My students in human memory class are writing a blog for a final course project. This assignment was given in advance of Covid-19 and they could write about ANY topic related to memory. To my surprise, several students decided to write about mental health. This got me thinking about the natural connection between mental health and memory.
Memory Health is Sleep Health:
You may have heard about the connection between sleep and memory. During sleep, memories are consolidated, into neural structures of the brain to a more long-lasting state. Although the most durable memory could take months or years to consolidate, good sleep hygiene elevates our chance of remembering. Many psychological studies have shown the role between learning something, and then sleeping adequately. Sleep’s ultimate payoff may be better memory. Sleep seems to offer a restorative process for brain health. Getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night does more than just make us feel refreshed. Non-neurons called glial cells clean and prune unnecessary cells while we sleep. Bottom line is that adequate sleep makes us more energized, our brains healthier, and assists us in remembering. I recommend sticking to a sleep schedule and taking steps to promote sleep during this time. The National Sleep Foundation has some great tips here.
Memory Health is Positive Self-esteem:
Have you heard of the Pollyanna principle? My students have no idea who Pollyanna was but I give them a good analogue – a Disney princess, particularly the character Giselle in Enchanted played by bubbly actor Amy Adams. Pollyanna is a woman from a classic book of the same name, written by Eleanor H. Porter. She becomes this psychological term’s namesake because she is always looking for the positive, even in terrible situations. It turns out that most healthy adults have better memory for positive events than negative. But, add a sprinkle of optimism to negative experiences, or maybe just a little time and reflection and you can remember things in a slightly better light. Take a terrible break up. In the moment it seems like you cannot feel lower. You may not eat, you may cry a lot, and mild depression is common. Many people manage to grow through a bad breakup, reporting years later that they “learned something”, “grew as a person”, or “it wasn’t really that bad.” Thinking positively can lead to greater optimism in the present. Having an overall tendency or bias to remain optimistic has memory benefits; you are more likely to remember positive experiences over negative.
It is important to realize that no amount of positivity can replace the real despair of death or major loss of income. People during this time may need real help. I’m particularly impressed by the American Psychological Association’s commitment to providing pandemic-related resources.
Memory Health is Overall Wellness:
Our thinking can be dramatically influenced by how we live our life. Maintaining positivity and clearer thinking can be enhanced by managing our health through diet and exercise. Go outside and see how people social distancing are spilling out of their houses to enjoy nature. When you are out think about connecting to nature in a deep and meaningful way. Wellness also is maintained by socialization. If you are tired of spending time on the screen you can still connect. Family and friends may be pleased by receiving a card or a phone call. Maybe these “archaic” methods of communication can become our favorite again.
Memory health is mental health. Take control of your sleep, take control of how you view the world, and take control of your wellness.
Chances are this time of unknowns with social/work/family change has you, and your friends and neighbors, on edge. With social distancing though you would need to be a fly on the wall in the homes of your friends to share the reality of this change. Because we are all in this together but actually may be alone, here is some insight into your mental response to the current situation.
Those who enjoy long stints online or gaming with little face-to-face contact may be better equipped for this new found isolation. It seems like many in our culture are comfortably connected on social media more than they are with face-to-face socialization. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle has asserted in her book Alone Together that a generation has learned to expect more from technology than one another.
This mix of stress and enhanced digital connection got me thinking about how our experience through Covid-19 isolation will influence our memory.
Knowledge of memory tells me one thing primarily — Do your best to cope during this time because you will remember it! Our brains encode new and unique experiences more than common ones. As my late grandma would say, “enjoy your life now as it really speeds up as you get older.” She was right by the way as grandmothers always are! This quickening of life is partly due to ‘the same old same old” experiences occurring as we age. College, marriage, birth, and career experiences mark our earlier years and their uniqueness stamp out and slow down time.
For many, this virus crisis will account for something memory researchers call flashbulb memory. First described by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick, these memories take on a characteristic like an old flashbulb camera. The light from the bulb illuminates the scene and a picture in time is created. Generations have experienced these indelible memories during the death of JFK, 9/11, and now perhaps a new generation with the corona virus.
My hope is that this period of time expires quite quickly. If it does we can be sure we are all under acute stress. These short periods of stress call upon the sympathetic nervous system to do its job; think fight or flight. During these times of stress our senses, including cognitive abilities like decision-making and memory processes, are enhanced leaving us with vivid memory. Spending two weeks in the house, with or without family members, can lead to enhanced memory for this time. The other option, which no one wants, is to deal with chronic stress. If the effects of Covid 19 are long-lasting then our body releases chemicals that negatively effect our memory, sleep, and other bodily functions.
Okay, so in the best case scenario I have two takes-aways:
1.) This unique time of our lives is so unusual that the days are likely to feel long and we are likely to remember this time period well.
2.) Our stress level, whether acute or chronic, will determine how our brains and bodies respond to this time period.
