This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 06 table of contents.

What Should a Student Do?

Mnemonic systems are fine for certain, specialized tasks. However, they are not relevant to most academic studying. Normally a student is asked to do much more than memorize lists of words or images. Indeed, students were warned against superficial attempts at memorization in Chapter Zero. Typically a student must comprehend and remember large amounts of meaningfully related material. How is this best accomplished?

What two traditional techniques for improving memory do not necessarily work very well?

Study skills courses usually give traditional advice, but some of the traditional advice is wrong! Two seemingly "obvious" but ineffective approaches to improving memory are mentioned in many study skills textbooks: (1) repeatedly reciting material, and (2) trying hard to remember things. But, as we will see, neither repetition nor conscious effort to memorize necessarily helps memory.

Mindless repetition does not help

When does repetition not help?

Ebbinghaus, the pioneer of memory research in the 1880s, believed that repetition was the main variable influencing memory. However, modern psychologists found that the effects of repetition are not dependable. Repetition only helps if useful encoding activity goes on during repetitions. To a person who repeats material without really understanding it or thinking about its meaning, repetition does not help.

What two types of rehearsal did Craik and Watkins describe? Which type of rehearsal is "mindless"?

Craik and Watkins (1973) introduced a distinction between maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is a form of repetition in which one "says something to oneself" but does not think about it in a deep way. It is mindless in the sense that it does not involve meaningful comprehension. There is no benefit from this form of repetition. Elaborative rehearsal occurs when one not only repeats something but also "elaborates upon it," relating it to other knowledge or analyzing its details. Elaborative rehearsal aids secondary memory; maintenance rehearsal does not.

To study maintenance rehearsal, Craik and Watkins invented a task called p-checking. They had subjects repeat the most recent item starting with the letter "p" as words were read to them at a rate of one per second. The figure shows a portion of the list from the Craik and Watkins (1973) study. The words presented by the experimenter are in the first column. The words repeated by the subject are in the second column.

         The "p-checking" study

This procedure allowed the experimenters to control how many rehearsals each item received. Subjects repeated some words many times, others only once. The word pen, in this example, is repeated 13 times, peach is repeated six times, plum only occurs once.

How did the "p-checking" study work, and what did it show?

Imagine being a subject in this experiment. While you repeat the previous p-word, you listen for the next word. You are saying "pen pen pen" but you are listening to "smoke...tie...fork..." because you must decide whether any of these starts with p. You are distracted and not really thinking about the word you are repeating, even while rehearsing it.

Craik and Watkins found that under these conditions, repetitions had no beneficial effect. The word "plum" was just as likely to be recalled as the word "peach" or "pen."

There is an important lesson here for any student. Merely repeating material does not strengthen a memory. Just saying it to yourself with minimal processing is not helpful. For repetition to be helpful, it must be thoughtful repetition that has the effect of integrating the to-be-remembered material with other thoughts or images, creating something like an interactive image or interacting meanings. Only that will help retrieve the needed information later.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey