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.
Have you ever heard someone say they were a bad napper?
I have not and can remember my undergraduate days when one of my first thoughts after turning my alarm off was, “when can I take a nap today?” I wasn’t necessarily staying up too late or pulling all night cram sessions – although that did happen. However, I can look back now and see that I wasn’t practicing behaviors of good sleep hygiene. The Mayo Clinic.org (1) has a lot of good advice for getting a good night’s sleep. You’ve heard of some of them I’m sure:
Create a restful setting.
Use your bed for sleep and not work or T.V.
Go to bed and wake up on a schedule.
Sleep for about 7 hours.
A common sleep recommendation is to limit naps! Wait, what?
Anyone who has struggled to get children to nap should be laughing so hard now they might be crying. As a parent of two young boys, I cherish times when they both settle down for an afternoon nap. Certainly, children should be getting more sleep than adults, but how tempted am I to nap with them? Mayo Clinic.org (2) explains that adults who nap should pay attention to the length of their nap. They suggest that going past 90 minutes in a nap is a deal breaker. After 90 minutes you typically progress into deeper sleep. Spending too much time or not enough in deep stages can cause you to feel terrible after you wake.
I have been teaching my students about the role of sleep in forming memory for a while now. Psychologists Georg Muller and Alfons Pilzecker were among the first to suggest that what we learn changes overtime, and sleep can account for some of this change by improving long-term memory (3). They found that participants learning short sets of “non-sense” syllables (e.g., FOV) would recall syllables randomly, over time, even when these syllables were no longer being tested. They called the ability to remember without intention, “perseveration.” Consider not being able to stop thinking about an embarrassing event, long after you were embarrassed; this is perseveration. Muller and Pilzecker called this process of consistently remembering consolidation. This word makes me think of taking all the leftovers in my fridge and planning to eat what is still good and throw out what is too far gone each week. Consolidation is an important process to remembering.
When we make new memories, the hippocampus is heavily relied upon. Overtime, memories begin to rely predominately on the cortex and in turn, less on the hippocampus. It is not that the knowledge “moves” from one place to the other. It is that as time passes, we tend to use and connect long-term memory with other memories. (4) This image from research by Gordon and Diekelmann depicts how information at learning relies on activation of the hippocampus, but, after sleep and retrieval, activation shifts to the cortex.
In the two sets of diagrams labeled “Cortex” and “Hippocampus”, the dark shaded “neural connections” in the hippocampus at first wakefulness are solid colored but become clear circles during sleep. In turn, during sleep, the neural connections in the Cortex become a darker shade and their dotted lines link together. The bottom line is that memories are dependent on sleep AND consistent retrieval to facilitate learning.
Back to napping. Taking a nap longer than 90 minutes can leave you feeling unrested and may keep you from falling to sleep later that night. But are there benefits to taking naps for learning? Researchers have been making the case that naps, no longer than 90 minutes may help. Work from Axel Mecklinger’s and colleagues (5), describes benefits in declarative memory after naps. Declarative memories are those you are aware of learning. For example, I can teach you facts about glaciers in a lecture, show you pictures of glacial melt, and ask you questions about your learning. You are consciously aware of your learning and you intend to remember this new information about glaciers.
What happens during napping less than 90 minutes that seems to help with memory? Mecklinger’s work focuses on sleep activity, spindles specifically. Consider holding a spool of twine. As you firmly grip on the spool with one hand, you use the other to find the twine’s end. You pull. With a quick jerk of the twine, you release a long piece high into the air. You pull gently, and the twine comes slowly out of your fingers. A sleep spindle looks like pulling twine off a spool. As we sleep our brain produces ups and downs of energy called oscillations. These are shorter and slower or higher and faster (like different pulls on the twine) as we sleep. Mecklinger has found that spindles occurring when we are not in Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) produce vibrations crucial for memory consolidation.
There is much more we need to understand about sleep and memory but for now, take a nap! Keep it shorter than 90 minutes though. This might be all you need to improve things you just learned and keep you feeling rested and ready for new learning!
