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College classes spur lifelong math memory.

College classes spur lifelong math memory

People who take college mathematics courses at or above the level of calculus retain most of their knowledge of high school algebra or geometry up to 50 years later, while those who take no college mathematics courses suffer steep declines in algebra and geometry knowlege during adulthood, a psychologist during adulthood, a psychologist reported last week at an American Psychological association seminar in Washington, D.C.

The findings, combined with previous investigations, suggest that people remember more mathematics and other high school material when learning occurs in sessions spaced out over several years and when each subsequent session involves broader applications of previously learned information, says study director Harry P. Bahrick of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. Thus, he argues, basic changes in educational techniques could spur dramatic increases in the knowledge retained by high school students throughout their lives.

Bahrick and Ohio Wesleyan colleague Lynda K. Hall administered an algebra or geometry test to 1,743 volunteers; 270 took both tests. A total of 1,534 participants had taken their last high school algebra or geometry course from several months to 50 years before the study. The rest -- junior high students and adults who had not taken an algebra or geometry course -- served as controls.

The researchers constructed their algebra and geometry tests from problems consistently used in textbooks and standardized examinations from 1973 to 1986. The two tests included multiple-choice questios and problems requiring recall of specific facts and principles. Participants also reported the number of mathematics courses they had taken, the grades received and the ways in which they used mathematics at work and at home. searches of school records for one-third of the sample verified that these self-reports were largely accurate.

Most volunteers, including those who took colleg mathematics courses, used negligible amounts of algebra or geometry in daily life. Nevertheless, those who took three or more college mathematics courses, with the highest-level course extending beyond calculus, performed almost flawlessly on the algebra test up to 50 years after their high school classes.

Participants who took no math beyond college calculus answered nearly 90 percent of the algebra questions conrrectly. Even those who took calculus and had been out of high school for 50 years managed to score 80 percent on the test.

But those who took no college mathematics showed steep declines in algebra knowledge. Fifty years after high school they answered about 30 percent of the algebra questions corretly, scoring only slightly higher than the controls.

Memory gains associated with taking college mathematics courses were slightly stronger on the geometry test.

The results, scheduled for publication in the March JOURNAL of EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: GENERAL, confirm other findings obtained by Bahrick. In one study, for example, he found that people who got good grades in high school Spanish classes remembered much of the Spanish vocabulary up to 50 years after taking their last course (SN: 3/10/84, p. 149). Moreover, memory for Spanish vocabulary improved when pratice sessions occurred at 30-day itervals rather than daily (SN: 4/18/87, p. 244).

Bahrick says the data suggest that specific educational approaches can promote information retention. For the same number of instructional hours, a semester schedule appears superior to a quarter schedule, and final exams should cover material from the entire course, he contends. Classes might even convene weekly for one or two years rather than daily for a few months, he adds.

"The educational establishment needs to look at the longevity of knowledge imparted by different teaching techniques," Bahrick maintains.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 15, 1990
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