Experience, Memory, Motivation and Neil Young …. (and PBL)

This is a 14 – 18 minute read. (There is a summary of the post at the bottom of this page.)

This post investigates how a Neil Young concert led me to reflect on the difference between Experience and the Memory of Experience and some of the implications for teachers wishing their learners to have positive memories of learning experiences.


Neil Young & Crazy Horse

A few days ago I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse in Istanbul. The concert was wonderful, beautiful songs, heartbreaking melodies that only NY can seem to produce and guitars producing a majestic sound to accompany the lightning storm taking place around to open air arena.

That was until the encore. I was there with a couple of friends and we didn’t recognise the one encore song – apparently it was a, unreleased, new one. Not that I need to tell NY his business but I’m going to anyway. If you are going to play a new song (and this one was a good song) put it in the main set – encores are for crowd-pleasers to send audience home on a high.

If the concert had ended with the last song before the encore  all would have been good, amazing in fact. But as it was as I wandered to the Dolmuş to begin my journey home I felt strangely subdued. A post-midnight traffic jam gave me time to think about the concert. The show was actually a wonderful and uplifting experience -and for the last few days I have been walking around with the amazing sounds from the concert in my head (or my reconstruction of them – see later).


Constructing Memories

There are worse places to be stuck in a traffic jam than the Bosphorus Bridge with its views across Istanbul. As I recalled the concert on that journey I had in the back of my mind a great interview with Daniel Kahneman about his TED Talk “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory” in which he discussed the difference between an Experience and the Memory of an Experience.

He told a story of a man who had listened to a glorious symphony only for it to end in a screeching sound that “ruined the whole experience”. When Kahneman had been told this story he considered it to be ridiculous – the man had listened to 20 minutes of beautiful music before the screeching. Kahneman reasoned that it was not the experience that was ruined but the memory of the experience.

According to Kahneman “Our memory tells us stories. What we get to keep from our experiences is a story.” Another important point he makes is that how experiences end is important. The endings are the bits we remember most and these are the bits that have the largest impact of our story of the experience. In the case of the man and his symphony it was the screeching that told the story of the experience. Kahneman describes how he put this into practice when on a recent holiday with his wife in Switzerland. Having had a particularly wonderful day they decided to cut their holiday short to preserve the memory of their holiday – a risk he admits because the next day could have been even better.

Kahneman took a positive action to preserve the memory of the experience of the holiday. I’m glad I did the same for the concert – I didn’t leave before the encore but my final memory were those I remembered  / reconstructed as I reflected on the whole concert – I don’t remember much about the encore now.


Constructing Memories and Motivating Learners

As teachers we agonise over motivating our learners. How can we engage and maintain their motivation? On a cold rainy morning why should our learners get out of their warm beds to come willingly and enthusiastically to our lessons? Of course motivating learners is a complex area and we focus a great deal on the impact of the experience of learning but one area we seem to pay less attention to is the memory of the experience of learning.

Do we want our learners to leave our lessons with the equivalent of the memory of the wonderful Swiss holiday or the symphony ruined by screeching? If our learners have a positive memory of the experience of learning they may be more motivated. I don’t necessarily have the answers but I do have some thoughts – I’d love to hear you ideas.


Teaching to Promote a Positive Memory of the Experience of Learning

For teachers the common unit of teaching is the lesson – but the amount of time varies as do the amount of lessons that may be taught in a block. So in this session when I talk about the end of a lesson I am generally talking about the last session of a block of continuous lessons – although some of the points can clearly apply to individual lessons.

 ‘Fun and Games’ – well one obvious way to encourage a positive memory of the ending of the lesson is through ending the lesson with an enjoyable ‘fun’ activity. Of course the definitions of ‘fun and enjoyable’ activities will vary and we would need a deep well of games and activities to prevent them becoming stale.

Honest praise and encouragement – another simple way to reinforce positive memories is through praise and encouragement. This will be more effective if obviously honest – give a reason, explanation of why you consider the learners to have worked well or what you think they have achieved in the lesson. (I will develop this further when I discuss the use of Reflection).

We may also able to take some practical steps when Lesson Planning particularly with respect to Timing of activities.

 1. Perhaps another way to think of an enjoyable activity would be high and low energy activities. When planning we may wish to consider ending on a high energy activity – for example one that may require a variety of focus, a cognitive challenge or communicative commitment rather than an apparently more passive task. Such an activity may be a written task that is handed in as the lesson ends without immediate feedback or reflection. This certainly does not mean a ban on in-class writing in class but a considered approach to planning (actually this does not mean no writing at the end of the lesson – more later*).