From a psychological perspective I suggest the following:
Avoid social comparison. As much as social media might save you during this time (think workout and educational videos) comparing your experience to others is dangerous. You do you!
Don’t believe everyone else is FINE. Chances are our view of others dealing with this situation (think social media family pictures of game-playing, working out, and writing poems) is curated so THEY ALL look happy and well.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Try to focus on some basics: eat well, sleep, get outside, laugh, and lower your expectations. This last one is for me so I’ll say it another way. Be kind to yourself and others.
Think of how you can help others where you are. Make a phone or video call to someone more isolated than you, donate to a food bank or your local United Way.
After class a student told me, “I thought I had been taught how to learn in school but now you’ve ruined everything.” She asked me to look at her notes. “See?”, she said, “Don’t these notes look like the material on the powerpoint? And they are neatly written aren’t they?” I agreed, they indeed were.
Then what was the problem, what had I ruined?
That day my Cognitive Psychology class had just finished an activity and discussion on strategies for learning. Students selected THE most commonly used learning strategies by college students from the following list (adapted from: Dunlosky et al., 2013):
Highlighting (text or information)
Re-reading (to be learned material)
Mnemonic (use key words to describe)
Imagine (use mental images while learning)
Elaborate (provide related details to to be learned information)
Self-explain (write why in own words)
Testing (practice by asking yourself questions about material)
Distribute Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days)
Interleave Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days, but switch content each half hour)
The items on the list were described by Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) as either of low, moderate, or high in how useful they are for learning. In the list, the lowest appear in red, moderate in blue, and high in green.
Students said their peers would consider method #1 Highlighting and #2 Re-reading as the most used strategies. I asked them who thought the average college student tests themselves on materials, on their own, BEFORE taking a test. Methods 8, 9, and 10 are all ways you can test yourself on material. NO ONE RAISED THEIR HAND.
Student preferred methods like re-reading and highlighting do take time, but have very low pay off for learning. Consider this, as a new college student I recall carefully laying
out a fresh pack of colorful highlighters. I sat down with my book or class notes and meticulously color-coded information in a pattern I thought would be both meaningful and lead to successful remembering. I WAS WRONG. Not only did this take a lot of time, the time spent convinced me the effort would pay off.
Learners typically pick the least effortful method, but one that also takes a lot of TIME. Their time spent “studying” gives them an ILLUSION of knowing material. In a student’s words… “I spend my time and attention trying to write down everything the teacher says. Sometimes this is copying down, word-for-word, what is on presentation slides. When I go back to study these notes. I find they are just words without meaning.”
The student is sharing the illusion of learning that occurs when studying takes a lot of time. She felt like she knew the material but after reading it again she realized it wasn’t in her own words and there were no detailed examples she could connect the materials to. Her next step was to turn back to the text and powerpoint and read and re-read material, hoping information would sink in. Come test time, her knowledge of material was only surface-level. She knew the very basics but had trouble on the test because she could not explain the content on essay questions and had difficulty with multiple-choice questions that apply knowledge.
WHY AREN’T STUDENTS LEARNING HOW TO LEARN IN COLLEGE?
For most students there is no course dedicated to the science of learning in their college curriculum.
One that lets them know how to successfully study for more than a 48-hour memory.
One that teaches them the science of how human memory works.
One that teaches them the skills they can use for college preparation as well as in their careers.
I am inspired to follow in the steps of Dr. Edward DeLosh at Colorado State University. Dr. DeLosh teaches a general education course called “The Science of Learning.” Here students are taught, “The science of learning and remembering with an emphasis on strategies and methods that students can use to enhance their learning and studying.”
FOR MY ANGRY STUDENT. She deserves to know how to study and learn BEFORE she has one semester left in college. She should be upset that what has been missing in her studies is the SCIENCE OF LEARNING. I am committed to help change this.
I have gone back to school now for thirty-one years in a row. Every year since 1st grade, through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate school, and now in my 10th year of college teaching I have looked at the world and my time in it from the fresh perspective of another school year. Not one year since kindergarten have I missed the combined nostalgia and dread children and young adults everywhere likely feel when faced with a fresh start. Consider some of your favorite back-to-school memories: new shoes and backpack, sharpened pencils and crayons, labeled notebooks, joyous reunions, and the smell (good and bad) of the school building. Yet, there are less joyful ideas racing back too: schedules, the end of care-free summer days, piles of homework, and potential problems with teachers and peers.
Studying memory, I am curious about my perspective of TIME through the lens of the school year. Perhaps with a continual re-set of a new beginning I will have better, more distinct memories for each year. Researchers and regular folks alike report that as you grow older life speeds up. This seems to be further compounded when you have children. I am constantly being reminded, to the point of nausea that time is moving too quickly after having children. Look at how much they’ve grown Aunt Dot exclaims year after year at all of those family gatherings.
