Category Archives: Memory

Flashbulb Memory – Definition, Illustration, and Questions.

This past year, I spent many long hours reflecting upon my memories and thoughts. A memory that refuses to fade away despite being inconsequential and irrelevant, falls neatly into the category of a flashbulb memory.

Before we discuss further, I must let the dog have her say.


dog and pup cartoons on training and cognitive psychology - coffee beans on flashbulb memory.

The gist of the many definitions that abound, is that flashbulb memory is a clear, detailed, and long-lasting memory of the circumstances that you were in, when you first got a very important or shocking news, possibly about a public figure (President John Kennedy’s assassination) or event (The Twin Tower Terror Attack of 9/11). Assassinations and disasters fall into this category. My memory relates to the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

I can vividly recall that I was solving a dynamics problem and trying my best to get the cricket commentary back on the radio, crabbing about why suddenly all stations had gone newsy, when my Grandmother chided me for my trivial concerns at the time when Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated. My Grandmother was involved in the freedom movement and for her the news meant a lot. For me, it was an important public event, and while at that time, I was too young to see what lay beyond; whenever I read or hear about the 1984 Delhi riots that followed her death, I am reminded of that scene in vivid detail. I can almost hear my grandmother’s gibe, I can feel the sun on my skin…I experience the flashbulb memory.

Let us apply some inductive reasoning to this experience (inductive reasoning makes us use specific instances to generalize – not a very trust-worthy method, but it works if the specific instance is a true illustration of a concept – thus, if my memory is truly flashbulb memory, I should be able to generalize the concept with a very small probability of error.)

My memory is crystal clear (colors, weather, what I was doing at the time, what my Grandmother said,) and my memory flashes back whenever I encounter a trigger (news of the riots, a picture of Indira Gandhi, and so on.) My memory is still strong, and I can even remember the floral print of the dress that I was wearing at the time. Assuming that my memory was a flashbulb memory, we can say that flashbulb memory generally is refreshed whenever there’s a trigger.

This makes me wonder…
1. If there were no media (no newspapers, no radio, no television, nothing that could trigger the memory,) will the memory be as longlasting?
2. Is there a decay/modification in the details of the flashbulb memory over time? In other words, do we embellish it further (I think now that I was wearing a nice floral dress in the memory I illustrated for you, but could I be looking dumpy in a shapeless but absolutely comfy tunic?) or have I lost the details (what was grandmother wearing? Who else was there? Where was our dog?)
3. Would my flashbulb memory be stronger or weaker than my grandmother’s, further more, did she even have a flashbulb memory of Indira Gandhi’s assassination? (Humans have the strongest recollections of the events that transpired when they were between 15 and 30. This period is called the reminiscence bump.)

While there is ample criticism of this concept, I find it interesting. I also wonder if a watered down version of this memory could in fact help the learners learn better.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Serial Position Effect and Its Use in Training/Course Design

Introducing the Serial Position Effect

Have you heard about the Serial Position Effect?
Of course you have. When you are positioned at the beginning of a list, you feel as chirpy as a bird, and when you are at the end, your nose scrubs the floor. When you are in the middle, you are just there – nothing feels great or lousy, and it’s just another day! So that’s the Serial Position Effect! The Cognitive Psychologists explain in greater detail and their explanations help us formulate some quick tips for making our content interesting. But let’s begin by putting on our experiential shoes.

Serial Position Effect – An Activity

Here’s a list. Read it and then hide it. (Scroll down, click alt-tab to bring up the Beyonce Knowles or George Clooney screensaver, or do whatever you usually do to hide the content on your screen.) Next, jot down on a piece of paper, all the words that you remember.

  1. Poodle
  2. Tree
  3. Dance
  4. House
  5. Airport
  6. Sugar
  7. Child
  8. Ground
  9. Watch
  10. Squirrel
  11. Truck
  12. Building
  13. Hospital
  14. Pencil
  15. Terrace
  16. Lamp

Which are the words that you remembered. According to the Serial Position effect, you must definitely have remembered the terms Poodle and Lamp (the first and the last terms.) The other terms that you remember too would have a greater chance to be found either in the first or the last few terms in the list.

The Serial Position effect (Ebbinghaus) combines two effects:

  • The Primacy Effect (We remember what is at the beginning of a list.)
  • The Recency Effect (We also remember what is at the end of a list.)

The Primacy Effect:

The primacy effect is the outcome of our conscious effort to retain the learning. Recall your experience. Did you repeat the first few terms, trying to “commit” them to memory? You were trying to shift your learning from Short Term Memory to Long Term Memory. This effect wasn’t possible if I had asked you to read the list in 10 seconds, instead of allowing you to stretch the time according to your convenience.