I had two weeks to spend with my mother and father this summer. The purpose of the trip from Minnesota to Youngstown Ohio, my childhood home, was to clean out and eventually sell our family home. If you have ever gone through an old room, forgotten drawer, or cluttered closet, you know what happens. Seeing a self-portrait, you created in 5th grade art class brings back vivid memories of your ten-year old self. As you sort through books, barbies, and mixed tapes, you are amazed at the smells, songs, and times that you remember clearly. As I was wading in memories, and lots of boxes, I found that one memory was lost forever.
My father is in late-stage kidney failure. He is on dialysis and has been in a state of cognitive decline for at least four years. He is no longer the formidable and brash, “larger than life” persona he once was; rather, he, like many aged loved ones is rather weak and passive. His personal care has been complicated by the fact that for most of the last 15 years, he was estranged from the family. When my mom began caring for him again three years ago he was already in a moderate stage of dementia.
Do you know about the memory test? He took the Mini-mental State Exam (MMSE) as part of a veteran’s clinic medical checkup. I remember my mom telling me over the phone that he got a 13 and was asked questions like, remember the words, toothbrush, glue, rabbit and repeat them a minute later and, draw the face of a clock. Not hard stuff. A score of 13 to 20 suggests moderate dementia. Well, I should know how to interpret Dementia. After all I am a Cognitive Psychologist and I teach a chapter in Human Memory class on aging. For the past 10 years I’ve gone through the facts with my undergraduates. “Dementia is not one disease, but a general term for types of cognitive decline. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s. There is no official diagnosis for dementia and most people recognize memory loss when it is too late to intervene.” I’ve even shown a video of a couple, married 50 years, where one partner no longer knows the other due to Alzheimer’s; most of my students watching it in class easily hold back tears.
Back to the end of Day 1 in Ohio. I kissed and hugged my dad goodbye for the night. He took my arm and said, “you are a real nice lady.” The shock hasn’t worn off yet. How could my father not know me? No, I haven’t had time to ask questions or discuss important life lessons with my father!
I am a cognitive psychologist after all so, WHAT SHOULD I DO? As our family makes decisions about the next stage of my dad’s care I wonder, what will he think if he moves to assisted living? How will we be comfortable knowing that he is okay with doing so? How can he speak for himself?
I write this because I want people to know how little we currently know about dementia and how vulnerable I feel about my own knowledge. I probably understand more about how memory works than 95% of the population. How does the average person, who may not understand memory well at all, cope?
I turned to the Alzheimer’s Association. Here I found a 24/7 helpline 1-800-272-3900 and called. The most knowledgeable, well-trained person comforted me on the line. After a short discussion and about the best listening I’ve experienced in a long time, I have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, the man on the other line drafted me an email full of resources SPECIFIC to my father. The Alz.org site is full of insight. “Know the 10 signs” lays out behaviors to watch for and explains how to spot these over normal signs of aging. Take sign number 3, “Confusion with time or place.” A person with dementia may lose track of days, the present moment, and the general passage of time. This is sure different than an age-typical behavior of being confused about what day of the week it is, only to correctly remember a few moments later.
I think the public, my students, and me can benefit from learning the most we can about memory. Dementia, like other horrible diseases, is a great equalizer. THIS PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS DESERVES MUCH ATTENTION. After all, who will you know that loses their memory before losing their life?
You are in high school sitting in a desk. Flimsy metal feet of the chair, which are connected to the desk, squeak on the floor. Your run your palms along a particleboard desktop. There are grooves and grit from its years of service in the classroom. You flip your hands over, palm face up and slip them under the desk. Yuck, you feel plasticky, globs of used gum! Small bumps and craters, a disgusting sign of the rule breakers and risk takers who gnawed it before hastily sticking it there, perhaps trying to escape the wrath or being caught chewing gum! Does gum distract and dirty, or are its benefits for attention and relaxation more important?
Fast forward to 2018. While gum chewing rules may still hang in the balance, we are having a similar discussion about phones in the classroom. In a large lecture classroom, a teacher IS teaching using clear visuals and rich descriptions. Several students have their phones out. You focus on one young man. He appears to be online shopping for shoes AND is wearing large, chunky headphones. There is no way this student is paying attention! But, you wonder. What should be done here? Should the teacher interrupt the class to address the student? You look around. Other students display a wide range of behaviors, some listen, some yawn, struggling to stay awake, and others seem distracted.
