Learning Algorithms

The recent explosion of research on learning and memory has elevated the understanding of human memory to an unprecedented level. However, surprisingly, this extensive research has yielded only very few practical applications to improve learning and memory.

This lack of practical applications is all the more surprising given that recent scientific research, in the fields of behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, has considerably elevated our understanding of the three processes of memory: learning, memory, and performance.

Learning is the process of encoding information. Memory refers to the storage, or retention, of information. Performance is the measure of the success of retrieval of information from memory when needed.

At first glance, it might be argued that human memory operates like a computer: both the brain and the computer encode, store, and retrieve information effectively and efficiently. The brain, however, has, unlike computers, several unique adaptive properties that make it exquisitely attuned to its environment. These include, among others:

• Less important memories must be forgotten in order to make more important memories available when needed.

• Human memories follow very specific relationships to frequency (the more times an item is presented the better it is encoded); recency (memories decay with the passage of time, and forgetting is a function of the initial amount of learning); and pattern of prior exposures (for the same amount of study time, an item is better retained if the times of study are distributed rather than close together).

• The act of retrieving an item from memory facilitates subsequent retrieval access of that item. Rather then being left in the state it was before being recalled, the actively recalled item becomes more recallable in the future than it would have been without being accessed.

• Finally, one truly unique and powerful characteristic of human memory is its knowledge of its own knowledge. This characteristic, called metacognition, is the system that monitors and controls learning, memory, and performance.

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