Do you remember looking up at your parents with almost repulsive curiosity about why your relatives seemed obsessed about YOUR growing? I now see this sentiment centered on my own two small children. Just this summer as my 5 year-old prepares for kindergarten I have thought about how many times he has been asked if he is ready for school. If his experience of time is like most young children, and days and months seem to go on forever, chances are he is starting to think this kindergarten thing doesn’t even exist. Think of taking a two hour drive to the nearest big city. A young child may ask “are we there yet” close to fifty times, if you are lucky.
As we grow, our brains encode our experiences and these memories essentially shape who we are and how we see the world. This self-awareness or autobiographical memory is just starting to take hold in my 5 year-old; most of his previous memories, due to lack of language and neurological developments will fade into nothing. From now until his early thirties though time will seem like a cavern of possibility. I hope he will have no sense of a short life during this time.
If you are in your mid-thirties to forty chances are you are waking up most days wondering how you got to middle-age. Up to this point, time has been marked by autobiographical events (first days of school, graduations, birthdays, holidays, first loves, weddings, birth of children, death of loved ones) that keep stamping our idea of life with new ink. As we have these life memories not only are we creating a sense of identity but we are laying down our ability to think about our past. When asked to remember our past, reminiscing takes shape into a peak of special memories around twenties to mid-thirties. So if you to think about memories most central to who you are/most exciting/most personal, chances are you have what is referred to in memory research as a “bump” or inflection of events recalled during this time. As we age, we tend to have more predictable patterns to our lives (more stability in relationships and jobs). Without unique memories to partition out our lives, when we think back we perceive our life as moving quickly. Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time captures this experience with the following, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.’ Being surprised now about being in my mid-thirties I have no doubt that if I am lucky enough to grow old, that like Proust I will feel a younger self trapped among the wrinkles!
Never mind being annoyed, if one more person tells me time flies when you have children….
I have become almost painfully aware that my children are growing up quickly. I can, however, take solace in that to their blissfully under-formed ‘autobiographical selves’ growing up seems to take forever. Being around school starts for more than thirty years I wonder…will the newness of each school year help time slow? Will I continue to make enough new and exciting memories to slow the passing of time?
*For a great read on time and memory check out Douwe Draaisma’s
Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past
There are lots of reasons to feel negatively affected by the world around you. Personal struggles, mental, physical, financial, just to name a few, may be affecting you now more than ever. Psychology explains much of human behavior by looking at motivating factors. Some motivators are positive, like using the promise of a walk outside at the end of the work day to push through. Other motivators call you to action all the same, but have a dark side. For example, I’m guilty of telling my children that if they don’t behave according to expectations that I will take away their TV time. Most people, including my children, respond better with a positive motivators.
Like motivation, the way we view the world can be shrouded in positivity and negativity. The more I spend my working life online, the less I spend talking to students and colleagues face-to-face. This experience has shifted the amount of time I seem to be alone with my thoughts — SO MUCH MORE.
I’m reminded that my memory reflects who I am and largely shapes my inner voice. The idea that our memory shapes our personality is one I never get tired of considering. Charles Fernyhough, author and psychologist, describes how memory forms identify in more detail here. If you too find yourself alone coping with our current world more than ever, emphasis on the following memory processes can make your LIFE MORE POSITIVE.
Positivity Bias, also called the Pollyanna principle (named after a book character similar to a modern-day Disney Princess – think Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted), is the human tendency to focus on the positive. Bias refers to a general cognitive term, not necessarily always with a negative connotation, in which we are more likely to think one way over the other. This is great news as life seems to be stacking on the difficulty. Just today alone I’ve chatted with two people about how easy it is to focus on negative aspects of life. Maybe it is a small mishap like spilling your morning coffee on a computer or something life-changing like losing a job. Either way, the cumulative effects of daily life can be draining. Those who believe good outweighs the bad are likely to be happier and more resilient in the face of life’s biggest challenges.
Forgetting.Daniel L. Schacter’s groundbreaking work on memory suggests that the secret to a good memory may be forgetting. Consider being able to remember too many mundane details of your life: what you ate each day, the clothes you wear, and all the conversations you have. For a very small number of people this ability, known as hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, is more of a curse than a blessing. Remembering what you did each day may turn out to be a fun party trick; however, for many of these people remembering everything personal has led to depression. Think of it this way. When we have a bad breakup as a teen or suffer an embarrassment at the office most of us, overtime, consider the event less terrible. A dulling of the severity or negativity of the memory has occurred. This normal course of forgetting allows us to become wiser and learn from our experiences. It also gives us the opportunity to reshape our thinking and put negativity in the past. Not being able to forget details of extremely negative events, like a traumatic car accident or a violent act when remembered, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress and anxiety.
As much as we may wish for a better memory, forgetting has its advantages!
