Thinking About Survival Helps Children Remember

One thing that often gets overlooked in our education reform debate is that students are not simply empty vessels who always fill with additional knowledge when exposed to skilled teachers or longer school days. There are also a number of cognitive and social factors that affect the way kids respond to information. For example, a new study finds that children are more likely to remember something when they think about how it affects their chances of survival.

The present study examined whether young children show superior memory for information that is processed in terms of its survival value. In two experiments, we found such survival processing to enhance retention in 4- to 10-year-old children, relative to various control conditions that also required deep, meaningful processing but were not related to survival. These results suggest that, already in very young children, survival processing is a special and extraordinarily effective form of memory encoding. The results support the functional-evolutionary proposal that young children’s memory is ‘‘tuned’’ to process and retain fitness-related information.

While it would be a mistake for teachers to preface physics lessons by explaining every scenario in which understanding the spring constant can help a child survive, the study is a reminder that it’s generally a good idea to give students some context that explains why they’re learning what they’re learning. (And if there’s no such context, perhaps the students shouldn’t be learning that information.)
Aslan, A., & Bäuml, K. (2011). Adaptive memory: Young children show enhanced retention of fitness-related information Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.10.001

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