Autobiographical episodic memory: A missing link in remote teaching
As educators we know about knowledge. It is what we want our students to learn as a result of our teaching. Our students know facts and general knowledge, the meanings of words and a range of skills. This knowledge is stored in their semantic and procedural memories.
We also have a second type of knowledge that we use automatically. This is what you know from your experiences. It tells you what to expect in any situation, how well you handled similar experiences in the past and how you can deal with issues that arise.
This knowledge is stored in your ‘autobiographical episodic’ memory or AEM. You use it in every situation or context. It is stimulated or ‘triggered’ by the situation. It helps explain the range of negative emotions and well-being of students during lockdown.
Well-being during lockdown
A student’s well-being during lockdown comprises several aspects: emotional well-being, well-being as a student and well-being as an individual. During the period of remote learning, many students experienced heightened anxiety, stress, depression, and other emotional reactions such as extreme negative self-confidence and self-efficacy, low resilience, and behavioural problems.
In parallel with this they reported difficulty coping both with study and learning from remote teaching. They found it hard to concentrate, maintain focus, stay motivated or get things done. Many had difficulty organizing and directing their learning activity. They reported missing interactions with peers, the classroom routines and systems that supported learning.
Some had difficulty coping with life more generally. Their well-being as an individual also suffered. They perceived less certainty in their lives and believed they had less control over life events both now and in the future. They were less resilient or adaptable and more dependent on others.
These reactions are not a response to the teaching itself. Generally, schools and teachers took great care to prepare relevant, appropriate learning and teaching materials.
Instead, they are a result of needing to learn in an alternative setting or context. They are consistent with students lacking the autobiographical episodic knowledge needed to guide successful learning in the remote context.
What is autobiographical episodic memory?
All of us have a bank of experiences that record the events in which we’ve engaged, when and where they occurred and what we and others in the experience did. They also record how we felt in the experience; whether it was enjoyable, interesting, boring, soothing, or irritating and how motivated we were. We store them in our brain in a form of time and place imagery. These comprise our episodic knowledge or memory (Marsh, & Roediger, 2013).
As well as recording these separate experiences, we also evaluate them and record what the experiences say about us and what we might do. We form an impression of what did or didn’t work for us in the experience. This tells us what we might do to respond to similar challenges now and in the future. They also tell how we might feel in similar situations now and in the future, how motivated or successful we might be (Miller, Odegard, & Reyna, 2018).
This is your autobiographical episodic memory or knowledge (Prebble, Addis, & Tippett, 2013). It is how you ‘see’ or judge yourself through your past experiences. We use this memory continually in our lives. Suppose you go into a new bar or coffee shop for the first time. Your episodic knowledge tells you what you expect to see, hear, and smell and the actions you and others are likely to do in that context.
Your autobiographical episodic memory tells you whether you are likely to enjoy yourself in the coffee shop and how successful you might be in it. It provides the motivation for you to enter the present context and also tells you what to expect and how to respond to possible challenges or issues that might arise.
Our autobiographical episodic memory or knowledge underpins how we cope in every aspect of our lives. We use it automatically when an appliance at home breaks down and when we need to organise ourselves in a social interaction. It also underpinned students’ learning success during lockdown.
Students’ autobiographical episodic memory
Students have an autobiographical episodic memory of what happens in a classroom. Their experiences include how to learn in that context and how to behave in particular ways and interact with peers, and how to use the routines and schedules that support learning. These include how to deal with challenges, for example, when something doesn’t make sense or is difficult to learn and how to use feedback. The experiences also include a range of signals, supports and interactions such as the body language, eye contact, and speaking tones used by teachers and peers.
Students recall these experiences whenever they are in the classroom context. The experiences direct and focus the learning activity. They operate in addition to, and in parallel with, the actual teaching and the content.
Students also have stored, in their episodic memory, their experiences at home. This is their record of how they live with their family, what to do and how to behave acceptably at home, what to expect and how to be organised in the home context. They also include how to get around obstacles and solve problems in the home situation and how to learn practical skills and knowledge in everyday contexts.
Each type of context has its own set of experiences and autobiographical knowledge. Being in a classroom triggers automatically your memory for classroom contexts, just as being in an unfamiliar coffee shop triggers your experiential memory for past coffee shops. Being in the home context causes you to remember past experiences from home.
Learning remotely during lockdown and AEM.
During the period of remote learning, students had teaching materials prepared for them. Some students found this a valuable experience. They valued being able to self-organise and manage their learning schedules. They enjoyed having the opportunity to plan their day and work at their own pace.
Many who experienced a reduced sense of well-being during remote teaching and debilitating negative emotions and loss of self-efficacy reported that this began with the perception that they could not learn as well at home as they could in the classroom. They intuitively felt they needed the systems, scaffolds, and supports provided in the classroom context. They did not have these in their AEMs for their home contexts. They felt intuitively that ‘something was missing’ but were unable to compensate for it by spontaneously adapting their classroom AEMS to the changed context.