Reminiscence or discussing the past can also be a favorite way to live in the present reality. Psychologists have discovered a reminiscence bump for memory; individuals older than 40 tend to remember positive events from their teens and twenties more than self-knowledge for other time periods. I think my grandpa was right in how he thought of the past. As a small child I recall his monthly magazine called Reminisce, which I’m delighted to see is still in publication. I would eagerly crawl into his lap to help him with each edition’s notorious seek-and-find game, the where is “Hattie’s Hatpin Contest.” Chances are you may not even know what a hatpin is. As a child of the 1980’s I only saw the one “I found” within these magazines. I suspect what makes this publication so popular and timeless is that we can always relive the past. Through music, laughter, photographs, and video we now more than ever can relive a happy memory of the past.
This spring semester I am excited to be teaching a new course on effective learning.
The course, Psychology 150: Science of Learning for College Student Success is designed for any undergraduate student to learn how to learn, a skill that is surprisingly absent from any student curriculum, k-12 and college students respectively.
Psychologists in the field of learning science have been honing in on best practices for learning for over a century. Unfortunately, it is only quite recently that these learning methods have been introduced to students and educators. The references below provide wonderful resources on the science of learning. Picking up any one of these would provide clear and accessible information on how the knowledge gained through learning science can lead to breakthrough changes in learning. Two of my favorites are Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain and Understanding How We Learn by https://www.learningscientists.org researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.
While these resources can be quite useful for motivated learners, for many students who have been using the same study and learning methods for years (e.g., reading and re-reading their notes, highlighting key concepts; see this Scientific American article on learning strategies that do and do not work) many learners will require deliberate practice and consistent enforcement of useful learning strategies. For example, long-term memory for new information requires that we think about the knowledge and retrieve it often from memory. Students who are told they need to retrieve what they are learning by testing themselves may greatly benefit from classroom practice.
In PSYC 150 my students will be introduced to learning methods but will also work with course peer-tutors to apply the methods to what they need to learn in their other college courses. In addition, the course will emphasize my LEARN method which incorporates cognitive knowledge, learning strategies, and information on healthy practices outside of the classroom.
Planning a new course is not easy and getting additional resources from my university has been even more difficult. I have other trailblazers to thank though for establishing the course. Cognitive psychologists Ed DeLosh, Anne Cleary, and Matthew Rhodes have been teaching a science learning class now for several years. Rather than getting resources to teach the course at the university-level the best chance for success is to incorporate it into a department. Psychology is a natural fit, but other students need the opportunity too. So I recommend incorporating similar modules into first-year experience courses and to build learning content workshops into already established centers for academic success. These bottom-up strategies take some creative thinking but are starting points to a larger university buy-in.
IF THESE OPTIONS STILL SEEM IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE ON, I URGE STUDENTS AND EDUCATORS TO CONSIDER ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SMALL OPPORTUNITIES:
Pick up any of these mentioned resources and start reading – see what ideas you can begin using now!
Talk about new learning strategies with another student or educator and hold one another accountable for trying some out.
Do you remember the last time you were BORED? If waiting for my zone to be called for a flight doesn’t count, then sadly, NO.
Like many adults, I have little down time. After spending several years in school, then working hard for tenure, and then having two kids, it is difficult to find time to just sit and THINK. Many of my best “what’s next” ideas happen when I am doing something non-academic, like walking the dog or cleaning the toilet.
My “too busy to think” pace of life made me curious about how students take time to think. In an article from the American Psychological Association on transferable skills, employers want job seekers to be able to THINK. Okay, not groundbreaking news? This seemingly silly request actually indicates a need for employees, typically college graduates, to be able to take what they have learned and synthesize and/or apply it to new learning.
It may be obvious that THINKING is needed for learning, but I believe we need to be more deliberate about giving away and taking the time to think. For example, countless studies have shown the positive impact of meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking on learning. More students are aware of being mindful about their thinking, however, I don’t think educators in the classroom may always give students the time to THINK. Pooja Agarwal, author of the incredible book on the science of learning Powerful Teaching addressed a large audience in a recent keynote with the imperative, “STUDENTS NEED TO BE GIVEN TIME TO THINK.”
If you believe this advice is overly simplistic, take a realistic example of how thinking can be cut short in the classroom. Imagine I’m giving a brilliant lecture on types of memory! As I work my way around lively examples of episodic, personal/time-based memories and semantic memories, the general facts that make some people a jeopardy star, how do I know my students are thinking? Students may appear to be listening and could be dutifully taking notes, so are they thinking? Well perhaps not. If they are not asked to stop and reflect, write their own overall summary of the main concepts, and are simply asked “do you understand” or “do you have any questions” there is a high likelihood they have not been given time to think and LEARN (see Dr. Pooja Agarwal’s site, retrievalpractice.org for excellent materials to encourage thoughtful retrieval).
What can learners do to THINK more:
Find time to slow down and be bored. Force yourself to do nothing and see what new ideas or thoughts you have!
When learning, stop to reflect on information by summarizing it in your own words.
Attempt to connect new information with other knowledge.
Be aware of the learning trap of familiarity — feeling like you learned does not guarantee learning. Students often fall into this trap by gaining false confidence that they know material by reading, and re-reading notes.
