When we talk about 'learning', do we mean the ability to recall prior input on demand or do we mean the ability to recall prior input that is contextually appropriate to the need at the time of the recall? Either way, the ability to recall is what's important, whether on an academic test or in a real problem-solving situation. So there is no doubt that retrieving information from our memories is a skill worth honing. But which method trains our memories to function best?
A recent study of studying practices looked at techniques of rote memorization (ancient and boring), concept mapping (modern, colourful and hip) and 'retrieval practice', a.k.a., essay writing (generally thought to be painful and boring) and concluded that essay writing yielded the best results in terms of recall and logical application of the retrieved material compared to the other two. However, the essay-writing method didn't give its practitioners as much confidence in what they had learned compared to the practitioners of rote or mapping techniques who reported that they felt they had learned more, even though their test results fell behind the essayists.
Proves Socrates right, doesn't it? "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing".
I believe why essay writing works best is because the writer is actively connecting prior knowledge with new incoming knowledge through logical processes, aided by the application of language -- the glue that binds thoughts together. Learning by rote or mapping only requires a retrieval system comprehensible by the person memorizing the material. It may work for him or her, but no one else is likely to make sense of it, not immediately anyway. Whereas essays are written to share thought with an audience, and the need to communicate coherently with another person means that filing, referencing, retrieving information has to be done by a system that offers common access to everyone. Hence sharing the knowledge adds a second layer of learning to the learning process. How's that for reinforcement?
The challenge for GP is convincing our kids that essay writing is actually a shared learning experience and not simply a selfish process aimed at amassing a paltry handful of individual success scores. And maybe it's also an encouragement for me to keep posting here when so often these days I succumb to writer's block. But that's probably another story for another day.