In other words, students had AEM experiences to support formal academic learning in the classroom and, separate to these, experiences to support how they lived at home. Their home experiences probably included learning but not in the formal classroom sense. Their school-based AEM experiences usually include the crucial on-going activity of a professional educator who directs and orchestrates the learning activity in a range of ways. The home-based AEMs didn’t include the routines, support systems and scaffolding that underpinned classroom learning. Home-based learning uses different support systems, routines, and scaffolding.
Both the successful and less successful remote learners had access to the same teaching and learning materials. Some additionally had AEMs that could respond to the remote learning challenge effectively. These students, interestingly, were the more independent students who often found classroom routines and structures restricting.
Others lacked the appropriate AEMs for using the materials successfully. Not knowing what to do to respond to their lack of learning success led to their negative emotions and well-being. As time went on, their sense of a lack of control and emotional stress increased.
Teachers and schools put a lot of work into designing teaching that students could use remotely. Students’ reports suggest these materials weren't adequate for all students to adapt their classroom experiences to fit the home environment.
What we can learn from AEM and Lockdown
Remote teaching provides valuable information about educational provision. Until the lockdown, the role of AEM in education had largely been taken for granted. Students in the early years of schooling were taught how to learn in the classroom context. This was sometimes referred to as socialization. They learnt how to learn vicariously in groups, how to have their learning and thinking activity directed and how to interact socially in this context. As they progressed through education their AEM knowledge gradually developed and modified.
Lockdown required students to learn academically in a different context. Many students did not have the AEM routines to support this and had difficulty adjusting to this in positive, functional ways. To deal with this more effectively, they needed to problem solve, reflect on what had supported them in the classroom and implement matching routines and support procedures in the home situation. This comparatively sophisticated response draws in turn on the types of competencies described in the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/general-capabilities/) and in particular the Personal and Social capability.
Teaching to enhance students’ use of their AEM
Teaching that can assist students to improve and broaden their use of their AEM in a range of contexts includes the following:
- Guide students to become aware explicitly of their AEM, how they use it and how they can modify it to fit changed contexts. We noted that we usually use our AEM implicitly, without being aware of using it. When students are explicitly aware of it, they are more able to modify it and fit it to changing contexts. They benefit by understanding how they can use it more effectively to optimize their learning and interactions with the world more generally.
- Help students recognise the contents of a classroom episode, that is, the supports that help them learn in the classroom. Guide them to become aware of supports such as the routines (for example, doing particular activities at regular designated times), having a learning task broken into smaller steps, avoiding distractors or working on a task to completion.
- When they need to learn in an alternative context, such as learning remotely, guide them to identify supports in the second context that match those in the classroom. They can be taught to ask themselves: How did I do similar tasks in the past? What will the outcome 'look like'? What will I do first /second..? This helps them transfer their classroom experiences to the home context.
When they begin a learning task in a different context, they can be taught to visualise what the outcome might ‘look like’ and what they will do to complete it. This gives them a 'virtual experience' of the learning activity that includes a pathway to task completion. The virtual experience can become an actual experience as they work through it. These experiences add to their episodic memory.
- Help students learn how to manage negative emotions such as stress and anxiety more functionally. Students need to learn that anxiety is a part of their lives. Being able to keep it manageable is a key aspect of learning. Many students felt threatened by remote learning. They believed they would lose access to learning and knowledge, to friendships, or to future aspirations.
They believed they couldn’t control what was happening to them and felt helpless and dis-empowered. Our education systems are focusing increasingly on students learning to manage and regulate their learning activity. Some target teaching for metacognition. The lockdown experience has shown that many students were not able to apply this; for them the teaching missed the mark.
The teaching needs to help them see all that they can control at any time and all that they can do. From a learning perspective, this includes them seeing what they know now that they didn’t know earlier and recognise that it was their brain that did the learning.
These types of teaching activities can be fine-tuned to match the age and developmental level of students.
AEM an essential Twenty-first Century capacity
The effect of AEM is broader than simply applying to lockdown. It allows us more generally to initiate change in our lives, to see how things might be improved. Imagery is an essential aspect of creativity and innovation. Our AEM allows us to imagine how things might be different. It also allows us to manage change effectively.
It is generally acknowledged that success in the Twenty-first Century will require individuals to respond functionally to change. COVID has shown how our world can change rapidly.
To be successful Twenty-first Century citizens, our students need to know how to explicitly enhance and use their AEMs to handle change, effectively. When they are less able to do this, they perceive they can’t cope. This impacts directly on their emotional state and their well-being.
Education providers, both within Australia and internationally, have decided to take steps to improve students’ well-being as a consequence of COVID. Many are approaching this from the perspective of the ‘silo’ model. They are assuming that well-being can be developed independently of what and how students know. These education policy makers are ignoring the fact that the various memories in our brains are networked and that you improve well-being best by enriching individuals’ autobiographical memories.
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John Munro is Professor of Educational Psychology and Exceptional Learning in the Faculty of Arts and Education, Australian Catholic University, and a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a primary and secondary teacher and a psychologist. His teaching and research are in exceptional learning, literacy and numeracy learning difficulties, gifted education, talent development and creativity. He developed the creative and critical thinking general competencies in the Australian Curriculum. He consults to school improvement projects in Australia and internationally, including the Aga Khan Academies. He has written 6 books and over 140 published articles covering aspects of exceptional learning.
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy