In most cases, the more students use construction to understand new material-the more they use what they already know to help them understand and interpret the material-the more effectively they will store it in long-term-memory. Different people often construct different meanings from the same stimuli, in part because they each bring their own unique experiences and knowledge bases to the same situation.
For example, when the “Rocky” passage on page 267 was used in an experiment with college students, physical education majors frequently interpreted it as a wrestling match, but music education majors (most of whom had little or no knowledge of wrestling) were more likely to think that it was about a prison break. Furthermore, people often interpret what they see and hear based on what they expect to see and hear. Prior knowledge and expectations are especially likely to influence learning when new information is ambiguous.
As teachers, we will find our students constructing their own idiosyncratic meanings and interpretations for virtually all aspects of the classroom curriculum. For example, as the Rocky exercise illustrates, the activity of reading is often quite constructive in nature: Students combine the ideas that they read with their prior knowledge and then draw logical conclusions about what the text is trying to communicate. So, too, will we find constructive processes in subject areas like math, science, and social studies.
When we want our students to interpret classroom subject matter in particular ways, we must be sure to communicate clearly and unambiguously, so that there is little room for misinterpretation. Retrieval isn’a always an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Sometimes we retrieve only certain parts of whatever information we are looking for in long-term memory. In such situations, we may construct our “memory” of an event by combining the tidbits we can retrieve with our general knowledge and assumptions about the world.
Were you able to retrieve the missing letters from your long-term memory? If not, then you may have found yourself making reasonable guesses, using either your knowledge of how the words are pronounced or your knowledge of how words in the English language are typically spelled. For example, perhaps you used the I before e except after c rule for word 4; if so, then you reconstructed the correct spelling of retrieval. Perhaps you used your knowledge that ance is a common word ending. Unfortunately, if you used this knowledge for word 2, then you spelled existence incorrectly.
Neither pronunciation nor typical English spelling patterns would have helped you with hors d’oeuvre, a term borrowed from French. When people fill in the gaps in what they’ve retrieved based on what seems “logical,” they often make mistakes-a form of forgetting called reconstruction error. Our own students sometimes will fall victim to reconstruction error, pulling together what they can recall in ways that we may hardly recognize. If important details are difficult to fill in logically, we must make sure our students learn them well enough that they can retrieve them directly from their long-term memories.