Research conducted in the college classroom has highlighted the learning consequences of allowing smart phones (1). A 30% reduction of lecture learning has been found in classroom when cell phones were allowed, and a measurable 89% of classroom participants report a feeling of distraction among students (2).
Many argue the obvious benefits of having access to all information via our phones. If I ask my students who psychologists like Piaget or Gardner are, they can Google the answer or use Wikipedia to “fact-check” my lecture content. This benefit may fall short though, because of a phenomenon called the Google Effect (3). This occurs when people think of computers and/or look things up on Google when they need information. They block the natural, sit and wait retrieval, process required to remember. Rather than thinking about who stared in a favorite childhood movie or the name of a family doctor, they find out using their phone.
Further problematic, students now in high school and college have zero experience with a no cell-phone zone! Research paints a sad picture of students who are asked to put away their phones (4). Anxiety rates increased when students were asked not to use their phones. Also, these researchers found that addictive behavior and high social anxiety predicted more frequent use of phones in class.
What is an educator to do when cell phones create a NO DISCUSSION, NO ATTENTION, NO MEMORY, NO INTERACTION ENVIRONMENT? One increasingly popular method is to LOCK IT UP. Enter Yondr (5), a company founded in 2014 that offers schools, concert venues, and courtrooms a no cell phone zone. For a fee, these places and spaces are given tiny pouches to lock phones in. A student enters school in the morning and is given a phone-sized case that when engaged, locks the phone inside. When school is over, that student simply taps the phone on a small electronic base the size of a cereal bowl and becomes “fully engaged” with their phone again.
We are at a crossroad. Does it take a strict, policy to keep phones out of the classroom? Can’t students and members of society decide when not to use their phones on their own? We can imagine the outcome when asked to say NO all the time to eating fried or sugary foods. Are we setting younger people up for failure by taking away the skill of deciding for themselves? (6) Taking cues from psychology, a solution may be to give students positive reward for smaller, incremental change that leads to a decision to use phones less (6). College students were given the chance to either turn off their phones and place them on a table in the front of the class or not. They earned 1 point of extra credit for each class they decided to put away their phone. What happened was that students choose to put down their phone more often than not. These students also described many positive benefits in learning and engagement in the class gained by personally CHOOSING a no cell phone zone!
The decision is yours, do you think we should incentivize behavior or demand cell-phone free zones? Like the gum under the desk – they are not going away!
Froese, A. D., Carpenter, C. N., Inman, D., Schooley, J. R, Barnes, R.B., Brecht, P.W., & Chacon, J.D. (2012). Effects of classroom cell phone use on expected and actual learning. College Student Journal, 46(2), 323.
Levine, L.E., Waite, B.M., & Bowman, L. L. (2007). Electronic media use, reading and academic distractibility in college youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(40), 560-6.
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.
Lepp, A., Li, J. & Barkley, J.E. (2016). College students cell phone use and attachment to parents and peers. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 401-408.
This post originally appeared as written on learningscientists.org
Things are going well for you as a college student. You like your classes, you’ve made new friends and, because you’re reading this blog, you realize you’re well-prepared for the workload of college. That is, until you find out you must do group work in most of your classes! I can hear the collective sighs and see faces of concern when I announce to my classes that they’re doing group work.
Trusting group members with your learning can be difficult. Many students fear the possibility of social loafing, which is when one or two group members put in the most effort while others benefit and coast to success. Others prefer to work alone because they like to remain in control of the task. And still very practical issues like finding time outside of class to meet can prohibit successful group work. These barriers to group success are well known and often are experienced by college students.
