Category Archives: Memory

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.


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.

Fear, Failure and Memory.

Sometimes I think we neglect the impact anxiety and fear has on our students. With the sudden interest everyone seems to have in cognitive psychology (usually referred to as ‘cognitive science’ by the political elite*) there is, quite rightly, a growing fascination with how we can help learners to recall all the information we’ve been filling their heads with.

…but what use are these strategies if our students are so terrified of failing that they can barely recall their names (let alone the components of the working memory model – I know, ironic isn’t it)?

Alright, I’m being melodramatic.

…or am I?

Consider the following quote from the book ‘everyone is talking about’):

A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety.

Make it Stick (Brown, Rodieger & McDaniel, 2013)

It seems that fear of failure is having a detrimental impact on working memory capacity because the student is directing resources away from memory and into the monitoring process – so the student is so busy thinking about performance and the monitoring of possible mistakes that there is little working memory capacity left to take care of the job in hand.

It also seems to be worse for girls…

One study investigating anxiety and performance in mathematics found that anxiety and worry in females was much more likely to negatively impact on working memory. More specifically, the researchers identified a causal chain from the worry component of anxiety to visuospatial working memory to maths performance, with worry placing more strain on visuospatial working memory in females (Ganley & Vasilyeva, 2014)

Those students who are less test anxious also appear to be more resilient and perform better on tests than those with increased levels of test anxiety (Putwain, Nicholson, Connors, & Woods, 2013).

Fear of failure is also more likely to lead to cognitive strategies such as self handicapping which in turn further perpetuate failure (Bartels & Herman, 2011)

Implications of this kind of research into emotion and learning are quite clear – rather than ignoring or eliminating the fear experienced by students, educationalists should encourage more positive ways of dealing with the fear of failure. Students need to fail (I’ve been banging on about that for a while now) but the ‘idea’ of failure needs a serious re-framing. While we might not yet be ready for a French-style ‘Festival of Errors’ or a Californian ‘FailCon’ (after all, let’s face it, no Brit wants to admit they’ve cocked up!), there is certainly a need for some cognitive readjustment.

* Michael Gove likes to use the term ‘cognitive science’ – I suspect it’s his way of hiding the fact that he thinks psychology is neither a science nor a proper subject.


Bartels, J., & Herman, W. (2011). Fear of Failure, Self-Handicapping, and Negative Emotions in Response to Failure. Online Submission. Retrieved from
Brown, P, Rodieger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2013). Make it stick. Belknap.
Ganley, C. M., & Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 105–120. doi:10.1037/a0034099
Putwain, D. W., Nicholson, L. J., Connors, L., & Woods, K. (2013). Resilient children are less test anxious and perform better in tests at the end of primary schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.09.010


Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 2)


Do monetary (extrinsic) rewards enhance motivation and/or memory consolidation?

I’ve been very clear in the past about my issues with school incentive schemes and how they don’t necessarily produce the intended results (here and here). That said, research conducted by Kou Murayama (University of Reading) and Christof Kuhbandner (University of Munich) suggests that the cognitive and neurological processes involved are even more complicated than I thought.

The assumption that extrinsic rewards are an effective and reliable way to enhance motivation in students remains very strong, with several companies now making a considerable profit through selling their schemes to schools.

But does money (or Xbox games, iTunes vouchers, etc.) really lead to greater motivation and performance?

The answer is far from clear. Neurological findings appear to suggest they do. It has been discovered that monetary rewards promote memory consolidation by activating the mesolimbic reward system, which increases dopamine release in the hippocampal memory system.

But there are problems with this…

Studies have found that hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation requires an extended period of time to complete so that the effects of money on memory manifest themselves only after some time has elapsed. However, very little research has been conducted into the impact of money at different time points (for example, immediately after encoding or after a delay).

Another problem is highlighted by motivational psychology. Psychological studies have found that monetary rewards can actually undermine task engagement, especially for ‘interesting’ tasks. The generally held view is that extrinsic rewards can ‘crowd out’ the intrinsic value of the interesting task – this process is known as the ‘undermining effect’.

What’s interesting to note here is that the ‘undermining effect’ only seems to occur when the task is interesting.

This is pretty much what Murayama and Kuhbandner found. Participants were divided into two groups (money group and no-money group) and presented with a list of trivia questions. Some of the questions had been classed as uninteresting (e.g. “What is the name of the author of the book 1984?”) while others had been classed as interesting (e.g. “What is the only consumable food that won’t spoil forever?”) – the classifications of interesting and uninteresting had been decided by a panel of independent judges.

Both groups were presented with the trivia questions that they had to answer. This was followed by an immediate memory test then a time-delayed memory test one week later.

