Science on Learning: Broad Foundations

How to work with the limits of memory and provide a context for new information.

This is the third article in a series on how cognitive science provides empirical support to the methods of classical education. Having clarified some essential information about learning in the first and second articles, let us now shift into looking at specific principles that enhance learning. The first of these is that learning is most effective when a broad foundation is in place.

Given that we can only think deeply about a limited number of things at any given time, what can we do to make that limited focus more effective? There is a solution: long-term memory can be used without taking up working memory space. But memorizing everything you encounter is far too time-consuming and wasteful; you must selectively memorize the factual knowledge that is essential or foundational for further learning in a given domain.

How can we figure out what is worth our time to memorize? The classical principle of multum non multa (much, not many) is a good reminder for us that we don’t want a random collection of foundational ideas, but a broad framework of key information relevant to the domain. For instance, an essential foundation in history would be a sequence of significant events covering the course of civilization. It is broad in scope but focused in purpose: memorizing that breadth of historical information allows me to contextualize new historical material I encounter, making any conclusions I draw more meaningful.

What can we do to enhance learning by integrating this principle?

  • Clarify, practice, and revisit foundational information for learning in each domain.

Ensuring that learners are exposed repeatedly to information that consistently comes up in a domain is critical as they progress. Let me highlight three characteristics to help you clarify what is foundational in each domain:

  1. Endurance—To what extent will particular knowledge be used again and again while digging deeper into that domain (a general chronology in history; math facts; etc.)?
  2. Leverage—What particular knowledge has value across disciplines (rules of logic; identification of fallacious reasoning; etc.)?
  3. Significance—How important is this particular knowledge? Look at the big picture of your purpose (for instance, a course on world history has a different purpose than one on Western civilization). Focus on the knowledge that is important in terms of its ramifications for latter events, ideas, etc.
  • Teach and use memorization strategies to ensure learners are equipped with foundational knowledge.

Cognitive psychologists call stories psychologically privileged because our minds seem intuitively designed to comprehend, recall, and engage with them better than other forms of text. Presenting content in a narrative with characters, conflict, exposition building to a climax, and falling action can lead to better recall. A second recommendation is to use mnemonic devices such as acronyms (e.g. ROY G BIV) and acrostics (e.g. PEMDAS). Each of these group meaningful information into easier-to-recall phrases or words that can be drawn upon by the learner to help keep them from being cognitively overwhelmed.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Graesser, A.C., Singer, M., & Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing inferences during narrative text comprehension. Psychological review, 10(3): 371-395.

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