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Effort Alone does not Help

In general, good memory depends on effective encoding. This is not the same thing as trying to memorize. In fact, good memorizers seldom try to memorize. They adopt other strategies that use implicit memory processes to produce rich elaborative encoding, such as cultivating an interest in the subject matter or using their imaginations to enrich the context of learning.

What was the Wilson and Bransford "deserted island" study, and what did it show?

Here is an experiment that illustrates the point. It was described by Bransford (1979) in a textbook on human learning. Bransford and Wilson gave student subjects 30 unrelated nouns in a list. Group 1 was told they would have to recall the nouns and asked to memorize them. Group 2 was asked to rate each word for pleasantness or unpleasantness, a task said to stimulate "enriched encoding." Group 3 had to think about how they would use each object in the list if stranded on a deserted island .

Groups 2 and 3 did not know they would be asked to recall the words later. Yet when they were tested a day later, they performed as well or better than Group 1, which tried to memorize the words. Group 3, which thought about how they would use the objects, had no idea they would be tested for memory later. But they recalled more words than Group 1, which tried to memorize.

What is incidental learning? Why was it superior, in this case?

This showed that accidental memorization, in those days called incidental learning but now called implicit learning, worked better than conscious memorization. Why? The deserted island group was imaginatively involved with the task. They organized the material by relating it to a single guiding theme or idea. As Bransford (1979) put it, "Information about a deserted island provides a unifying theme or contextual structure that can facilitate organization and hence retrieval." This is similar to the unitization and interactive imagery concepts.

Bransford notes that Group 1 was aware they would be tested. They were left on their own to come up with their best memory strategies. Presumably they tried hard, knowing they were in a psychology experiment. Yet they performed less well than a group of students who did not know they would be tested and were not trying to memorize at all but were associating all the items in a meaningful story-like framework. Bransford concludes:

These results suggest that many college students in the intentional group did not know how to optimize their learning processes in ways that facilitate subsequent retrieval. Even among college students there appears to be much room for improvement of learning and retrieval skills. (Bransford, 1979)

Suppose somebody told the students in Group #1 that the best way to learn the words was to fantasize about survival on the deserted island. Could they have used this technique? Of course! Anybody could do it. But nobody gave them this hint, and whatever strategies they adopted on their own did not work very well. This suggests that students can benefit from improved metacognition.

Is conscious effort important? What are "the best aids to memory"?

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. One form of metacognition is knowing how your memory system works. Most students think "trying to memorize" is the key. Bransford and Wilson's experiment shows this is not the case. Conscious effort to memorize is not as important as organizing information and tying it together into a unified package. The best aids to memory are techniques such as integrated imagery and story telling which organize, clarify, and knit together information.

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