Cognitive psychologists are aware of these and other barriers including collaborative inhibition. Collaborative inhibition occurs when a group recalls less information than its individual members would alone (Basden et al., 1997; Wright & Klumpp, 2004). This is counterintuitive as we might envision a study partner remembering something we did not. For example, if I asked you to remember the following words: plant, ham, pizza, scissors, robot, towel, surf, hamster, chip, and pliers in any order, based on what is known about working memory, most of us would remember between 4 and 6 of these words with ease. There are also several strategies a student could use to remember the words. Techniques like visualizing the words in a silly story or repeatedly recalling the list will aid in learning and lead to an even larger number of words recalled. So, if you and a partner are asked to remember the words, collectively, shouldn’t two heads be better than one?
Lab research has pinpointed the retrieval problems that occur during group remembering. Retrieval inhibition occurs when one group member recalls information out loud and disrupts other group members from responding. Consider the word list again: plant, ham, pizza, scissors, robot, towel, surf, hamster, chip, and pliers. You and a partner study the list independently. After a study period, you come together and are asked to recall by taking turns, your partner goes, you go, and so on. Your partner responds first saying “hamster.” You follow by saying “surf.” This seems easy and you feel like you are benefiting from putting two heads together. Yes!
Until what happens next. Your partner says “pizza” but hey YOU were also going to say “pizza.” Your palms sweat, you twitch a little as your retrieval process, or your natural flow to recall the words, is disrupted. You sit and wait for another word to come to mind but, with this distraction, you come up short.
What happened? Turn-taking changed the “production” of recall items from how you would’ve remembered on your own. The result is collaborative inhibition and has been shown to become an even larger problem with groups of more than two (see Rajaram, & Pereira-Pasarin, 2010 for a review of retrieval disruptions).
Okay, now you say you really don’t ever want to work in groups! But, let’s apply collaborative inhibition to a more realistic group study session. You are meeting with a group to study for a psychology test on basic brain anatomy. Most of the to-be-learned material is terms and definitions (e.g., parietal lobe, amygdala, glial cell). Your group meets at the library at 7 pm and you have read the necessary chapters, completed note cards on important terms, and have tested yourself several times on these terms. A quick assessment, however, reveals only half of the group has prepared. Those unprepared claim they were waiting for this study session to prepare. Experienced in the science of learning, you suggest that you quiz each other on basic terms. The group agrees, however, when questions are put to the group, the same person quickly blurts out answers before others have a chance to respond. This continues throughout the entire study session.
Fast forward to what happens on exam day. There are several complications that may occur because of group remembering. First there is you. You realize that someone else remembering and reporting the information in a group does not guarantee YOU know the information. You come home from the group study session and spend additional time testing on the material by looking up and elaborating upon unknown terms. Making this important realization, you ace the test!
A second group member comes home from the study session and decides he is now familiar with all the information. Sure, he didn’t come up with answers on his own, but he thinks he learned most of what he needs to know from the group. Sadly, he is disappointed on test day when taking the test, he realizes he cannot recall any of the correct brain-based words on the fill-in-the-black section of the exam and does poorly overall. A third group member remembers quite a bit from the group session, however, finds that some of the group’s answers from the session were not correct. She has a hunch about correct answers but keeps getting confused by what was said in the group. She wishes she would have prepared better on her own.
It is likely that you or someone you know has experienced these learning outcomes. The story of working with others may not be all bad though. For example, group testing in classroom settings has shown to reduce test anxiety among individuals, provide social cuing of information, and has led to groups remembering more overall. Additional research blending laboratory remembering with class remembering is needed to reveal a clearer picture of the long-term benefits of group vs. individual remembering (LoGuidice, Pachai & Kim, 2015). Until then, it is important to add collaborative inhibition to the list of potential pitfalls of learning in groups.
Basden, B. H., Basden, D. R., Bryner, S. and Thomas, R. L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 23, 1176–1189.
LoGuidice, A.B., Pachai, A.A., & Kim, J.A. (2015). Testing together: When do students learn
more through collaborative tests? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(4), 377-389.
Rajaram, S., & Pereira-Pasarin, L. P. (2010). Collaborative memory: Cognitive research andtheory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 649-663.
Wright, D.B., & Klumpp, A. (2004). Collaborative inhibition is due to the product, not the
process, of recalling in groups. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 11(6), 1080=1083.