Ask educators to build Think Time into class. Teachers this means getting comfortable throwing out content in exchange for time to ask students to retrieve what they have learned BEFORE they share it with anyone else. This ensures students can recall information on their own.
NEED MORE TIME TO THINK? Hit the pause button more often. Limit one thing you do each day that either overstimulates you or sucks away time. Take back this time and be alone with your thoughts. You might be surprised what you discover!
Mom friends and acquaintances often ask what I know about how having children influences thinking and memory. Phrases like “mommy brain” and “brain fog” have become part of a social response for memory issues that occur before or after having children. My children are a bit older now, 3 and 7, but I still find myself forgetting a name of someone I have met several times, or walk into a room suddenly unaware of why I am standing there. These issues are embarrassing but typical. Yet, I think we all look for answers when it comes to memory errors.
For all the moms (and other tired caregivers out there), what does current research have to say about the effects of motherhood and memory?
First – how might cognition change during pregnancy?
Findings reveal that as a whole, cognition in pregnant women is uninterrupted throughout. A review of over two decades of research found a small impairment in remembering names and words (1). A separate study on pregnant mothers and a non-pregnant comparison sample revealed that spatial skills (assessed by asking women to remember where a series of squares were presented on a computer screen) were worse at the end of pregnancy and just after giving birth (2). Wow – this seems promising! However, ask anyone who is in their last few weeks of pregnancy and/or first several weeks after birth and they might tell you more than just their vocabulary and spatial memory took a hit!
Secondly – are any cognitive changes long-lasting?
The findings here are promising too! A large sample of women described in the British Journal of Psychiatry did not show any long-term cognitive decline either four years or eight years post-partum (3).
Thirdly – does the brain physically change during pregnancy and motherhood?
Research has shown that women after pregnancy have less gray matter in their brains (4). Brain cells called neurons are covered by a fatty white-looking substance called myelin. It protects the cell and allows it to send a message quickly to other neurons. Other brain cells, glial cells, can be found near the surface of the brain. They are gray in color because they have no fatty myelin. Less gray matter was found in areas of the brain that help women socialize with others for up to two years after pregnancy. One theory is that reduced matter areas are helping assist moms in connecting with their babies – although the story isn’t complete.
Finally – what is left to learn?
This is truly the most interesting question. My brief coverage of the science leads to one strong conclusion – NOT ENOUGH RESEARCH has been done on mothers to know for sure how having children impacts the brain and cognition! The quality of the research is limited to small samples of mothers and often does not include comparison samples or samples with mothers of different race, ethnicity, or social class (5).
There is another major take away for mothers. Many caregivers are forgetful because of stress!
I would argue that stress is responsible for a large piece of the memory problems of caregivers. If you are stressed over meeting the demands of parenting, your attention is often divided between the stress you feel and the task you are trying to accomplish. You certainly cannot remember the names of people you meet on the soccer field because your attention is tuned into your lovely child playing soccer or the incessant “mom, mom, mom/dad, dad, dad) coming at your heels from a two-year old. If your attention is always split between two things, you will remember very little and you are also likely tired from the effort required to do many things at once. Spending several hours or days with increased stress can overwork your brain and your body. Overtime, your brain produces stress hormones that can disrupt body functions like thinking clearly but can lead to depression and disease.
Whenever possible focus on ONLY one thing at a time. There is no such thing as a champion multitask-er. For physical relief from stress, the Mayo clinic has great advice on how you can change your behavior. For more serious issues in parenting and stress, the American Psychological Association offers science-based parenting resources.
Ouellette, S.J., Hampson, E. (2019). Memory and affective changes during the antepartum: A narrative review and integrative hypothesis. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 41 (1), 87-107.
Farrar, D., Tuffnell, D., Neill, J., Scally, A. & Marshall, K. (2014). Assessment of cognitive function across pregnancy using CANTAB: A longitudinal study. Brain and Cognition, 84(1), 76-84.
Christensen, H., Leach, L.S., Mackinnon, A. (2010). The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196 (2), 126-132.
Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F. (2017). Nature Neuroscience 20 (2), 287-296.
Duarte-Guterman, P., Leuner, B., Galea, L. A.M. (2019). Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 53.
Learning, as difficult as it can be has a very simple definition — the persistence of knowledge overtime. However, the definition’s three pieces: persistence, knowledge, and overtime lead to muddied ideas of when and how learning occurs.
At the end of a school year, ask a teacher what learning is and how he knows it has occurred and you’re sure to get a different response than that of a child, a parent, or a state funding agency.
As students across the country begin soaking up the summer sun, a familiar concern is brought to light — what happens to student learning in the summer?
The answer is as varied as the definition of learning. There is a general consensus that by summer’s end students are behind 1 month in learning gains (typically measured by comparing test scores from the previous spring with the current fall in subjects like reading and math). Research has also revealed differences in learning loss and gain depending on characteristics like race, socioeconomic status, and age.
