Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exposure vs. Retention

I believe that the words "learning" and "retention" are synonyms. For example, if I learn how to redirect a folder to a new server in April, then forget how to do it again in September, I can't really say I learned it, can I? I learned how to speak English, I learned my multiplication tables, I learned how to read. I can use the word learn because I retained that knowledge. These units of knowledge are permanently imprinted in my long-term memory.

So what do we call the phenomenon of being taught something that we understand and apply but fail to retain in the long-term? I usually call it "exposure." Much of what is taught in school isn't really learned. Students are exposed to certain skills and knowledge, but 5 or 10 years later can not remember it.

When it comes to learning music or a foreign language, even a little exposure supposedly enables people to learn more deeply later in life. This may be true in other disciplines as well. Students who are taught logic may forget they even heard the word syllogism, but they may have an unconscious understanding of how to construct a logical argument.

This brings up the question: is the goal of school exposure to a variety of skills and knowledge or is the goal deeper and lasting learning? Is our job as teachers about opening neural pathways to enable learning later in life or is it about having students graduate with a conscious understanding of specific systems, skills, and information?


  1. Can I answer both? It is important to both have some exposure to things you don't retain for later, and to have some specific skills that you can say you've mastered.

    For example, I was exposed to a lot of writing that my father and grandmother did when I was growing up. I can't say I learned much about syntax and grammar from them, but that exposure certainly made it easier to learn later in life.

  2. I agree, David and thanks for the comment. In my situation, I have the same kids from year to year, so I can see who retains and who doesn't. I always feel a tinge of shame when a student doesn't remember something from a previous year. They tend to retain the overarching concepts, which makes me happy, but it always makes me examine my approach when they don't.

  3. George, we actually used that for the thesis of chalkable. Our formula was:

    Information + Retention = Education

  4. Thanks, Zoli! That's how I see it too. I would add (for any nitpickers) that embedded within the term "information" is any skill. Sometimes people like to draw a distinction between factual knowledge like dates or definitions and knowledge of how to throw a football or play a piano. It is all information to me.