It’s official: blogging enhances learning and memory

Donald Clark likes to debunk anything that isn’t supported by the evidence, to it is particularly heartening to see his very positive assessment of the benefits of blogging for enhancing learning and memory.

Like Donald, I often feel as though I remember more when I use social media, indeed have stronger memories of the things I posted than the original exposure.

In fact, he says that of all the social media it is blogging that is by far my strongest form of learning, as it involves a number of things that are all supported by researched learning theory, and which improve memory and recall. Here are his nine, followed by echoes from my own experience:

  • Reflection
  • Generation
  • Elaboration
  • Retrieval
  • Interleaved and varied practice
  • Spaced practice
  • Imagery
  • Archiving
  • Habit
Donald’s comment
David’s comment
1. Reflection

In my experience, those active on social media get used to reflecting on their experiences. You get into the habit of reflecting as you know you are likely to express yourself later. The act of Tweeting, posting or blogging is also often an act of deep reflection and we know that deep processing increases learning and recall. This intentional attitude, in my experience, increases curiosity and the habit of taking notes and exploring things in greater detail.

My blogging has led to exactly that habit of reflection (as I wrote in my post about reflective practice), and going deeper in things I come across knowing that I might share them later. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I actually blog anything or not, the habit of going deeper, understanding things solidly, applying them to my situation has become instinctive.
2. Generation

Tweeting, posting or blogging is a self-generative act and we know that this contributes positively to deeper understanding, processing and eventually recall. In writing you are both retrieving and elaborating on your own experiences. A perfect example of generative learning is the correction and generation of Wikipedia content. All of these forms of generation have proven benefits in learning.

When I write about things on my blog, I understand and remember them much better. So if you are a regular, please remember I am often writing about things that are new to me, not things I know lots about!
3. Elaboration

The act of expressing yourself also helps elaborate learning, another proven positive effect on memory. With a Tweet, this may be the useful act of being concise and pithy. With Facebook, it may be a longer post but with a personal touch. With blog posts, there’s often a deeper form of elaboration through analysis, structured writing and conclusions. There may also be photographs, graphics, diagrams and links, all elaborating your learning, McGaugh (2000)

It has to be said that I am not the briefest of bloggers. The benefit to me is that I am “thinking out loud” about how to apply the topic of the day. And that elaboration (fleshing it out) is a vital part of learning and memory.
4. Retrieval

This is one of the most powerful ways to learn in terms of long-term recall. To use social media is to retrieve what you remember, often re-expressing it in the form of a Tweet, post or blog. This act of retrieval, according to recent research, is even more powerful than the original exposure. So social media expression may be more powerful than the original learning experience.

Well most of my blogs are triggered by something I’ve read, which then seems to lead to me remembering – as I write – other things that connect to it. So the act of blogging helps me retrieve and refamiliarise with other things.
5. Interleaved and varied practice

Given the often fragmented nature of social media use, you often find yourself, not expressing a series of similar ideas but a more interleaved set of items. Varied practice, another well researched method of improving learning, is also likely as many who use social media, use its different forms, varying the way information is expressed. It is this variation and sequential interleaving of activity that is far more powerful than re-reading and repetition

I don’t write my blog posts in one go. I actually have a number of draft posts on the go at any one time, using the MS-Word blog template. So I guess I do a bit of interleaving. But that effect is going to me much stronger on the Newsfeed or processing email, so I don’t think this is a strong argument.
6. Spaced-practice

Social media is not a designed form of spaced-practice, it is just a form of expression that takes place across time. Tweets, posts and blogs may be written minutes, hours, even days after an event or learning experience. Note that this is not a form of mere repetition, which we know does not result in significant gains in learning. It is spaced ‘practice’ in the sense of retrieved, re-expressed and generated knowledge. This is the form of spaced-practice that does increase consolidation and recall.

Each time I return to a draft blog with the benefit of fresh eyes, I can sharpen up what I’ve written. So that is spaced-practice which solidifies the neural pathways and helps me remember the stuff better. One of the things I like most is when someone comments on a blog post I published a while ago. I find myself re-reading what I wrote to understand the context of the comment. Definitely spaced practice.
7. Imagery

An interesting adjunct to the core ‘textual’ nature of social media is the growing use of images and video. Wikipedia, that great social construct, one which I have not mentioned as a learning resource, but is clearly a monumental achievement and resource, now has accompanying images. But in posting images of places you’ve been, slides you’ve seen, objects you’ve seen in museums, you are reinforcing their presence and relevance in memory. For me, these act as ‘cues’ in Tulving’s sense, which allow me to retrieve entire experiences in foreign cities, museums, art galleries and so on.

I do almost always include a picture in my blog posts, for a few reasons:

  • so that I can advertise it in the Newsfeed with an accompanying picture, for more impact.
  • to give it a visual identity that my readers will recognise and perhaps remember
  • to emphasise a metaphor if I have used one

And of course those reasons also work for me as well.

8. Archiving

Lastly, we have the idea that you learning has been archived. Those active on social media often observe that they go back to look at something that they Tweeted, posted or blogged some time ago. These items preserve valuable information and links, almost like an on-going e-portfolio. You find yourself consolidating your own knowledge by backward reference to your own blogs, posts and Tweets.

I refer back to my previous blog posts all the time because I want more people to read them, but also to see if the new ideas I’m considering fit with the ideas I wrote about before. On the one hand I want to be consistent, and on the other hand, I do update my old blogs from time to time if I come across better ideas.
9. Habit

One more powerful learning strategy is ‘habit’ or habitual learning. From John Locke and William James both stressed the importance of developing fruitful habits in learning. Strong, autonomous learners tend to have these habits, whether it’s reading, Tweeting, posting, blogging, note taking and practice. Social media is, by definition, habitual, to the extent of being addictive. When learning becomes addictive, we make real progress in moving from the culture of learn then forget to true ‘lifelong learning’.

Blogging has definitely become a learning habit for me. Am I addicted? Probably not to the extent some are addicted to Twitter and Facebook.

There is another set of benefits that come out of the interactive nature of social media – further learning happens when people respond and we interact. But that’s for another day.

Does how you use social media have a strong learning effect on you?

If you are a blogger, do you find the act of blogging has this kind of effect on your learning?

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