To nap or not to nap, IS that a question?

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

References:

LOST Memory

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.

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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!

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Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

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?

 

Should cellphones be banned in the classroom?

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?

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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).

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

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.

Yes No 1

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!

References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. https://www.overyondr.com/
  6. Katz, L. & Lambert, W. (2016). A happy and engaged class without cell phones? It’s easier than you think. Teaching of Psychology, 43(4), 340-345.

Collaborative Inhibition

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.

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Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

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?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.
References

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.

What are we learning?

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.

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Then what was the problem, what had I ruined?

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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):

  1. Highlighting (text or information)
  2. Re-reading (to be learned material)
  3. Summarize
  4. Mnemonic (use key words to describe)
  5. Imagine (use mental images while learning)
  6. Elaborate (provide related details to to be learned information)
  7. Self-explain (write why in own words)
  8. Testing (practice by asking yourself questions about material)
  9. Distribute Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days)
  10. 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

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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.

Continue reading

The Memory Diet?

Eggs, coffee, blueberries, dark chocolate, walnuts, avocados, kale….

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No, this is not my shopping list. It is a list of foods touted by popular press, to improve memory and cognitive function. Recently I asked students in my Human Memory class to investigate a food believed to be related to memory improvement. The above foods made the list along with several other suggestions (e.g., eat the Mediterranean diet, take supplements like turmeric and vitamin E, and drink red wine). Students were required to provide the source of claim — almost always a popular press site. Then they noted whether the article referenced a scientific study and other features of the source’s validity like whether or not the article was sponsored content.

Finally, the students checked our library databases to see if their was any scientific research to support the claim and make an overall recommendation about adding or not adding the food to a daily diet.

You are hoping that now I bring you great clarity about what to eat for an efficient, better than before memory?……………

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What did the students find?

1.) Some of the articles were sponsored. So, we can’t be sure there is not bias in reporting to serve the sponsorship.

2.) Most of the articles did reference a research study. This is great!

3.) When articles did reference research, the results cannot (yet) be applied to every-day eating habits.

What does this mean for us?

Although we might like drinking coffee and eating chocolate, we cannot follow a specific guideline for eating this food in a way that would benefit memory. Tips such as drinking black coffee (avoiding sweeteners and sugary cream) are always solid. However, how much coffee is best for cognition is undefined. For chocolate, research suggests a serving of 1 ounce a day would be beneficial. Again though, consider mistakes people might make as they indulge in their “daily” chocolate. I can see my kid generalizing this to eating his hidden away Halloween candy! There simply is not enough evidence to prescribe a diet with any of these foods to see direct memory and cognitive benefits.

What can you do for your memory?

Suggestions for cognitive improvement walk the line for healthy living. Eating a balanced diet low in saturated fats and sugar, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables is sound advice. Exercise is important but individual differences on best exercises for  you and your body is as varied as food.

I suggest, the LEARN method to improve memory: Listen (pay attention), Elaborate, Associate, Re-tell, and Night (get a full-night of sleep). To find more about this method, see my post on Learning Styles.

Why you want to learn with Learning Styles but should use the LEARN method instead.

Personalized learning sounds great. The idea that you have one preferred way to learn best is appealing. But where you go wrong is assuming this preference should actually be applied to how you are taught, in all circumstances. Take this classroom scenario as an example of how people approach the idea of learning styles. You are in a class where the teacher always talks. The teacher does not provide any hand-on activities or visuals to go along with the lecture.

You put up a big fuss because you have taken an learning styles inventory and KNOW that you learn BEST when you see something written down. You NEED the teacher to yield to your preference or you will shut down and become incapable of doing well in the class.

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Okay, so maybe you are not that irrational. Still, stop and consider two questions that address this way of thinking:

1.) Is your teacher using best practices for teaching and learning? Well, maybe not. It is problematic to simply talk at students. Students need a variety of teaching methods. If the teacher doesn’t ask questions or engage students in any way OTHER than “just talking” then I fully agree — this is probably not a class where students are learning. But maybe the teacher is an excellent story teller, engaging in narration full of vivid imagery and clever anecdotes relating the material to every day life. In this case, students only hearing a lecture may come away with a lot of knowledge.

2.) Should material be presented only the way you like? Maybe you do learn better with pictures. But that isn’t the end of the story. Everyone learns better when they have many ways to remember. If I’m teaching you about types of apples, I’ll have much better luck showing you pictures of the apples I’m describing than only telling you about them. You would have an even better chance learning about these applies if you could taste them. Better still, just like my son’s kindergarten class pictured below, you will learn SO MUCH about apples if we go out to an apple orchard to pick, gather, wash, talk about and eat apples. HE WON’T STOP TALKING ABOUT APPLES!

Calin Apple Orchard

Seriously though, don’t you wish you could feel that way about the Physics class you took in high school or while learning Statistics in college?

Preferences will only get you so far. There is a dual relationship in teaching and learning. I am fully on board with being the most effective teacher I can be BUT I also want to equip students with best practices to learn in any circumstance. You can do that with what I am calling the LEARN Method.

