(for a Dutch version of this blog, please check SciencePalooza: Reactiveer je voorkennis!)
Imagine you learn a new thing but only later find out how this actually relates to stuff you already knew. For example: you learn how in a democracy politicians work together to create laws, but don’t relate this to your knowledge about democracy in general. That’s a pity, because it could affect how well you remember this new information about law making. If you would have reactivated your prior knowledge about democracy actively, would you remember the new information better? This is the question we asked in our latest experiment, now published in Nature Science of Learning.
To investigate whether active reactivation of previously acquired knowledge leads to better integration of old and new information, we tested first-year university students. They learned new information from their studies and were later tested on their memory for this information. The participants learned this information in two bits: first a word with a picture and a little later the same word with a description. During the second part, the participants were asked to try to reactivate the picture as well as possible and connect the word and description to this picture. We also asked them to indicate to us how well they could retrieve the picture. Then we examined whether stronger reactivation of the picture led to better memory for the description and the picture and this turned out to be the case!
So, the next time you learn something new, think about revisiting whether you already know something about that topic and try to reactivate this knowledge actively. This will help you to integrate the new knowledge with you prior knowledge and will lead to better memory. We think this is related to the enhanced build-up of knowledge networks in your brain that help to store information for a longer period of time. In this experiment, we also found that it helps when information fits together and when you are more sure that you will remember it. In future research we are going to look at how this mechanism works in the brain and whether it leads to better long-term memories as well.