Monthly Archives: March 2016

Of Course Context Matters.

Consider the following passage:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.

How well do you think you could recall the above passage? Go on… turn away and try and write down as much as you can remember in as much detail as you can. I suspect you could do pretty well even though you might not understand its deeper meaning.

There is little doubt that memorization is a useful tool in teaching and learning but like any strategy, it does have its critics. This is perhaps because there is an assumption that memorization takes place in the absence of context and while this might be the case in some circumstances, I suspect (I hope) teachers don’t attempt to get students to memorize information without placing that information into the relevant context. That said, I also suspect that many exams could be successfully attempted without any wider information being applied.

So, how much of the opening paragraph can you recall?

What if I told you that the paragraph is a set of instructions for washing clothes before you read it? Would that increase your recall rate?

This task is taken from a series of experiments conducted by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson in 1972 (Bransford & Johnson, 1972) that found comprehension and recall to be greatly improved when information is given in context. This is most likely due to the deeper levels of processing involved. Over the last decade or so I’ve carried out this experiment with my students with consistent and highly predictable results.

Here is another one:

If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Because the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face-to-face contact, the least number of things could go wrong.

Recalling and comprehending the passage without any contextual cues is difficult. Obviously recall is easier than comprehension but, nevertheless, recall is adversely affected unless the passage is given within some kind of wider meaning. Participants who were shown the following picture were able to recall more information and performed better on comprehension tasks than those who were simply read the passage.


Of course context matters and of course teachers can get students to memorize information in its absence – but that isn’t really teaching is it? Context gives us something more; it provides a deeper cognitive appraisal and therefore results in deeper processing, better recall and increased understanding.

As I keep saying; Learning is much more than just remembering stuff; it’s far more complex than that.


Bransford, J.D. & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 11 (6). p.pp. 717–726.


Emotion and the Testing Effect.

Learning is an emotional as well as a cognitive process. The problem is that cognition is easier to measure than emotion, which is probably why there are more papers on learning and cognition than there are on learning and emotion (perhaps it’s also part of the ‘publish or die’ culture). Some brave souls, however, have ventured into the realms of cognition and emotion, more specifically the relationship between emotion and memory.

Like much of the research into memory, researchers interested in this interplay tend to lean towards positivistic methods (that is, laboratory experiments), however, they also often use more real-world experimentation, especially in the study of autobiographical memory. There is also an increase in the number of researchers utilising brain-scanning devices (particularly fMRI) to help identify neurological components, such at the interplay between the hippocampus and the amygdala.

Interestingly (and particularly important for those who unquestioningly support the use of laboratory experiments), in lab studies negative emotions tend to be remembered better while in studies of autobiographical memory the reverse is the case. This contradiction throws up an immense number of questions surrounding something psychologists describe as ‘ecological validity’ – the extent to which results in the lab (a highly controlled, artificial environment) directly relate to what is seen in the ‘real world’ (classrooms, for example). Early studies on the ‘Testing Effect’ (causing quite a buzz in education circles at the moment) relied heavily on the laboratory studies with low ecological validity; more recent studies carried out in classroom settings (high ecological validity) appear to support these earlier findings, but this isn’t the case with all studies (cautionary note!).

Roediger  has consistently shown that retrieval has the ability to modify memory and promote long-term learning, in fact, the testing effect has found that tests enhance later retention more than additional study of the material (e.g. Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) although is some circumstances it can also result in the ‘learning’ of incorrect information (Marsh et al., 2007 & my previous post).

But is there an emotional component to the testing effect or is it just about the memory?

More specifically, could eliciting an emotional response aid memory consolidation and enhance the testing effect?