Minnesota Public Radio News recently dedicated an hour to the dip in summer learning, known as the summer slide (1). A panel of educators provided honest and informative content, however, the scope of their comments seemed to miss the psychological perspective of learning and memory.
I decided to take a look at current research in educational psychology. Here are some take-aways to develop learning in the summer and YEAR ROUND.
It is about of RESOURCES. Learning dips are often determined by socioeconomic status (SES). High SES students tend to avoid a summer slip and low SES students fall further behind. Consider what a typical summer might be like depending on resources.
Who goes to camp, museums, or possibly vacations to far-away places?
Who has access to day-time educational programs?
The same MPR program noted above found that high SES families spend about $5,000 on summer activities! These same students may miss out on additional opportunities during the school year because they are working after school or are not encouraged to join out-of-school activities.
It is about ACCESS. Researchers emphasize the need for access to knowledge rich resources over the summer (programs, technology, and books). The journal, Urban Education (2) uses the term “book deserts” to indicate living areas where children have limited to no access to books.
It is about MOTIVATION. Students need to be filled with curiosity and drive YEAR ROUND so that they can pursue resources. Consider a small child who loves searching for bugs or a youth who can tell you encyclopedic-quality baseball statistics. Students’ curiosity is silenced because of their environment. Love of learning can also be squashed during the school year by an academic focus on “test scores are best.”
It is about SHARING. Funding for community programs is limited and cannot address the needs of all students. If you are a student, reach out to a friend who may benefit from an invite to play and learn at a museum for a day. Parents and informed adults, help spread the word of camps and enrichment programs that could benefit an acquaintance. When you enroll your child, find out if you can make a donation to fund another student.
There is a need to go beyond attention-getting changes in learning trends and focus on what is being learned during the SCHOOL YEAR.
It is about SKILLS. We should broaden our definition of learning and learning focus from a score gap to a skill gap.
Educators and administrators need to rethink learning. How do we prepare students for future success? Yes, assessments of fundamentals in reading are important. No less so are skills like:
Curiosity, motivation, empathy, kindness, critical thinking, communication, wellness, life skills, and study skills (3). How are these being learned? Don’t they often get kicked aside as soft skills because they are difficult to measure?
Teams of educators must focus on equal access to education in the scope of what LEARNING should look like. After all, when many of our historically academic skills are automatized, we may never replace distinctly human abilities to create, relate, and be empathetic (4).
Angela Davis (Host). (2019). How to help your students avoid the ‘summer slide’ [Radio series episode]. With Karen Zamora (Executive producer), MPR News with Angela Davis. St. Paul, MN: MPR.org.
Neuman, S. B. & Moland, N. (2019). Book Deserts: The Consequences of Income Segregation on Children’s Access to Print. Urban Education, 54(1), 126-147
“Why can’t I remember the name of someone I JUST MET?” “Is there something wrong with me.”
Nope. There is nothing at all wrong with you. When meeting someone new, remembering their name all comes down to two things:
1.) ATTENTION and 2.) ASSOCIATION.
Focused attention is the first step toward remembering. Focusing your mental energy has limitations. For one, you only have so much mental energy to go around. Once you’ve committed too much of it to one task, there may not be enough left to focus on anything else.
Attention is best understood using a visual metaphor. Imagine you are watching a Broadway show. In the opening scene, a magnificently bright spotlight shines down on one singular person. As the show goes on though, lights illuminate the entire stage and a cast of characters and other visuals wonders of the stage are revealed!
When we meet someone new, they need to take the spotlight. And frankly, most of us are not able to put the person front and center. Three characteristics of attention further reveal why we often fail at remembering names.
SELECTION. The spotlight (our attention) needs to be directed singularly at the person. This is a challenge despite our best intentions. Any number of distractions may prevent us from focusing. For example, an impatient child might tug at our pant leg and prevent us from hearing the name. Our own thoughts can be just as distracting. Often when we begin to listen to someone’s name we get in our own way of remembering by worrying about our next response. This shift of attention to our thoughts may lead to missing the name and conversation.
SHIFT. If we are lucky enough to notice our attention being divided, we do have a chance to shift our focus back to the conversation. I suggest immediately repeating their name back to them. You have only one chance in the conversation to recover and this is it. If you get it wrong the person can kindly correct you, keeping you on course for a successful interaction.
DIVIDE. As the conversation begins to flow it is normal for your attention to drift back and forth between the person and your own thoughts. Dividing your attention in this way allows you to ASSOCIATE their name.
Association means connecting. No one is particularly good at remembering a name without a good connection. Psychologist Gillian Cohen refers to this problem as the Baker-baker paradox. Remembering that a woman’s last name is baker is much harder than remembering she is a baker. Why? Because baker the job is very visual. Come on, you know you are thinking about bread baking…..and of course…the hat!