The Recency Effect:

The Recency Effect is the result of “recency.” Recall that I didn’t ask you to wait for an hour before jotting down the terms, instead, I asked you to do it (immediately) after reading the list. Chances are few that you waited before listing the terms you remembered. This effect, thus, is lost when there’s a time-gap between reading the list and recalling the terms. Note that Recency Effect doesn’t require you to shift your learning from the Long Term Memory to the Short Term Memory!

Some other examples that illustrate the Recency Effect are:

  • Forgetting the names of the family members of a person introduced to you in the last party you attended. (You remembered them for the duration of your conversation with the person in question.)
  • Forgetting single-use phone numbers immediately after use.

In both these cases, you didn’t think that the “learning” (names/phone numbers) was important enough to be sent to the Long Term Memory.

Using The Serial Position Effect in Course/Training Design:

Let us put a stop to the theoretical discussion on the Serial Position Effect and review its impact on course/training design.

  • When you want your audience to remember something, put it either at the beginning or the end of your session/lecture/series of activities.
    Sloth: Now you know why the beginnings and the ends are so much more fun than the body of the session. The trainer is trying to obtain a happy “reaction” from the audience. The trainer is also aiming at leaving the audience with happy memories!

    Don’t worry about Sloth. He’s got this uncanny ability to turn the concepts upside-down (not inside-out.)

  • If you can structure your content in form of expandable lists, do it – but make sure that its got a chiseled midriff – put all the groovy stuff either at the top or at the bottom. (You know that the metaphor is unintentional – it just happened:-) But even if you think otherwise, please yourself!)
  • Break your longer lists into two or more columns. The learner’s mind will then perceive each list as a separate one and the Primacy Effect will help him/her remember more.

Sloth: You should train yourself to begin your content with “What the learner would gain” and end with “What the learner has gained!” Then you’ll have a successful training program, without having to design and deliver anything else!

Froth: Sloth’s right. Having patented his technique of designing “Beginning-to-End in 60 seconds” training programs, he’ll shortly make his first million!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Learning, Learning Mediums, and eLearning!

Let us continue our exploration of the phenomenon of learning. Remember learning is “acquisition” of knowledge, skills, and attitude. When we speak of acquiring something, we also speak of “someplace” from where it shall be acquired, thus, we refer to an “environment”.

So we can say that Learning results from an interaction between the learner and the environment. This interaction could be learner-driven or environment-driven, and it takes place through a “medium of communication.”

Let us understand it by analyzing the behavior of an old acquaintance, Ms. Froth. Froth wants to learn “how to blog.” Here’s how we can explain her behavior in the terminology that we’ve now “acquired.”

Froth (the learner) wishes to learn (the learning process is thus, learner-driven) “How to blog” (a skill to be acquired; if she already knows how to blog, but now wishes to learn how to blog more effectively, she’d be “modifying” a skill, which is another aspect of learning.) For this learning, she will have to interact with the environment (comprising her friends, colleagues, trainers, books, and of course – the Web,) through an appropriate communication medium (speech, text, training material, online content.)

You got it…right?
Now you are ready to lift the shroud of mystery that surrounds the learning mediums.

Simply put, a learning medium is a communication medium which is used for the purpose of learning.

Thus, you have:

  • Classroom trainings (where the communication medium is primarily non-tech (apart from some non-interactive, soporific PowerPoint presentation.)
  • ELearning (where the medium of communication is electronic – usually computers.)

I am not going to spend a lot of your precious time on expanding upon classroom trainings. That you are reading this post goes to prove that you’ve had enough of that experience. So let us try to figure out this exotic bird called eLearning.

Photo by kodomut

ELearning is the name given to all such learning, which uses technology as a medium to communicate. Thus, online courses and trainings as well as standalone computer-based training programs, and even blogs such as the one you are reading now, comprise elearning.

Actually, eLearning isn’t an exotic bird at all. It is the same learning that we know so well – with the medium of communication being the only tangible difference. There’s no difference as far as the learner’s psychology and the instructional design principles are concerned.

However, there’s a lot of difference between the way both kinds of learning programs are designed, developed, and implemented. As you might’ve guessed, most of the difference results from the technological angle, which unfortunately bugs many of the traditionalists.

So when Froth searches the web, or buys a CD that tells her “How to Blog”, she learns through eLearning. From the learner’s angle eLearning isn’t very different from classroom training. Froth still uses her senses (seeing/hearing) to absorb the new learning, and then processes it cognitively; the way she’d do in a classroom-training program. But yes, there’s a lot of difference between the way a classroom trainer would prepare the content and an eLearning instructional designer would.

In my next post, we’ll ponder over some of these differences. We also haven’t spoken of the blended learning solutions (where you blend elearning with traditional classroom learning) – but I believe that if we understand the two ingredients of blended learning correctly, blended learning would explain itself.

Until Friday then:-)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,