Finn and Roediger (2011) found that when negative emotional pictures were presented immediately after success on a retrieval test, later test performance was enhanced. But there was no enhancement for those who were shown neutral pictures or a blank screen. It would therefore appear that the period immediately following retrieval plays an important role in determining later retention. In addition, a later study found that even when the answer given was wrong, the presentation of the picture still enhanced memory consolidation after feedback was given (Finn et al., 2012). Even when the original answer is wrong elaborate processing still takes place following feedback and the presentation of the emotional image. Later recall of the correct answer is enhanced (supporting the test effect) as long as the retrieval attempt is effortful enough to trigger necessary reconsolidation, the picture then activates the emotional regions of the brain which enhance the testing effect and aid later recall. Roediger has also suggested that the emotion-eliciting picture need not be presented externally and that simply bringing to mind an emotional image should impact memory enhancement in the same way.

How realistically these techniques can be applied to other settings is debatable and, like all early research, there is always a degree of speculation involved. Nevertheless, the study does add to the growing evidence suggesting that emotion can enhance cognition and therefore has an important role to play in teaching and learning.


Finn, B., Roediger, H. & Rosenzweig, E. (2012). Reconsolidation from negative emotional pictures: Is successful retrieval required? Memory & Cognition. 40 (7). p.pp. 1031–1045.

Finn, B. & Roediger, H.L. (2011). Enhancing Retention Through Reconsolidation. Psychological Science. 22 (6). p.pp. 781–786.

Marsh, E.J., Roediger, H.L., Bjork, R.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 14 (2). p.pp. 194–199.

Roediger, H.R. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 1 (3). p.pp. 181–210.


Castles Built On Grit.

“Grit” had become a highly prized educational attribute since its conceptualisation by Angela Duckworth, Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit According to Duckworth, Grit represents perseverance and passion for long term goals as well as the ability to maintain effort over years, despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. We’ve heard educationalists and politicians go on about grit and other ‘character attributes’ for awhile now; Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, announced last year that £500,000 will be allotted to projects that would bring rugby coaches into school to teach ‘grit and respect’ as part of the drive to develop character education in schools. Other similar schemes have been proposed.

But it seems grit might have a problem. It might even be that ‘grit’ isn’t even a unique construct and, even if it is, it probably has a minimum impact on educational outcomes.

The story so far…

Grit, it is claimed, correlates positively with conscientiousness (one of the big 5 personality traits) but not with IQ, so intelligent people won’t necessarily be gritty people. In fact, Duckworth believes that achievement arises from a combination of talent and sustained focus and application of talent over time. The gritty individual doesn’t think of short-term gains – they’re in it for the long haul; achievement to the gritty ones is a marathon not a sprint. Additionally, talented people have a tendency to set themselves goals and once they reach that goal they stop. If a person is talented and displays high level of grit, they propel themselves beyond an arbitrary threshold.

One of Duckworth’s earliest investigations into grit involved the study of a group of cadets at the elite West Point Military Academy in the United States (Duckworth et al., 2007). Around twenty-five percent of all officers in the US army are graduates of West Point. So arduous is the training, that around one in twenty cadets will drop out during the summer of training that takes place before the first academic year. Admission to West Point is based on a ‘Whole Candidate Score’ comprising SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability and physical aptitude. The researchers were interested in how levels of grit were predictive of who would drop out of training before the end of the summer. To this end, they administered a short grit questionnaire in addition to the usual West Point psychological tests. They found that grit was a greater predictor of who dropped out than the Whole Candidate Score, supporting the view that grit was able to predict success due to consistent and sustained perseverance. In a later study involving participants in a ‘spelling bee’ competition, Duckworth found that grit enabled spellers to persist with practice activities that were less intrinsically rewarding but more effective than other types of preparation (Duckworth et al., 2011).   

So far, so good.

However, the problem with much of the research conducted by Duckworth is that it involves highly specialised samples. West Point cadets are all high achievers in many different disciplines and spelling bee contestants are highly skilled at what they do for a reason – they work very hard at it. These participants don’t equate to a representative sample; what researchers really need to do is test grit on ordinary people in ordinary situations.

This is exactly what Kaili Rimfeld and colleagues from Kings College London did (Rimfeld et al., 2016). They recruited a sample of 4,500 16-year-old twins who were already part of the Twins Early Development Study, a longitudinal study run from Kings College that began in 1994. They asked the twins to complete a “Grit-S” questionnaire to measure consistency of interest. Researchers then administered the Big 5 Personality Questionnaire to assess personality traits. These scores were then compared to GCSE results.

