ensure long-term success. There are numerous proven research on certain pedagogies that are applicable for short-term learning that also assist in the development and strengthening of long-term memory. According to a journal on behavioural and brain science, “long-term memory is triggered by spaced learning” which is a method where information is consolidated in “condensed bursts with intervals of breaks” (Kang, 2016).

In other words, spaced learning is a practice where knowledge rehearsal is implemented routinely. Spaced learning is a more structured pedagogy that applies the same learning process multiple times while incorporating old materials with new information. As such, by frequently revisiting previous memories and creating new ones in an organized and timely manner, engram cells in both the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are utilized thereby developing both short-term and long-term memories (Jonides, 2008; Trafton, 2017). 

The benefits of peer assessment to developing long-term memory

Kritik’s peer assessment takes advantage of spaced learning and repetition as students engage in the material in condensed burst multiple times with intervals of breaks. Students undergo three stages of knowledge creation and rehearsal wherein they submit their assignment, evaluate their peers and provide feedback on the evaluations. Every time students engage in the material in each of the timely-scheduled stages, previous knowledge on the topic is interlaced with the new information received from several of their peers’ assignments thereby utilizing both parts of the brain responsible for encoding short-term and long-term memory. Peer assessment has endless benefits for instructors and students alike.

Moreover, peer assessment amplifies the effects of spaced learning as students are tasked to revisit thought-provoking written submissions which allow them to compare their work, synthesize different perspectives and make personal connections (Pressley & al., 1989). Doing so also engages the amygdala of the brain which is responsible for memory consolidation and transferring new learning to long-term memory (Squire & al., 2015; OpenStax, 2020). By using peer assessment, students are able to use space learning which promotes efficient and effective knowledge storage for both short-term and long-term success. All the while, instructors are not burdened with the extreme grading workload associated with administering high-quality assignments.

Ensuring both short-term and long-term success

Given the limited timeframe of summer courses, implementing and applying proven pedagogies that assist in the development of long-term memory while being suitable for fast-paced environments is a high priority. In order to ensure students are getting the most out of their summer courses, it is important that the knowledge they’ve gained retains throughout their academic careers and beyond. Unlike traditional pedagogies used in current short-term courses, peer assessment facilitates cognitive learning to meet instructors’ teaching objectives and students’ learning requirements within a short amount of time. 

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Jay Arias
Education Researcher