…they discovered:

  • Monetary rewards helped memory only after a delay
  • Monetary rewards helped memory only when the material was uninteresting
  • Monetary rewards had little impact on memory when the material was considered interesting

…and now for some neuroscience:

The striatum is a subcortical part of the forebrain and is thought to be responsible for executive functions and working memory but is also responsible for reward induced memory consolidation. fMRI studies conducted by Murayama et al (2010) found that extrinsic rewards appeared to dampen down activation of the striatum, but only when the task was considered to be interesting. This would suggest that paying someone to do a task they love could actually make them worse at it!

Striatum - active and inactive

Striatum – active and inactive


It seems odd that we could actually negatively affect the learning of students through extrinsic rewards, but this is (in part) what this research is suggesting. If the student is genuinely interested in the subject area, extrinsic rewards could actually prevent the learning from taking place because the area of the brain needed to induce memory consolidation has been dampened down by the extrinsic reward. This has been posited for some time (for example, as far back as 1973, Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper discovered that rewarding young children for something they loved to do actually led to a reduction in motivation within two weeks of the implementation of the incentive scheme). With the evidence from brain scans the hypothesis is strengthened further.

On the positive side, extrinsic rewards work for the boring stuff – just not straight away.

The problem is that not all students find the same things interesting and others are motivated by other factors unrelated to extrinsic rewards. There is also an ecological validity issue here (as there is with all laboratory-based experiments) as well as the continuing discussions surrounding the interpretation of brain scans.

Nevertheless, all this does suggest that we should be cautious before we begin to employ extrinsic rewards.


Murayama K & Kuhbander C (2011) Money enhances memory consolidation – But only for boring material. Cognition 119, 120-124

Murayama K, Matsumoto M, Izuma K & Matsumoto K (2010) Neural basis of undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1013305107

Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 1).


Why do we remember the stories we read in comics but forget what we learned in school?

I recently attended a presentation (organised by the Psychology in Education Research Centre, University of York) by Kou Murayama, a researcher at the University of Reading. Dr Murayama uses a range of research methods, including behavioural experiments, longitudinal studies and neuro-imaging to investigate, among other things, the link between motivation and learning.

As Murayama pointed out, students often recall a great deal about topics that interest them but are often unable to do the same with topics related to school – Murayama used the example of learning Japanese history and spoke about how, at school, he would memorise the entire textbook in order to pass his exams. That information (or at least most of it) is now forgotten, unlike the stories from his favourite Japanese comics, which will remain with him forever.

It has long been proposed by researchers including Edward Deci, Mark Lepper and Carol Dweck that motivation can be viewed as either intrinsic or extrinsic (for an excellent introduction to this I would highly recommend ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink). It has also been understood for many years that interest and curiosity play a key role in the consolidation of learning, often leading to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’.

Goal setting can also be described in terms of intrinsic/extrinsic motivators:

Mastery Goals (Intrinsic) – goals/striving based on personal development (e.g. “my goal is to develop my knowledge”)

Performance Goals (ego/extrinsic) – goals/striving  focusing on the demonstration of normative abilities (e.g. “my goal is to beat other people”)

Both approaches can facilitate elaborative learning processes but it appears that these processes are different for each type of goal. Because mastery-approach goals are linked to curiosity, exploration and an interest-based focus on learning they may facilitate a broad scope of attention beyond the target items. Essentially, mastery-orientated goals lead to greater long-term consolidation of learning while performance goals lead to only short-term learning.

In one particular study, Murayama asked a group of university students to learn a list of words and then carried out an immediate recall test. They were then asked to carry out another recall test a week later. However, one group of participants were given the following instructions:

If you work on this task with the intention to develop your ability, you can develop your competence

The second group were given the following instructions:

The aim of this task is to measure your cognitive ability in comparison with other university students

(The first instruction represents the mastery-goal condition; the second represents the performance goal condition)

There was very little difference between the scores for the first recall test, suggesting that the instructions had little impact on short-terms learning. However, when tested a week later it was discovered that the mastery goal condition produced a significantly higher recall rate than the performance goal condition.

Of course, learning material within an experiential situation such as this reduces the study’s ecological validity due to its artificial nature. Neither does this study suggest anything about learning over the longer term or within specific classroom settings. However, it does allow us to make strong causal inferences between different types of motivators.

The greatest strength of this research (and it is only a small sample of the huge volume of research Murayama has produced) is that it supports the findings of other researchers such as Putwain and Dweck (who I have written about before), and this adds to a growing literature on academic motivation that supports the view that intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic ones. Not only that, this kind of research also suggests that cognitive functions like memory are influenced by emotional factors such motivation, interest and boredom. It also supports the Dweckian view that implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. ‘Mindset’) can impact heavily on motivation.


Murayama, K., & Elliot, A.J. (2011). Achievement motivation and memory: Achievement Goals differentially influence immediate and delayed remember-know recognition memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1339-1348.