Results found that grit alone only predicted 0.5% of the differences between GCSE results while other personality traits predicted around 6%. In terms of heritability (the extent to which genes contribute to differences between people) the level of contribution was similar to other personality traits (about one-third). It is also inconclusive as to whether ‘grit’ represents a distinct personality trait or is simply ‘conscientiousness’ with a trendy new label and the promise of lucrative research grants.

Grit, therefore, appears to have little impact on academic achievement – in this study at least – and that’s an important point as I expect others will want to conduct studies with similar samples.

It would seem, once again, that those in charge of educational policy have jumped the gun and have implemented changes founded upon insufficient evidence. With the rollout of character education programs with little evidence to support favourable outcomes, we are again seeing vital funds being wasted on unproven schemes. Given time, we should have a greater understanding of concepts and outcome measures, but for now there is very little about this field that we can really know for sure.     


Duckworth,  A. L., Kirby, T. A., Tsukayama, E., Berstein, H. & Ericsson, K. A. (2011). Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2 (2). p.pp. 174–181.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D. & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology. [Online]. 92 (6). p.pp. 1087–101. Available from: [Accessed: 20 February 2014].

Rimfeld, K., Kovas, Y., Dale, P. S. & Plomin, R. (2016) True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Psychology: It gets more complicated after twenty-odd years.

A few weeks before I left my last teaching job I was observed by my line manager (no, this isn’t a rant about observations). He asked me why I insisted on students repeating what they had learned and why I then had them explain it to each other.

“Because recalling information strengthens the memory trace of that information,” I explained.

He didn’t seem convinced, but then again, a week earlier he had distributed a revision pack to sixth form students that included information on learning styles. At the time of our discussion we were also seated next to my wonderful display on ‘Evidenced-based Revision Techniques’ (taken from the Dunlosky paper).

Towards the end of the meeting he asked politely what I was intending to do when I left. I explained briefly that I was interested in the application of psychology to the classroom and that I was hoping to do some work in that area.

“Well”, he said, “It’s very popular. My wife is doing the same thing – she’s training to be a mindfulness teacher”.

I nodded politely. To be fair, I wouldn’t necessarily expect a Spanish teacher (or any non-psychology teacher) to fully comprehend the deeper meaning of what I said. Although of course, he was charged with observing my lessons, so a modicum of knowledge could have been useful. Furthermore, this is simply an observation, not a criticism (Okay, a little bit of a criticism). Despite a growing interest in the use of psychology in teaching, the majority of teachers I would guess are not always aware that they are using psychological techniques in their classrooms already.

I’ve been studying or teaching psychology for more than twenty years. In that time I have studied at undergraduate and post-graduate level, designed and delivered introductory psychology courses to adult learners and spent 12 years teaching A-level Psychology; I was awarded ‘Chartered’ status by the British Psychological Society and three years after that Associate Fellowship (a fairly rare achievement for an A-level Psychology teacher). Over the years I’ve published in academic journals, popular magazines and everything in-between – I’ll stop now, but I often feel that I have to justify myself.

Some time ago I briefly engaged in a discussion around the legitimacy of non-psychology specialists to offer advice, consult and blog on psychological theories and criticise the research underpinning its methodology. The argument was that if you don’t have formal qualifications in psychology then you should keep out of it. On the one hand there was a kind of logic attached to this point of view – I suspect there are fewer English teachers offering advice on Maths than there are English teachers offering advice on Psychology, so why should Psychology be any different? On the other hand (and this was my stance during the exchange), if an English teacher (or a History teacher, or even a Spanish teacher!) wants to share what they have learned then why not? We are all the richer for it – or are we?