Most associations won’t happen so easily though. You need to connect the name to something interesting or unique. This can be quickly done by associating a feature of the person with their name (maybe he is wearing a hat of a particular sport’s team you like, perhaps you like her earrings). Asking them about this feature will hook the name in your memory and give you a better chance to remember it. When I meet a new student I ask them something about themselves. This usually sparks a brief conversation and I can hook the details in memory along with their name.
In a high stakes event like a job interview, you should do anything in your power to remember the interviewer’s name. Even if it is some goofy rhyme or visual (that you probably won’t share with them) that hooks your memory, use it!
Yes, this all takes time, attention, and effort BUT a little work in the front end could save you the embarrassment of forgetting.
My late, 92 year-old grandmother would often remind me that time sped up as she aged. I picture her now the way she spent most of the day, sitting, as she reminds me to enjoy life to the fullest while I am “young.” After spending nearly 3 days shut in with my children to avoid the polar vortex, (seriously it was -23 today) should I believe that “time flies when you are having fun” or “time spent indoors is like watching paint dry?” In this case it would seem to come down to personal experience. To enjoy the day, my kids painted, made a tent, baked cookies, threw a pot of boiling water into the frigid air to watch it evaporate and enjoyed a number of other chaotic and “fun” experiences. Would my 2 and 6 year-old report having a lightning fast day — because they were having fun? Did the day seem painfully long to me, like watching paint dry?
A watched pot never boils. We can stand over the pot, peaking just over the rim to wait and wait for tiny bubbles to fizz to the surface. It seems to take forever! Ah, now when it is slowly boiling, the noodles can go in. The moment we turn our attention to wash the dishes though, you’ve guessed it, the water has white-capped over the side of the pot.
Memories can fill our lives at either a slow or fast boil. Research on autobiographical memory, by David Rubin out of Duke University has led to a theory called the reminiscence bump. The idea is that when we are older than 40 and think back on our personal memories there is a influx or hump. We remember more events from the coming- of-age period of life into early adulthood, compared to other periods. Rubin and many others though have found there are individual differences based on how these memories are remembered.
I think my grandma was on to something. We experience many firsts when we are young (college and relationships, love, travel, gainful employment, and securing fist-time things like cars and houses — if we are lucky). We remember these times because they stand out from all of the other pot-watching. Ageing brings routine. A settling of sorts that seems to make time fly. Days and weeks of work at the same job, no matter how prosperous or exciting, may fail to provide stand-out experiences. Grandma had settled in to a time where she would remember more life events than make NEW memory. She was fortunate to have vivid memories of her past.
We all can improve our memory by talking about events. Children who are asked meaningful questions day-to-day from their caregivers tend to have more vivid and elaborate personal memories. We often talk about our favorite vacations and funny times with family, and even though these memories may change over time, talking or reflecting is a key to recall.
My children will likely remember the unique fun of a “snow day.” And I will too — probably. Overall, we can focus on meaningful experiences to lengthen our lives. In addition to talking and thinking about events, it is important to vary our routine. Sure, for most of us that doesn’t mean travel to Hawaii, Rome, and Australia in one year or a lifetime. We all can learn new skills, walk different routes in the park, or try a different lunch spot. Distinct memories help time-stamp our days and weeks, stretching them out, instead of clumping them into sameness.
My airplane conversation typically goes from my seat mate being relaxed that as an experimental psychologist I cannot analyze them, to feeling concerned when I tell them I study memory, because “THEY HAVE A TERRIBLE MEMORY.”
“I do too”, I say. “We all do.” Memory, like swimming or practicing piano, must be worked on to be improved. Ideas that a “good memory” is fueled by a special memory genius or photographic memory are incorrect misconceptions of how memory works.
My college students have learned they need to work on their memory too. When I teach a course in Human Memory to juniors and seniors, they are disturbed, even outraged, that no one has taught them about best practices in learning and memory. They see these skills, developed and practiced, in a memory course, as powerful change-agents for their learning.
As I teach them that humans have a historical need to create images that are rich, sometimes silly, to remember information like a family tradition or knowledge about a late great-grandparent, they seem to begin to get it. Remembering is fundamentally human. We are the sum of our memories. Part of our human experience is to share information, stories, and knowledge.
Though, have we lost the need to remember? Currently we rely on external devices like smart phones and computers to remember dates, names, numbers, and even our most treasured memories. This is a relatively new shift in how we remember. Research has highlighted how the computer has replaced our own thinking in a phenomenon called The Google Effect (1). For example, when questions come up with friends like, “what current actor is playing Spiderman?” or “what decade did the Challenger explode?” people are highly likely to Google answers rather than rely on memory. Like a smug friend who knows the answers to trivia questions, researchers found that using the internet to answer questions develops false confidence among users who then claim to know the answer all along (2).
Despite our reflex for using for technology, we are quite interested in having a good memory. With a longer life expectancy, people value measures that ensure a productive, high quality life. Concerns of a life disrupted by memory loss through dementia have led to a public interest and demand for memory improvement techniques.
