Science of Learning: Declarative Procedural Memory

Another aspect of memory that is important in formal learning would be the declarative (or conceptual) and procedural distinction. Declarative memory is made up of information that you can describe or talk about, whereas, procedural memory is made up of the information that allows you to do things (carry out procedures). Declarative tells you what, when, where, and why, with procedural memory telling you how. Neither of these memory distinctions can be said to be more important than the other.

Traditional formal education prioritizes conceptual memory, leaving procedural memory behind in an effort to explain the facts (what, when, where, and – occasionally – why). This is for purely pragmatic reasons. Measuring memorization, which has become paramount in today’s educational world, is easier done with questions about what, where and when. These are all declarative aspects of memory, and this narrow focus is what most former students remember about their formal education (if they remember anything at all). Long term, they don’t usually remember the actual information that they were tasked to learn, but the tedium of learning it.

I have heard many lecturers and professors in higher education tell me that they remember quite a bit from some of the classes they took years earlier. We need to remember that most of us became professional memorizers or we wouldn’t be where we are today. Research tells us that the average university student will be able to correctly answer about 10% more test items a year after having taken a class than someone who has not taken the class (or a class of related material).

The why’s of declarative memory are important but tend to be glossed over because of the difficulty of measurement. These tend to be the “good” questions that educators talk about because this is where some understanding is assessed. Can be done, but is often not assessed – at any level.

Procedural memory is how things are done. There are some procedural skills taught, and conservative educators would like to have a return to focus on some of these core skills: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Others would have new skills introduced – life skills like balancing finances, computer programming, or other “useful (read money-making)” skills. Too often skills are taught within such constrained settings that transference is all but impossible. The desirable flexibility that is needed, and provided by a broad representation of the skill, is often missing, and an exact skill necessary to pass some standardized test is what is learned.

Some procedural skills tend to be relatively easy to teach and assess (basic math, reading, and writing). More advanced levels of skills get more difficult to teach and assess. Skills, by their very nature, never really have an end goal. When do you ever finish learning to maneuver a vehicle? or to write? Skills can use endless improvement, and so it is difficult to explicitly describe skill levels (I’ve seen it tried). As a result, educators are not really comfortable with teaching and assessing anything beyond the most rudimentary skill sets, constrained by rigid situational barriers (time, institutional, curricular etc).

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