My concern is that our understanding of what psychology represents and how it can influence teaching and learning becomes very narrowly defined. With psychology seemingly in ‘crisis’ I’ve even noticed that many are now using the term ‘cognitive science’ and even ‘behavioural economics’ to distance themselves from what they see as a discipline in meltdown. It’s my former line manager viewing psychology as a self-help guide rather than a fledgling scientific discipline, still trying to find its place in the grand scheme of things.

Certainly, my own interests have shifted. Ten years ago it was all about memory for me, then came the ‘resilience’ years (the shift from cognitive to so-called non-cognitive). Recently I’ve somewhat shifted back with a growing (near obsessional – 60,000 words and counting type of obsessional) interest in the interaction between cognition and emotion and its impact on learning. Many teacher blogs I have read describe learning as a cognitive process, when it has been clear for some time that it’s an emotional (and social) one as well. We pick the definitions we need to justify our own position and develop a narrow framework based on limited reading – it gets more complicated than that after twenty-odd years.

Of course, like other disciplines, psychology is fragmented – biological, cognitive, social, developmental, behavioural and, yes, even the Freudians still walk the ghostly halls, unaware that they died some time ago (*waits for backlash and the accusations of inappropriate feelings towards mothers*).

Nevertheless, there is less conflict in psychology than there once was and while the replication crisis is multifaceted, it does, I believe, provide psychology with the opportunity to re-think its priorities. Unfortunately, while psychology attempts to reconcile its differences, many teachers appear hell-bent on exacerbating them.    

Is Guessing the Answer?

In which year were the series of peace treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia signed?

Of course you could go and Google it, but it’s a year that is branded into my brain. Before studying for a degree in Psychology I was a student of International Relations and Politics and, seeing as the date was crucial in the development of international cooperation, it’s become one of those dates I will always remember.

Don’t know? Have a guess, you might get it right.

We’ve all said the same thing to our students, right? When their frightened faces look up in response to the sound of their name being called and stare at us like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a speeding car.

But is guessing helpful?

Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist extraordinaire and world-renowned expert on eyewitness testimony thinks not. In fact, she thinks guessing can be downright dangerous. In 1978 Loftus, along with Reid Hastie and Robert Landsman, found that when individuals are encouraged to guess on a test, their incorrect answer often crops up on a later test (Hastie et al., 1978).

Elizabeth Marsh and Henry Roediger (along with Robert and Elizabeth Bjork) also reached similar conclusions in their 2007 study, concluding that when people make errors on multiple choice tests the errors can persist on later cued-recall tests (when participants are given ‘cues’ to help them recall previously seen material) (Marsh et al., 2007)

These and other research studies have led leading cognitive psychologists and experts on eyewitness testimony to suggest that guessing can be dangerous because, when people guess, they might later recall their incorrect guesses as being correct. The problem, then, is one of memory; when people are forced to guess the answer on a test they often remember their guesses as being part of the original to be learned list, which perhaps explains why teachers continue to receive incorrect answers from students even when told that the answer they have given is wrong.

The problem with this, however, is that results can often be inconsistent. Other studies have identified the benefits of unsuccessful retrieval to learning. As long as the correct answer is, in the end, generated by the student or provided by the teacher then the error shouldn’t carry over to subsequent tests. Bridgid Finn found that when unsuccessful retrieval attempts were followed by feedback, long-term retention was better than when the correct answer was just given (Finn et al., 2012).

This shows that not only is the testing effect replicated, but also that feedback is vital in order to correct any errors or misconceptions (it also highlight the fallibility of memory, something for next time perhaps).

And the answer to the question?

The treaties brought to a close the series of related conflicts known as the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to the signing of the treaties in 1648.


Finn, B., Roediger, H. & Rosenzweig, E. (2012). Reconsolidation from negative emotional pictures: Is successful retrieval required? Memory & Cognition. 40 (7). p.pp. 1031–1045.

Hastie, R., Landsman, R. & Loftus, E.L. (1978). Eyewitness Testimony: The Danger of Guessing. Jurimetrics Journal. (Fall). p.pp. 1–8.

Marsh, E.J., Roediger, H.L., Bjork, R.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 14 (2). p.pp. 194–199.