Major for-profit training programs have seized on the fear of memory loss spearheading a billion-dollar industry. These training programs boast benefits to memory, attention, and problem-solving by having people engage in short games developed by a collection of neuroscientists, market-researchers, and game designers. Perhaps the biggest player in the market, is Lumosity (Lumos Labs, Inc., San Francisco). Their website points to research supporting their training program like a 2015 study (3) that found participants who used 49 Lumosity-style training games were better on neurological tasks than a control group who did crossword puzzles. Other research (4) conflicts by demonstrating that brain-training games improves participants game-playing skills like other video games; a zero-sum gain on memory and cognition.
Going back to my students who say their learning has been enhanced after completing course in cognition and memory, why not teach how memory and learning works to students? I had a strong hunch that foundational knowledge, on its own could, lead to improved memory.
My study published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology (5) aimed to take an educational approach to understanding memory improvement by investigating the effects of classroom memory skills training and the cognitive training program Lumosity on college students’ memory.
Students in two separate sections of a Human Memory course either had either only course instruction (“no Lumosity group”) or course instruction AND twelve weeks of training on Lumosity (“Lumosity group”). Students in both sections were asked to complete three memory assessments: one at the beginning of the course, a second at the mid-term, and a third during the final week of the course.
Students in EACH section showed improved performance on the assessment tasks in areas of working memory performance and recall and recognition performance. For example, in the word formation task, participants were given the prompt, “come up with as many words as you can in one minute that start with the letter P”. Quickly listing several words required focused attention on the task and retrieving words from long-term memory. The word recall task, on the other hand, required participants to store up to fifteen words in memory and then report as many as possible. This task utilizes aspects of working memory, which allows one to hold and manipulate information, and long-term memory.
However, Lumosity-trained participants performed worse than the other section on a face-name recall task. During the course both groups performed a classroom activity creating a picture mnemonic for their last name. For example, my last name “Lassonde” can be imagined as a woman roping a lasso around a pond. Similarly, each student created their own name mnemonic. Then they shared their name image with the class. Having this activity at the beginning of the course really helps me and my students learn names.
Lumosity also has a specific memory task to improve name recall. Game players are introduced to many customers and asked to take a food order. When completing the order, the player is required to type in the name of the customer. Difficulty increases as multiple customers give orders and there are time delays between fulfilling orders. This training task didn’t translate to a face-name recall task given on the memory assessment. Like other studies of cognitive training, the computer game simulation for learning names didn’t reveal additional learning gains in a real-world scenario.
Did students “THINK” their memory had improved after taking the course? The Everyday Memory Questionnaire (6) with questions about memory, like how often do you, “completely forget to do things you said you would do” revealed students thought forgetting behaviors decreased after taking the course.”
While it is impossible to assert that Lumosity had no impact, there are at least three indicators that course instruction would be a more promising way to improve memory.
First, more students in the No-Lumosity group saw memory improvement in their everyday lives.
Second, only eight percent of Lumosity group students believed Lumosity training would lead to long-lasting benefits to memory; this is an idea consistent with research questioning the efficacy and transfer of Lumosity tasks.
Third, over ninety percent of students in both sections thought that course techniques and course theory would lead to long-term benefits on memory.
Nearly ninety percent of students in the Lumosity group, said they enjoyed playing the games and 75 percent would recommend them to their friends and family. Maybe the act of putting time toward Lumosity led toward positive feelings about the games. Students probably enjoyed these games because they were a novel component of the classroom.
Lumosity has yet to be applied to students in this type of college classroom setting. This study is among the first of hopefully many implementing cognitive training into a classroom atmosphere.
The field of cognitive and educational psychology is on the right track. Sites like retrievalpractice.org and http://www.learningscientists.org/ are leaders in promoting college student learning strategies. But colleges can do better. Listen up Psychology Departments it is time to share knowledge on learning. Join me in creating courses designed to improve learning and memory!
Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 476-478.
Ward, A. F., & Wegner, D. M. (2013). Mind-blanking: When the mind goes away. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 15.
Hardy, J. L., Nelson, R. A., Thomason, M.E., Sternberg, D.A., Katovich, K., Farzin, F. & Scanlon M. (2015). Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial. PLoS One, 10 (9).
Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Flacone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., Cooper, N., Ashare, R., Audrain-McGovern, J., Hornik, R., Diefenbach, P., Lee, F. J., & Lerman, C. (2017). No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior, or Cognitive Performance. Journal of Neuroscience, 37 (31) 7390-7402.
Lassonde, K. A., Osborn, R. M. (in press). Lumosity does not best classroom memory improvement strategies. Scholarship in Teaching and Learning of Psychology. Dec. 13 2018.
Royle, J., & Lincoln, N. B. (2008). The everyday memory questionnaire-revised: Development of a 13-item scale. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 30(2), 114-121.