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Social Sci LibreTexts

8.2: How We Remember: Cues to Improving Memory

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Label and review the principles of encoding, storage, and retrieval.
    2. Summarize the types of amnesia and their effects on memory.
    3. Describe how the context in which we learn information can influence our memory of that information.

    Although it is useful to hold information in sensory and short-term memory, we also rely on our long-term memory (LTM). We want to remember the name of the new boy in the class, the name of the movie we saw last week, and the material for our upcoming psychology test. Psychological research has produced a great deal of knowledge about long-term memory, and this research can be useful as you try to learn and remember new material (see Table 8.2 “Helpful Memory Techniques Based on Psychological Research”). In this section we will consider this question in terms of the types of processing that we do on the information we want to remember. To be successful, the information that we want to remember must be encoded and stored, and then retrieved.

    Table 8.2 Helpful Memory Techniques Based on Psychological Research

    Technique Description Useful example
    Use elaborative encoding. Material is better remembered if it is processed more fully. Think, for instance, “Proactive interference is like retroactive interference but it occurs in a forward manner.”
    Make use of the self-reference effect. Material is better remembered if it is linked to thoughts about the self. Think, for instance, “I remember a time when I knew the answer to an exam question but couldn’t quite get it to come to mind. This was an example of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.”
    Be aware of the forgetting curve. Information that we have learned drops off rapidly with time. Review the material that you have already studied right before the exam to increase the likelihood it will remain in memory.
    Make use of the spacing effect. Information is learned better when it is studied in shorter periods spaced over time. Study a little bit every day; do not cram at the last minute.
    Rely on overlearning. We can continue to learn even after we think we know the information perfectly. Keep studying, even if you think you already have it down.
    Use context-dependent retrieval. We have better retrieval when it occurs in the same situation in which we learned the material. If possible, study under conditions similar to the conditions in which you will take the exam.
    Use state-dependent retrieval. We have better retrieval when we are in the same psychological state as we were when we learned the material. Many possibilities, but don’t study under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unless you plan to use them on the day of the exam (which is not recommended).

    Encoding and Storage: How Our Perceptions Become Memories

    Encoding is the process by which we place the things that we experience into memory. Unless information is encoded, it cannot be remembered. I’m sure you’ve been to a party where you’ve been introduced to someone and then—maybe only seconds later—you realize that you do not remember the person’s name. Of course it’s not really surprising that you can’t remember the name, because you probably were distracted and you never encoded the name to begin with.

    Not everything we experience can or should be encoded. We tend to encode things that we need to remember and not bother to encode things that are irrelevant. Look at Figure 8.8 “Pennies in Different Styles”, which shows different images of U.S. pennies. Can you tell which one is the real one? Nickerson and Adams (1979) found that very few of the U.S. participants they tested could identify the right one. We see pennies a lot, but we don’t bother to encode their features.

    Figure 8.8 Pennies in Different Styles


    Can you identify the “real” penny? We tend to have poor memory for things that don’t matter, even if we see them frequently.

    One way to improve our memory is to use better encoding strategies. Some ways of studying are more effective than others. Research has found that we are better able to remember information if we encode it in a meaningful way. When we engage in elaborative encoding we process new information in ways that make it more relevant or meaningful (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Harris & Qualls, 2000).

    Imagine that you are trying to remember the characteristics of the different schools of psychology we discussed in Chapter 1 “Introducing Psychology”. Rather than simply trying to remember the schools and their characteristics, you might try to relate the information to things you already know. For instance, you might try to remember the fundamentals of the cognitive school of psychology by linking the characteristics to the computer model. The cognitive school focuses on how information is input, processed, and retrieved, and you might think about how computers do pretty much the same thing. You might also try to organize the information into meaningful units. For instance, you might link the cognitive school to structuralism because both were concerned with mental processes. You also might try to use visual cues to help you remember the information. You might look at the image of Freud and imagine what he looked like as a child. That image might help you remember that childhood experiences were an important part of Freudian theory. Each person has his or her unique way of elaborating on information; the important thing is to try to develop unique and meaningful associations among the materials.

    Research Focus: Elaboration and Memory

    In an important study showing the effectiveness of elaborative encoding, Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (1977) studied how people recalled information that they had learned under different processing conditions. All the participants were presented with the same list of 40 adjectives to learn, but through the use of random assignment, the participants were given one of four different sets of instructions about how to process the adjectives.

    Participants assigned to the structural task condition were asked to judge whether the word was printed in uppercase or lowercase letters. Participants in the phonemic task condition were asked whether or not the word rhymed with another given word. In the semantic task condition, the participants were asked if the word was a synonym of another word. And in the self-reference task condition, participants were asked to indicate whether or not the given adjective was or was not true of themselves. After completing the specified task, each participant was asked to recall as many adjectives as he or she could remember.

    Rogers and his colleagues hypothesized that different types of processing would have different effects on memory. As you can see in Figure 8.9 “Self-Reference Effect Results”, the students in the self-reference task condition recalled significantly more adjectives than did students in any other condition. This finding, known as the self-reference effect, is powerful evidence that the self-concept helps us organize and remember information. The next time you are studying for an exam, you might try relating the material to your own experiences. The self-reference effect suggests that doing so will help you better remember the information (Symons & Johnson, 1997).

    Figure 8.9 Self-Reference Effect Results


    Participants recalled the same words significantly better when they were processed in relation to the self than when they were processed in other ways.