Learn google

Girl listening with her hand on an earL: LISTEN. Before you can learn anything you have to be tuned in. Forget doing two things at once. Make sure if you are reading, you can actually pay attention to the book. If you are watching a documentary, don’t also browse the internet. If you are in the classroom, really BE IN THE CLASSROOM. Turn off all distractions unless they are required for your learning. Learning does not occur through absorption — you really have to be paying 100% attention to learn!

elaborateE: ELABORATE. Explain and describe what you are learning using many details. Back to the apple orchard. The children learned so much about apples because their knowledge was elaborated on with pictures, tastes, smells, sounds, and stories. Whether it be chemical elements in high school or types of animals in biology class, you need to make multiple connections with new information. Think of your mother who might ask you a lot of questions about a date with a significant other: where did you go? what did you do? what did you wear? what happened? All kidding aside, when we describe and explain with a lot of APPROPRIATE details, we are more likely to learn.

AssociateA: ASSOCIATE. Connect new information with things you already know. The best teachers know this well. They make information relevant to learner experiences. If a teacher makes learning about numbers related to performance on a fantasy football team, people may be more likely to pay attention and learn complicated statistical formulas…if they are interested in sports. Analogies and associations take very complex or obscure information and tie it into what a person already knows. We are motivated by what is familiar and what we like. 

Pet BirdR: RE-TELL: Teach someone the new information you have learned. The best way to reinforce your learning is to be held accountable to teaching it to someone else. When you learn something new, have a debate about it with a roommate or spouse. Try to teach them by way of simplification. This will also work with children — although they may not be great listeners. I’ve found that having children has made me a better teacher. Explaining almost anything to a small child requires not only simplifying it but using language appropriate for them. Re-telling also requires processing thoughts outside your mind. Many learners develop a false sense of knowing because they have never had to explain a concept to someone else. 

NightN: NIGHT. Make night time and achieving a full-night’s sleep sacred. Okay, I’m a work in progress with this one. In our culture we sometimes see people getting a full 8 hours sleep as lazy or week. We place a high value on productivity. Sleep is required for information to become well-learned though. Neuroscientists have found that something called consolidation occurs when we sleep. Consolidation happens as neurons and memory systems of the brain re-work with newly learned information to stabilize it. When your father encouraged you to get a good night sleep before a big test, he wasn’t kidding. Much of the consolidation process happens when we sleep. Less sleep, impaired or low-quality sleep and we are less likely to cement new memories so they can be remembered long after.

Never mind Learning Styles, remember the LEARN METHOD: LISTEN, ELABORATE, ASSOCIATE, RE-TELL, NIGHT and you’ll have more success learning.

 

 

Photographic memory: Fact or falsehood?

I was giving a guest lecture to a high school psychology class on learning and memory. After getting through much of the content, the class instructor asked if I would talk about strategies for student success in college. As some students perked up, one student exclaimed, “well, ‘Mike’ doesn’t have to worry about learning how to study because he has a PHOTOGRAPHIC memory.” I felt two waves of emotion: First, I sensed relief among some of the students. This comment of a superior and somewhat magical memory meant they were off the hook, didn’t it? They simply do not have the ‘special ability’ and so why try? Second, was the feeling of weariness I had over having to address the statement.flat800x800075f

The student brought up one of the many misconceptions about human behavior. A small untruth pointing to the larger issue of Psychology’s Image Problem. Psychology, unlike other sciences, often runs into the problem of confusing common sense with fact. Every one of us has motivations, emotions, and thoughts which make each person an expert on their own life and more likely than not, we use this experience to view the world. We are less likely to do this with Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, although ideas about gravity, chemical reactions, and metabolic processes, also occur within us or around us.

Try it out — Tonight at dinner (assuming you are not only talking to 3-year olds or other psychologists) bring up the idea that opposites attract or that most adults experience a mid-life crisis. You’ll likely find yourself a lively discussion filled with examples and stories affirming these beliefs. But, like the student talking about the PHOTOGRAPHIC memory, your beliefs are wrong.

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So what has gone wrong? The student likely has a strong visual memory. He, like all of us, relies on details from images to remember. This is referred to as eidetic memory or visual memory. We all benefit from relying on images to remember. For example, memory champions (yes, there are national and world-wide competitions on memory) use detailed and bizarre ideas and attempt to create a “visual image” to help them remember. Joshua Foer, journalist and author of, Moonwalking with Einstein

has widely discussed the benefits of imagery to best remember. In his Ted talk he brilliantly describes remembering his talk by linking characters like Britney Spears, Cookie Monster, and characters from the Wizard of Oz to places in his home. This is a method which has been used for centuries to recall called the Method of Loci. Without getting too bogged down with the method though consider the importance of remembering the interviewer’s name at a job interview. You’d do anything to avoid the embarrassment of finishing the interview, shaking her hand, and not being able to REMEMBER HER NAME!

