“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.
After class a student told me, “I thought I had been taught how to learn in school but now you’ve ruined everything.” She asked me to look at her notes. “See?”, she said, “Don’t these notes look like the material on the powerpoint? And they are neatly written aren’t they?” I agreed, they indeed were.
Then what was the problem, what had I ruined?
That day my Cognitive Psychology class had just finished an activity and discussion on strategies for learning. Students selected THE most commonly used learning strategies by college students from the following list (adapted from: Dunlosky et al., 2013):
Highlighting (text or information)
Re-reading (to be learned material)
Mnemonic (use key words to describe)
Imagine (use mental images while learning)
Elaborate (provide related details to to be learned information)
Self-explain (write why in own words)
Testing (practice by asking yourself questions about material)
Distribute Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days)
Interleave Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days, but switch content each half hour)
The items on the list were described by Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) as either of low, moderate, or high in how useful they are for learning. In the list, the lowest appear in red, moderate in blue, and high in green.
Students said their peers would consider method #1 Highlighting and #2 Re-reading as the most used strategies. I asked them who thought the average college student tests themselves on materials, on their own, BEFORE taking a test. Methods 8, 9, and 10 are all ways you can test yourself on material. NO ONE RAISED THEIR HAND.
Student preferred methods like re-reading and highlighting do take time, but have very low pay off for learning. Consider this, as a new college student I recall carefully laying
out a fresh pack of colorful highlighters. I sat down with my book or class notes and meticulously color-coded information in a pattern I thought would be both meaningful and lead to successful remembering. I WAS WRONG. Not only did this take a lot of time, the time spent convinced me the effort would pay off.
Learners typically pick the least effortful method, but one that also takes a lot of TIME. Their time spent “studying” gives them an ILLUSION of knowing material. In a student’s words… “I spend my time and attention trying to write down everything the teacher says. Sometimes this is copying down, word-for-word, what is on presentation slides. When I go back to study these notes. I find they are just words without meaning.”
The student is sharing the illusion of learning that occurs when studying takes a lot of time. She felt like she knew the material but after reading it again she realized it wasn’t in her own words and there were no detailed examples she could connect the materials to. Her next step was to turn back to the text and powerpoint and read and re-read material, hoping information would sink in. Come test time, her knowledge of material was only surface-level. She knew the very basics but had trouble on the test because she could not explain the content on essay questions and had difficulty with multiple-choice questions that apply knowledge.
WHY AREN’T STUDENTS LEARNING HOW TO LEARN IN COLLEGE?
For most students there is no course dedicated to the science of learning in their college curriculum.
One that lets them know how to successfully study for more than a 48-hour memory.
One that teaches them the science of how human memory works.
One that teaches them the skills they can use for college preparation as well as in their careers.
I am inspired to follow in the steps of Dr. Edward DeLosh at Colorado State University. Dr. DeLosh teaches a general education course called “The Science of Learning.” Here students are taught, “The science of learning and remembering with an emphasis on strategies and methods that students can use to enhance their learning and studying.”
FOR MY ANGRY STUDENT. She deserves to know how to study and learn BEFORE she has one semester left in college. She should be upset that what has been missing in her studies is the SCIENCE OF LEARNING. I am committed to help change this.
Eggs, coffee, blueberries, dark chocolate, walnuts, avocados, kale….
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?……………
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.
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.
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!
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.
L: 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!
E: 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.
A: 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.
R: 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.
N: 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.