 2. Of course I think most of us naturally plan our lessons to end with a positive memorable activity. I know this is my experience but I also know that there are many occasions where I have not had enough time to fully exploit these activities to their true learning potential. What was intended to be a key point of the lesson becomes lessened due to a lack of time to fully exploit it.

Classrooms are complex and unpredictable places and of course lesson plans are not set in stone and can naturally change during a lesson. We should retain the flexibility, if it is allowed within our teaching context, to change our planned lesson if this will enhance learning. Planning lessons with activities that can be dropped gives us leeway to fully exploit the ones we consider most important. Alternatively it may be the case that there is just not enough time to fully exploit the final activity – we should be prepared to consider dropping it (to use another day) in favour for something that can usefully be completed. A half-completed or exploited activity does not necessarily leave a good memory.


 3. Most learners do not enjoy homework, yet setting homework is often the last thing we do in a lesson – creating the learners’ last memory? Why not set homework earlier in the lesson? We may have to be careful in our planning and prioritising the work to cover in class to avoid the situation of setting work we did not have time to complete. In those unavoidable situations where we wish to set work that could not be covered in the lesson why not set it as homework during the next (day’s) lesson?


 4. This situation will certainly not apply to all teaching contexts but do your lessons have to finish exactly on time? If you have come to the natural end of a positive activity, that cannot be usefully extended, could you end the lesson a few minutes early to create an upbeat memory? Similarly could you extend the lesson for a few minutes to fully exploit an activity to create the memory of a positive learning experience?


Positive Achievement – leaving a lesson, or any situation, with a sense of achievement is one way to foster positive memories of the learning experience. Ending a lesson with activities that allow all learners, regardless of ability, to experience a form of achievement will leave a good memory of the experience of learning. This does not mean an activity whose achievement is defined by the lowest common denominator or can be completed with little effort. It means an activity which does not necessarily have correct or incorrect answers, rather achievement is based on the learner’s current ability and knowledge. A poster presentation could be completed successfully by all learners as long as both teacher and learners have a challenging, yet realistic, view of what an achievement would be for the activity.



As I mentioned earlier I was able to spend time thinking about the Neil Young concert on my journey home. This reflection led to the whole concert, rather than the encore, being my abiding memory! The process of reflection is important for learners too, and in addition to its other benefits, time spent on constructive reflection can produce positive learning memories.

Reflection then allows us to focus on the achievements and learning in the whole lesson (series of lessons) in the hope of reinforcing learning and achievement as well as creating positive memories of the learning experience. Lessons are not always ‘fun and enjoyable’ but can still be engaging through their cognitive challenge, breakthrough moments…etc- reflection on the effort involved and achievement can be create positive memories of learning.

*Earlier I suggested that ending the lesson with a ’low-energy’ writing activity may not be conducive to leaving a positive memory of the experience of learning. However, if the written task were followed with a reflection on the skills, knowledge and effort the learners felt they had utilised and developed then the final memory can become extremely positive.


Reflecting on Lesson Aims  -As teachers we often state our lesson aims at the start of the lesson and recap and reflect on their achievement at the end of the lesson with the learners. This process can certainly, and importantly, help the learners to consider their learning in the lesson. However, if it is solely based on the teachers’ lesson aims it runs the risk of missing learning and achievement in the lesson from individual learner’s perspective.

Individual Reflection – encouraging learners to individually (or collaboratively) to positively reflect on their learning and achievement enables the capture of elements we as teachers may not have considered or noticed. We can set lesson aims and teach to meet these goals but this does not necessarily equate what learners perceive as being learned or achieved (Kumaravadivelu 1991, p.100). Helping learners to recognise and value these other realms of knowledge and success, often not recognised through assessment, will not only enhance the experience of learning but the memory of the experience of learning.

Reflection is not a big job

Reflection need not, and probably should not, be an extensive process but a few minutes of quality time set aside at the end of each teaching period can be extremely beneficial to consolidate learning and prime positive memories.


Reflection and Positive Attributions

Daniel Kahneman also discusses the reliability of our memories – they are not really reliable! Each time we recall a memory we reconstruct the memory. Kahneman concludes that all of our memories are  “probably to some extent a reconstruction, except some reconstructions are better than others but you are not going to know necessarily whether what you are reconstructing is the reality or something else”. So our memories despite appearing certain to us are in fact subjective stories we have created of events, experiences and achievements.

Interestingly in the Attribution Theory of Motivation it is the subjective perceptions learners possess of past achievements or failures that play an important role in their self-efficacy – their belief in the ability to successfully complete similar tasks in the future.