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One strategy is to use image-based features to remember. Pick a feature on her face or something she is wearing to focus on. Quickly incorporate it into her name. Or use her name in a silly, cartoon-like scenario. Come up with a….once you see it you can’t un-see it type of image. If you are feeling less creative, simply say it back to her right away, then again using any image you’ve come up with.

It is actually useful for all of us to rely heavily on mental pictures as we learn. However, research has well-documented that what we come up with is not a perfect match to the original image. We don’t have exact replicas of pictures in our mind. Research on a phenomenon called ‘flashbulb’ memory in which we remember specific details of a particular memorable event (e.g., JFK’s death, events surrounding 9/11) further shows that our mental images are not perfect and change often. Researchers tested people months and years after these events to find that they confuse details and lose accuracy like any other memory.

The truth is that it takes work to have a good memory. Joshua Foer, the journalist described above actually won the USA Memory Championship one year. Like most of us however, some days he cannot remember where he parked his car. Psychology researchers like Dr. Anders Ericsson have well-established that it take effort and use of mental strategies (like creating acronyms, using images, elaborating on the situation with something you know well) to best remember.

Next time someone tells you they know someone with a Photographic memory please don’t believe them. Instead start a discussion about strategies they use to help them remember best. Chances are you can share tips to help them remember too.

 

Back to School and Memory: The Forever Student

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.

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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. Image result for timeResearchers 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. Image result for children looking up at parents

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!

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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?

Will you?

*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

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Is Memory Failure EVERYDAY LIFE?

How does my memory compare to yours? We can’t help but compare our own cognitive prowess with others. In the start of my memory class this fall my students and I have discussed memory improvement by way of memory training. The idea of “training” for memory might conjure up pictures of your brain lifting weights!

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Sites to improve your memory, attention, and overall cognition are alive and well and ready to take your money. But, before you push a button and commit to a brain gym membership you might want to see how you are doing.

The Everyday Memory Questionnaire (revised) by Royle, J. & Lincoln, N.B. (2008) provides a relatively simple way for you to see what everyday tasks prove you are a memory master and to help indicate where you might need some “brain bulking-up.”

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Below are examples of things that happen to people in everyday life. Some of them may happen frequently and some may happen very rarely. For each of the 13 items, consider how often, on average, you think each one has happened to you over the past month.

Rate each item on a scale of 0 — 4 using the following key:

Once or less in the last month = 0

More than once a month but less than once a week = 1

About once a week = 2

More than once a week or less than once a day = 3

Once or more in a day = 4

**You’ll want to keep track so that you can add all of the numbers at the end!!

1. Having to check whether you have done something that you should have done.
2. Forgetting when it was that something happened; for example, whether it was yesterday or last week.
3. Forgetting that you were told something yesterday or a few days ago, and maybe having to be reminded about it.
4. Starting to read something (a book or an article in a newspaper, or a magazine) without realizing you have already read it before.
5. Finding that a word is ‘on the tip of your tongue’. You know what it is but cannot quite find it.
6. Completely forgetting to do things you said you would do, and things you planned to do.
7. Forgetting important details of what you did or what happened to you the day before.
8. When talking to someone, forgetting what you have just said. Maybe saying
‘what was I talking about?’
9. When reading a newspaper or magazine, being unable to follow the thread of a story; losing track of what it is about.
10. Forgetting to tell somebody something important, perhaps forgetting to pass on a message or remind someone of something.
11. Getting the details of what someone was told you mixed up and confused.
12. Forgetting where things are normally kept or looking for them in the wrong place.
13. Repeating to someone what you have just told them or asking someone the same question twice.

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Okay, so what do I do now, you say? Perhaps you think that went well, or maybe I’ve opened up a vortex of all that you thought was wrong with your memory. Don’t panic. Here are some numbers you can work with.

Your score will total up to be something between 0 and 52. If you answered 0, then you are likely a memory master and should consider writing this post instead of me! Chances are you are more interested in the average score. Participants tested by Royle & Lincoln had an average score of 9.75 with a standard deviation (or the amount of variation among scores) of 8.6.

What does this mean for me, you ask?

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Well, consider yourself among the land of “normal memory” if you are around the average. Scores well above the average are what YOU are really concerned about… consider about two times the average (for example, approaching or higher than 30) cause for concern.

There is help for us all! When you think about the 13 items, chances are that there is room for improvement. These items target memory retrieval (being able to get a memory when we want it) and attention (well, we all know what that is). Most of our problems begin with focusing on the task. I suggest you go back through the list and assess how much better you would be if you simply paid more attention (or had the energy to pay attention) during tasks.

If this helps…you may quickly realize that with a little more sleep, hobbies, time for relaxation, an amazing partner…that you can begin to IMPROVE. After all, memory failure IS a part of everyday life.

Reference

Royle, J. & Lincoln, N. B. (2008). The everyday memory questionnaire – revised: Development of a 13-item scale. Disability and Rehabilitation, 30 (2), 114-121.