Memory does not work like a video camera. Image by beegaia from Pixabay.
Perhaps surprisingly, what people believe about learning and memory is often very different from the scientific consensus.
For example, in a large-scale survey of members of the public, Simons and Chabris (2011) found that over 80% of participants believed that amnesia sufferers forget their own name. This is actually not the case – the memory loss tends to affect recent events rather than their personal identity or childhood memories. In the same study, 63% of members of the public agreed with the idea that memory works like a video camera, while 48% agreed that once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory does not change. None of these ideas are supported by mainstream psychological science; a linked study of psychology researchers found 0% endorsement in every case.
Memory seems to be fundamentally counterintuitive, and there are many other myths and misconceptions out there. Guilmette and Paglia (2004) found that 41% of respondents agreed with the idea that a second blow to the head can help a person remember things that were forgotten as a result of a first blow to the head!. Other studies have found widespread support for myths about learning, even among highly educated people.
A couple of years ago I conducted a study which presented a set of statements about learning and memory to teachers; some statements fit with contemporary learning science and others did not. Here I share some of the flawed/wrong statements used, together with my comments (provided as feedback to participants) about why these might best be viewed as misconceptions:
- To improve the effectiveness of learning you have to increase the time spent studying.
This may seem obvious, but is not actually true. Experiments into memory nearly always keep study time constant, but can still demonstrate impressive improvements in memory for information depending on the way that the learning takes place. The idea that attainment directly results from time and effort is therefore over-simplistic. Imagine walking up the down escalator – it would require a lot of time and effort, but wouldn't get you very far. Study advice given to students should therefore be more sophisticated than just "work hard".
- Learners are in the best position to judge what and how they should study.
In fact, learners make many mistakes when regulating their own learning. Learners tend to select easier to-be-learned items, and stop studying when they perceive that they are no longer learning; this approach may be ineffective as it and leads to their avoiding studying harder but important material (Metcalfe & Kornell, 2005). When it comes to specific study techniques, Hartwig and Dunlosky (2012) found that most learners use techniques that are out of step with the strategies which are supported by research, but that those who do use such strategies gain better grades. As Kornell and Bjork (2007) put it, "the task of becoming a metacognitively sophisticated learner is far from simple; it requires going against certain intuitions and standard practices, having a reasonably accurate mental model of how learning works, and not being misled by short-term performance" (p.223).
- The majority of information taught during a class will still be retained by learners 2-3 weeks later.
Forgetting of lesson material is actually very rapid if nothing is done to prevent it. The classic forgetting curve suggests forgetting of approximately 80% within this timeframe. It should be considered that the level of forgetting varies widely depending on the type of material, the learner, and various other factors, but nevertheless, teachers would do well to assume that much of what is taught will be forgotten if nothing is done to prevent this from happening.
- The best way to learn something is to go over it repeatedly within the same hour.
Although this may be a useful thing to do in some circumstances, it is not the most efficient way to learn something because performance over the short term is a poor indicator of long-term learning (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015), and in addition, this type of activity fails to take advantage of the reliable benefits of spacing out learning over multiple study sessions – a single study session would be followed by a lot of forgetting (see above), which spaced out review activities could minimise. This benefit is known as the ‘spacing effect’.
- It’s always best to simplify things for learners in some way, because making something easier helps it to be processed into long-term memory.
No, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, many factors which slow down learning or make it harder are actually beneficial can improve learning – these are what Bjork (1994) refers to as desirable difficulties (see video clip). It’s true that it is possible to overload learners by presenting too much at once – human working memory can only process a certain amount of information at a time. But that doesn’t mean that we should always make things as easy as possible for students.
- Multiple re-readings are more useful for learning than doing lots of tests.
They are not. A study by Roediger and Karpicke (2006) compared multiple-re-readings with multiple tests, and found that when a one-week delay was taken into account, testing was much more effective than re-reading. It is likely that beyond the first reading, there is very little to be gained from subsequent repetitions in most cases. Testing, in contrast, promotes active retrieval of information (see Karpicke et al, 2014, for a discussion of theoretical explanations behind the testing effect).
- Good study advice for learners should include telling them to find a place where they are comfortable and to do all their revision there.
Although this is popular advice and can on occasion provide reassurance to learners, memory researchers such as Robert Bjork advocate varying our study locations. Doing so leads to a more diverse set of associations forming between the studied material and incidental cues in the physical surroundings, and these cues can boost recall at a later date (see also Smith & Rothkopf, 1984). Different locations may also help the revision session to stand out as a unique event in episodic long-term memory.
- If a learner guesses and is not correct they may remember the wrong answer, so it’s best to avoid guessing/predictions during lessons.
Contrary to this popular idea, guessing incorrectly has been shown to be harmless by a number of studies (e.g. Kang et al, 2011) and may even be beneficial (Metcalfe, 2017; Richland et al, 2009). Kornell & Vaughn (2016) have provided evidence that failed retrieval followed by feedback is just as beneficial as successful retrieval; if success is not essential, this gives teachers more flexibility and freedom about how to structure retrieval practice tasks. In addition, doing a quiz during a lesson may help to minimise the extent to which we get old items mixed up with newer ones (Szpunar et al, 2008, Wissman et al, 2011).
- Ultimately, learners form new memories through frequent repetition.
Spaced out practice testing and elaborative links (where rich, meaningful connections are made) are more important than simple repetition. The 1960s 'multi-store model of memory' (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) claimed that repetition/rehearsal in STM was necessary and sufficient for memorisation, but by the early 1970s this was already seen as oversimplistic – a study by Craik and Watkins (1973) showed that repetition alone does not lead to memorisation, and other studies at around the same time showed that meaningful items are much better remembered. Repetition/practice is clearly going to be better than no repetition, but is very inefficient unless combined with other well-evidenced strategies.
- It makes sense to do a homework task soon after the material is done in class.
On the basis of the spacing effect, it would actually make more sense to delay homework by at least a few days.
- Once learners have got a question wrong and then been corrected, they will be able to predict whether they will get it right in future.
Learners’ predictions of their own performance can be fairly accurate but are subject to flaws too. Learners draw on their memories of past tests to predict their future recall (Finn & Metcalfe, 2008), so if they got something right in the past, they tend to predict future success too. This heuristic is not always accurate, however – see the previous point about short-term performance v's long-term learning. As Agarwal and Bain discuss in their book Powerful Teaching, desirable difficulties can help learners to make more accurate predictions of future performance.
These beliefs about learning are common, and are arguably not in the same category as ideas such as learning styles or the left-brain right brain myth. However, they can be harmful – if teachers’ (or students’) views of learning are flawed, then their planning and decision making is likely to be flawed as well.
My survey presented these and other items, some of which were in line with the evidence (e.g. “Learners benefit from mixing up lots of different types of problems, rather than doing one type of task at a time”). And what did I find? Well, the teachers in my survey generally performed better than the general public in terms of not endorsing debunked ideas such as repression, or memory working like a video camera. But there were some notable classroom-relevant misconceptions that were widely endorsed. In particular, participants tended to endorse massing rather than spacing of learning, and re-reading/restudying rather than retrieval and testing.
Interestingly, there was no link between the accuracy of their answers and the number of years spent teaching, suggesting that misconceptions don’t self-correct through experience.
This is an article based on my research study:
Firth, J. (2018). Teachers’ beliefs about memory: What are the implications for in-service teacher education? Psychology of Education Review, 42(2), 15-22.
For a more evidence-based approach to memory and learning that links to all aspects of classroom practice, check out my co-authored book, Psychology in the Classroom.
Also on this blog: What should students focus on? Evidence-based study habits.