Total Recall: The Shallow Learning Fallacy

When it comes to teaching in higher education, I have undertaken a great deal of training. I have completed a two-year postgraduate certificate from my own institution as well as bespoke training from several other organisations.

In about 50-65% of these programme I received a photocopy of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This handy pyramid is meant to represent the levels of a learners’ understanding. You’ll notice that remembering, or recall knowledge, is firmly at the bottom of the pyramid.

I have often been told, and, I suppose, come to believe, that recall knowledge is base sort of knowledge; fine enough for the plebs, but inappropriate for those of us residing within the ivory tower. When designing assessments and exams, we take this theory to heart, asking students to apply their knowledge, analyse data and qualitative details, evaluate the validity of historiographical theories and, at the end of their programme perhaps, create new methodologies or theories regarding historical trends and events. We certainly don’t reward the simple recollection of name and dates. But should we?

I have begun to question the dismissal of recall knowledge for a number of reasons. First, an increasing number of my students have begun to make statements (orally and in writing) that they ‘cannot provide specific details, but couldn’t it be that…’ when analysing or evaluating. A troubling development indeed. Rather than move THROUGH remembering and understanding INTO analysing and evaluating, they seem to have been advised to simply skip those steps altogether.

Although the paucity of details in written work is troubling, I have often let my students slide on their imperfect recall of full names or precise dates during seminars. I genuinely believed there are few occasions in life when you will need to know, off the top of your head, which month the Battle of Hastings was fought.

I’m not so sure any more.

I have just returned from an academic job interview in which that sort of recall knowledge would absolutely have been an asset. Indeed, this is the second interview in a row in which I was asked:

‘Which historians would you say are the most active in this field right now? Whose writing do you see your work engaging with?

Under normal circumstances, of course, I know the full and complete answer to this question. However, I have very much trained my mind to work in an environment populated with notebooks, electronic documents, index cards and bookmarks. I would never write a literature review for a journal article based on recall memory. Therefore, in the heat of an interview, my mind falters. While I can perfectly visualise the colour of various book jackets and the font style of key articles, names themselves completely elude me. Instead, I describe trends in the research. The committee are very polite, but seem disconcerted by my lack of recall knowledge.

I therefore wonder if we are doing our history students a disservice by not exercising their recall knowledge on a regular basis. In almost any type of employment they pursue after university, they will likely need to access some recall knowledge at meetings, pitches or consultations and, as we all know, cramming before a presentation or interview is rarely an effective methodology.

If the brain is a muscle, why are we only exercising one part of it?

4 thoughts on “Total Recall: The Shallow Learning Fallacy

  1. Aldwin

    I agree. Climbing to the top of the pyramid is a long and often difficult journey, but a necessary one: unless you have a firm foundation, the pyramid may well collapse in on itself, so that what seemed like the top is reduced to just rubble.

    In the social sciences the real tough – and interesting- work lies in working your way up from data to argument. Letting students play around with second-hand analyses or untested and unsubstantiated hypotheses seems a mere exercise in pretend history, in which plausibility, theoretical consistency and stylishness (or ideological self-gratification) trump factual evidence and analytical rigour.

    As for me: if it wasn't for the surprising, ill-fitting facts which continuously upset my presuppositions, my thesis would look a lot different (and be easier to write!). The ability to recall and continuously re-evaluate large amounts of data whilst devising and refining an argument is an important skill indeed.

  2. bakercatherine

    I had an interview question like that last year, when I'd been immersed in a particular body of work for weeks and the question was testing my recall knowledge of a completely different one. Suffice to say that I am not typing this comment on that department's premises (or on *any* department's premises, I hasten to add).

    I don't think I would have got much further if I had said 'Can you hold on while I remind myself on Mendeley?'

  3. Did Gradgrind have a point?

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