Process of Remembering

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The process of remembering influences what learners will and will not remember in the future.


Although asking learners to retrieve certain information from memory will facilitate later recall of this information, it will also paradoxically lead to selective “forgetting” of related information that they were not asked to recall. Anderson, Bjork, and Bjork (2000) label this effect “retrieval-induced forgetting.” From a memory trace theory perspective, memory traces for practiced/retrieved or elaborated information are strengthened, whereas traces for other information are weakened—or at least not strengthened (see also Principle: Practice at Retrieval). Retrieval-induced forgetting has implications for how instructors should test students.

Few instructors are aware of retrieval-induced forgetting and inadvertently implement learning activities which cause students to forget key information that they would like students to retain. For instance, in believing that students should be responsible for learning all the materials covered to maximize learning, instructors test for relatively unimportant information. Testing in this manner, however, induces students to remember inconsequential details instead of the main points.

Testing students too soon after initial learning may also hamper later recall of information. With frequent testing, students may find it easier to recall information on a test but may not retain this information in the long term. High test scores given a frequent testing schedule may mislead students into believing that their long-term retention of information is better than it really is; students, thus, may be less motivated to devote effort to studying.

The ease of remembering information may mislead learners into thinking that later recall of this information will be just as easy, overlooking the effects of time and retrieval on memory (Benjamin, Bjork, & Schwartz, 1998). For this reason, students who find it easy to recall information while studying do not expect to find it difficult to later recall related information on a test. However, during a test there are usually less cues to aid retrieval than during study, thus, making recall more difficult than may be expected based upon prior retrieval experiences.

Replicating other metacognitive research findings, Benjamin et al. (1998) found that based upon ease of retrieval of information during practice, poorer learners tended to overestimate later recall of related information more so than did better learners.

The demonstration for this principle is currently being developed.

Educational Applications

Test for only important information, not the “footnotes” (i.e., extraneous details). Otherwise, as Wiggins (1998) would argue, you are merely auditing student performance and not enhancing it (see Principle: Avoid Passive Learning).

Do not test immediately after learning which often exaggerates how much students have learned and retained.

Suggested Readings

Anderson, M. C., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2000). Retrieval-induced forgetting: Evidence for a recall-specific mechanism. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 7, 522-530. This experiment demonstrates that requiring learners to retrieve an item from memory impairs recall for related items on a subsequent retention test and that this paradoxical impairment is related to the act of retrieval. The authors conclude that this retrieval-induced forgetting is not due to increased memory trace strengthening of practiced items; rather a recall-specific mechanism inhibiting non-practiced related items is responsible.

Benjamin, A. S., Bjork, R. A. & Schwartz, B. L. (1998). The mismeasure of memory: When retrieval fluency is misleading as a metamnemonic index. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 127, 55-68. A series of three experiments show that the ease of retrieving information (i.e., retrieval fluency) soon after acquisition may mislead learners to assume that later recall and retention are facilitated. Thus, based upon initial ease of remembering, learners may overestimate the probability of later recall, neglecting the impact of time and retrieval on memory. This impaired metacognitive ability is especially demonstrated by poor learners.