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.



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