August 1st, 2016

Remembering to Learn: Five Factors for Improving Recall


students studying in library

As a professor of cognitive psychology, I teach about memory, especially about when and why our memories often fail us. Students are excited to apply this material to their everyday lives.

During a recent class, a student asked whether other faculty were familiar with this research and remarked that it would be helpful if everyone structured their lessons with this knowledge in mind.

I offer the following tips taken from basic memory research. All of these findings can be easily applied to how you teach your classes and advise students.

  1. Attend to information. How often are your students checking text messages while listening to your lecture, arguing that they are really good at multitasking? Remind your students that most failures of memory are not problems with retrieval but with encoding. Most of the time we do not have difficulty pulling information out; the problem is that we never got it in to begin with. To make this point, I use the classic Nickerson and Adams (1979) penny task and ask students to draw the head of a penny from memory. They quickly realize that they have “forgotten” which direction Lincoln is facing or are unsure which phrases are on the heads or tails side. Explain to your students that they didn’t forget what a penny looks like. The truth is that they never bothered to encode the information. To remember something, they need to engage in controlled processing. They have to block out other distractions and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Engage in deep processing and self-reference. Deep processing involves thinking about the meaning of the information and connecting it to personal experiences. To make this point, I use a modified version of Craik and Tulving’s (1975) study and present students with a list of adjectives, such as “creative,” “methodical,” or “serious.” For some of the words they are asked a question about how it is spelled; for example, “Does the word contain the letter T?” For other words, they are asked, “Does the word describe you?” Later, students are asked to recall as many of the words as possible. Students are significantly more likely to recall words from the “describe list” because they had to think about the meanings and apply the words to themselves. Simply reading over a paragraph of text or listening to a lecture does not guarantee encoding it into memory. What one thinks about while listening or reading is what matters.
  3. Generate cues. Students often request that I provide more examples of the concepts we are discussing. Although instructor-provided examples and explanations are important, I teach my students that it is more important that they come up with their own examples and cues. Research by Mäntylä (1986) reveals that participants recalled 36 percent more concepts when using self-generated cues than when using cues developed by someone else.
  4. Create context. Instructors know that students often come to class unprepared. Students argue that they prefer to hear the lecture before reading the chapter. To explain why skimming the chapter before class is important, I read my students an oddly worded passage from a study by Bransford and Johnson (1972). First, I show half of the class a picture that creates context for what they are about to hear. For this half of the group, the strangely worded passage is clear, and they find they are able to recall large portions of it after hearing it just once. The group not shown the picture fails to make sense of what they have heard and have difficulty recalling details. Without looking at material before class to create context, it is difficult for new material to make much sense.
  5. Test frequently. This is the easiest strategy and can have the most impact on students. Contrary to expectation, Roediger and Karpicke (2006) found that seeing a passage only once and then forcing yourself to recall it from memory leads to better retention than repeatedly reading the passage. Incorporate brief tests or quizzes into your course, and encourage your students to self-test as they study. Reading a passage and then stopping to ask yourself what you just read is going to be more effective than reading it twice.

Students may have heard much of this advice before. However, taking the time to put students through these demonstrations will allow them to experience how these small adjustments can influence their recall. They will then see the value of changing the way they study.

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, 717-726.

Craik, F.I.M. & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and retention of words in episodic memory.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.

Mäntylä, T. (1986). Optimizing cue effectiveness: Recall of 500 and 600 incidentally learned words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 12, 66–71.

Nickerson, R. & Adams, M. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object.  Cognitive Psychology, 11, 287-307.

Roediger, H.L. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.

Dr. Debora S. Herold is a senior lecturer in the Psychology Department at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. She presents at regional and national conferences on the scholarship of teaching and learningHer session, Teaching Them How to Learn, was one of the top-rated sessions at the 2016 Teaching Professor Conference.

  • I agree fully with 4 of the 5 suggestions, but am concerned about the 5th: test frequently. Testing does drive into deeper memory the stuff that the test covers, but it is hard to create tests that are comprehensive enough to justify frequent testing, isn’t it? There’s also the danger of test fatigue.
    What’s your suggestion regarding guidelines for how “frequent” the “frequently” in test frequently should be?

    • Debora Herold

      Thanks for the question, Howard. I offer that you think of the term “test” loosely. It can mean an actual exam or quiz, but testing frequently to encourage retention can be as simple as students stopping to write down what they can recall after reading a paragraph or listening to 15 minutes of lecture. These don’t even have to be graded. In fact, Rodiger and Karpicke (2006) found that free-recall testing, even in the absence of feedback, improved recall. The goal is to encourage your students to regularly ask themselves, “What did I just hear?” This strengthens memory traces and helps students practice recalling information.

      • Janice M Frum

        Hi Howard, Debora, and All,

        Thank you for your comments.

        As a new Adjunct, I struggled with the testing concept as well.

        I am teaching a dual-enrollment Psych class and put the testing question up for democratic vote with the students. (They are all seniors, have near perfect GPA’s and are intrinsically motivated.) Students voted for no tests or quizzes.

        However, upon facilitating a game of Jeopardy with key chapter terms, it became apparent that they are not reading their textbooks and in an open class discussion, students admitted that they plan to cram before the final exam.

        So, we renegotiated class requirements and students (surprisingly!) said they would feel more motivated to complete future Blackboard assignments if there were a point value assigned to vocabulary assignments.

        I will be working towards that goal of 1-2 Blackboard vocabulary and conceptual assignments per week, prior to lectures, to ensure students are reading ahead in their texts.

        I am looking forward to others’ comments.

        Janice Frum

  • Сool, now I will study cognitive psychology, with 5 test totaly agree