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getting all meta…

April 19, 2011

I haven’t been posting much to this site as I have been on leave this semester. I had to share this article though – hopefully some future students will browse back through this collection and take a moment to read this… Even if you aren’t a student of psychology, it is worth a read.

“Come on, I thought I knew that!”

The premise of the NY Times article linked above is fairly simple – we often misjudge how well we know something and we can increase the likelihood we will remember it at a later point in time if we work a bit more at the point we initially encode the information.

The first issue deals with meta-memory, the way in which we think about our memory. For instance, I know I have a difficult time remembering names, so when I meet someone new I spend a few seconds rehearsing the name, looking for distinctive cues about the person’s mannerisms or face, and trying to make connections between the name and other information about the person. At that point, I am thinking about my memory ability (or lack thereof) and trying to use that awareness to augment the encoding process. Meta-memory also comes into play when we make judgments about our memory, like when I recall the name of a person I met recently and my darling wife asks “are really sure that was his name?” (and I am typically not very sure). The article mentions the work of Dr. Robert Bjork who has spent years studying human memory – it worth stopping by his research site to learn some more about the work he has done and is currently involved in.

The second issue, has to do with cognitive fluency – how difficult a task seems to be during the course of processing (check out the article linked to the term for lots more info). Fluency plays a very interesting and important role in meta-cognition (and thus meta-memory). Basically, the easier it is to process information, the more comfortable we are with it and thus the greater influence it can have in our thinking and subsequent behaviors. In the article, the author discusses some of the work of Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer – go check out some of his other research; he has done quite a bit examining fluency effects among other topics, and it tends to be quite interesting. The NY Times article summarizes a few studies that have explored how fluency plays a role in memory, particularly a role in the type of encoding and retrieval we associate with “studying for a test” (although it would have effects on a myriad of the interactions we have during the course of the day). Although it may be counter-intuitive, and even seem counter-productive, making the processing more difficult at the time of encoding (studying) can actually increase the likelihood the material will be available at retrieval (at the test). Much of the research involves manipulating seemingly extraneous variables (like the font the information being studied is written in). However, these changes create disfluency, a sense of effort in the processing, and this means more cognitive resources are brought into play during the encoding which then increases the likelihood of successful retrieval later. Personally, I thought it was interesting that they proposed that providing extra study sheets and outlines to students might be a detriment to learning:

“Even course outlines provided by a teacher, a textbook or other outside source can create a false sense of security, some research suggests. In one experiment, researchers found that participants studying a difficult chapter on the industrial uses of microbes remembered more when they were given a poor outline — which they had to rework to match the material — than a more accurate one.” (of course, this finding is not linked to a particular study in the article, just the assertion “in one experiment” – c’mon, show me the citation… luckily I had a vague recollection of the study and was able to hunt it down: Mannes, S. M. & Kintsch, W. (1987). Knowledge Organization and Text Organization. Cognition and Instruction, 4, 91 – 115.)

It is worth thinking about – I really do sometimes try to make it easy for students to study by providing lots of support and trying to organize the material “optimally”. I sometimes forget the value of the hard work (which is associated with a sense of disfluency) that goes into true learning… I think that it comes down to a balancing act. Too much disfluency and the student is likely to shut down because it is just too difficult to encode the information. Too little disfluency and the student develops a false sense of mastery of the information. There is a middle ground where the information is provided in an accessible and useful way, but the onus is on the student to work with that information by developing their own outlines and other ways to organize the material, weighing the value of the information, and finding ways to relate the information to what they already know. There are many ways to relate fluency to issues outside of the classroom (political discourse, religion, relationships), but we’ll have to save that exploration for another day…

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