Learners with an ‘optimistic’ attribution style, towards a learning outcome tend to attribute positive outcomes to their own effort and credit negative results to external factors. They are likely to possess high self-efficacy, which can result in increased effort and persistence at task completion, a clearer focus on goal achievement and planning for achievement. Conversely, learners displaying ‘pessimistic’ attribution styles, often have low self-efficacy, and ascribe failure to internal factors, such as lack of intelligence or ability. Positive achievements are attributed to areas outside of their sphere of control (Oxford & Shearin 1994, p.21, Dörnyei 2003, p.8, Dörnyei 1994, p.277, Harvey & Martinko 2010, p.149).

Learners with positive attributions may remain positive and motivated in the face of repeated failure. However, the attributions of the pessimistic learner may lead them into a state of learned helplessness, where the desire to achieve is overwhelmed by resignation and futility with creates a cycle of failure (Harvey & Martinko 2010, p.149-51, Ushioda 2008, p.27).

Given the importance of the subjective nature of attributions it is important that learners have a positive memory of learning experiences. Carefully scaffolded opportunities to reflect can also present learners with the occasion to challenge negative attributions (Williams et al 2004, p.20, Garrison & Kanuka 2004, p.98). This does not mean a rose-tinted glasses view of learning which focuses solely on achievement. Constructive reflection can be used areas to identify areas which need more attention and work yet placed in the positive context of learning as an achievable process.


Project Based Learning

Well it’s about time…

The idea of the Memory of the Experience is built in to good PBL design.

For Thom Markham “The PBL process is a nonlinear problem-solving process. A good PBL teacher knows how to manage the work flow throughout the project and prepare students to present their best work at the end, including planning powerful exhibitions to public audiences. at the culmination of well-executed projects, students experience the feeling of mastery.” (2012, p.xii) The product of a well-completed project leaves the learners with a sense of achievement – a positive memory.

In fact in a well designed PBL project each stage will contain its own achievement goals. Crucially reflection on learning as well as the process of the project are ongoing features of PBL.  Finally “the project does not end on the day of the presentations or the final test. On your project schedule, allot time after the final presentations for reflection.” (Markham 2012, p.106)


In Summary:

– If you get the chance, go and see Neil Young and Crazy Horse

– There is a difference between Experience and the Memory of Experience.

– The memories of an experience are most influenced by our last memory of the experience.

– Teachers should consider our learners’ Memories of the Experience of Learning

– Praise, ‘Fun and games’, planning and timing are some immediate practical areas we may wish to consider to enhance the memory of the experience of learning.

– I believe that encouraging reflection, aside from its other benefits, can help in constructing positive memories of the experience of learning.

– The field of positive psychology suggests that our subjective perceptions are closely related to motivation and belief in self-efficacy. Reflective practice can help to create positive, yet realistic, memories of the experience of learning that can in turn help in creating positive attributions.

– In PBL a memorable final achievement and reflection are key components.

What do you think?

These are my thoughts, again intended to be a short post. I would love to hear your thoughts too.



Dörnyei, Z 1994, ‘Motivation and motivating in the foreign language classroom’, The Modern Language Journal, vol.78 no.3, pp.273-284.

Dörnyei, Z 2003, ‘Attitudes, Orientations, and Motivations in Language Learning: Advances in Theory, Research, and Applications’, Language Learning, vol.53 no.1, pp.3-32.

Garrison, R. and Kanuka, H 2004, ‘Blended Learning: uncovering its transformative potential in higher education’, The Internet and Higher Education, vol.7 no.2, pp.95-105.

Harvey, P & Martinko, M J 2010, “Attribution theory and motivation”, In N Borkowski (Ed), Organizational behavior in health care, 2nd edn, Jones and Bartlett, Boston, pp.147-164.

Kumaravadivelu, B 1991, ‘Language-learning tasks: teacher intention and learner interpretation’, ELT Journal, vol.45, no.2, pp.98-107.

Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014, http://www.thommarkham.com/index.php/philosophy/buy-pbl-deign-and-coaching-guide

Oxford, R & Shearin, J 1994, “Language Learning Motivation: Expanding the Theoretical Framework.” Modern Language Journal, vol.78 no.1, pp.12-28.

Usioda, E, 2008, “Motivation and good language learners”, in C Griffiths (ed), Lessons from Good Language Learners, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.19-34.

Williams, M, Burden, R, Poulet, G, & Maun, I 2004, ‘Learners’ perceptions of their

successes and failures in foreign language learning’, The Language Learning Journal, vol.30 no.1,pp. 19-29.

Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014, http://www.thommarkham.com/index.php/philosophy/buy-pbl-deign-and-coaching-guide

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Experience, Memory, Motivation & Neil Young by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


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