encoding

Successful remembering requires effective self-monitoring

We forget someone’s name, and our response might be: “Oh I’ve always been terrible at remembering names!” Or: “I’m getting old; I really can’t remember things anymore.” Or: nothing — we shrug it off without thought. What our response might be depends on our age and our personality, but that response has nothing to do with the reason we forgot.

We forget things for a number of short-term reasons: we’re tired; we’re distracted by other thoughts; we’re feeling emotional. But underneath all that, at all ages and in all situations, there is one fundamental reason why we fail to remember something: we didn’t encode it well enough at the time we learned/experienced it. And, yes, that is a strategy failure, and possibly also a reflection of those same factors (tired, distracted, emotional), but again, at bottom there is one fundamental reason: we didn’t realize what we needed to do to ensure we would remember it. This is a failure of self-monitoring, and self-monitoring is a crucial, and under-appreciated, strategy.

I’ve written about self-monitoring as a study skill, but self-monitoring is a far broader strategy than that. It applies to children and to seniors; it applies to remembering names and intentions and facts and experiences and skills. And it has a lot to do with cognitive fluency.

Cognitive fluency is as simple a concept as it sounds: it’s about how easy it is to think about something. We use this ease as a measure of familiarity — if it’s easy, we assume we’ve met it before. The easier it is, the more familiar we assume it is. Things that are familiar are (rule of thumb) assumed to be safe, seen as more attractive, make us feel more confident.

And are assumed to be known — that is, we don’t need to put any effort into encoding this information, because clearly we already know it.

Familiarity is a heuristic (rule of thumb) for several attributes. Fluency is a heuristic for familiarity.

Heuristics are vital — without these, we literally couldn’t function. The world is far too complex a place for us to deal with it without a whole heap of these rules of thumb. But the problem with them is that they are not rules, they are rules of thumb — guidelines, indicators. Meaning that a lot of the time, they’re wrong.

That’s why it’s not enough to unthinkingly rely on fluency as a guide to whether or not you need to make a deliberate effort to encode/learn something.

The secret to getting around the weaknesses of fluency is effective testing.

Notice I said effective.

If you intend to buy some bread on the way home from work, does the fact that you reminded yourself when you got to work constitute an effective test? Not in itself. If you are introduced to someone and you remember their name long enough to use it when you say goodbye, does this constitute an effective test? Again, not in itself. If you’re learning the periodic table and at the end of your study session are able to reel off all the elements in the right order, can you say you have learned this, and move on to something else? Not yet.

Effective testing has three elements: time, context, and feedback.

The feedback component should be self-evident, but apparently is not. It’s no good being tested or testing yourself, if your answer is wrong and you don’t know it! Of course, it’s not always possible to get feedback — and we don’t need feedback if we really are right. But how do we know if we’re right? Again, we use fluency to tell us. If the answer comes easily, we assume it’s correct. Most of the time it will be — but not always. So if you do have some means of checking your answer, you should take it.

[A brief aside to teachers and parents of school-aged students: Here in New Zealand we have a national qualifying exam (actually a series of exams) for our older secondary school students. The NCEA is quite innovative in many ways (you can read about it here if you’re curious), and since its introduction a few years ago there has been a great deal of controversy about it. As a parent of students who have gone through and are going through this process, I have had many criticisms about it myself. However, there are a number of good things about it, and one of these (which has nothing to do with the nature of the exams) is a process which I believe is extremely rare in the world (for a national exam): every exam paper is returned to the student. This is quite a logistical nightmare of course, when you consider each subject has several different papers (as an example, my younger son, sitting Level 2 this year, did 18 papers) and every paper has a different marker. But I believe the feedback really is worth it. Every test, whatever its ostensible purpose, should also be a learning experience. And to be a good learning experience, the student needs feedback.]

But time and context are the important, and under-appreciated, elements. A major reason why people fail to realize they haven’t properly encoded/learned something, is that they retrieve it easily soon after encoding, as in my examples above. But at this point, the information is still floating around in an accessible state. It hasn’t been consolidated; it hasn’t been properly filed in long-term memory. Retrieval this soon after encoding tells you (almost) nothing (obviously, if you did fail to retrieve it at this point, that would tell you something!).

So effective testing requires a certain amount of time to pass. And as I discussed when I talked about retrieval practice, it really requires quite a lot of time to pass before you can draw a line under it and say, ok, this is now done.

The third element is the least obvious. Context.

Why do we recognize the librarian when we see her at the library, but don’t recognize her at the supermarket? She’s out of context. Why does remembering we need to buy bread on the way home no good if we remember it when we arrive at work? Because successful intention remembering is all about remembering at the right time and in the right place.

Effective encoding means that we will be able to remember when we need the information. In some cases (like intention memory), that means tying the information to a particular context — so effective testing involves trying to retrieve the information in response to the right contextual cue.

In most cases, it means testing across a variety of contexts, to ensure you have multiple access points to the information.

Successful remembering requires effective monitoring at the time of encoding (when you encounter the information). Effective monitoring requires you not to be fooled by easy fluency, but to test yourself effectively, across time and context. These principles apply to all memory situations and across all ages.

 

Additional resources:

If you want to know more about cognitive fluency and its effect on the mind (rather than memory specifically), there's nice article in the Boston Globe. As an addendum (I'd read the more general and in-depth article in the Globe first), Miller-McCune have a brief article on one particular aspect of cognitive fluency -- the effect of names.

Miller-McCune have have a good article on the value of testing and the motivating benefits of failure.

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Similarity

Human memory is a complex and varied phenomenon, and we could delve into its mysteries every day for a hundred years and still have plenty to talk about. But if I had to pick one factor that was absolutely crucial to the operation of memory, I would pick the deceptively simple concept of similarity. Similarity.

We all think we know what that means. An orange is similar to a mandarin; a zebra is similar to a horse; a cup is similar to a glass; my son is similar to his brother. A car is similar to an elephant.

??

Well, I might think a car was similar to an elephant. Maybe I’m imagining an elephant thundering toward me, kicking up dirt, unstoppable. Or maybe my perceptions are confused. But whether there’s a logical reason for my perception of similarity or not, whether my perception of similarity is shared with other people or not, all that is required for my brain to make the connection is ... that I perceive a connection.

Similarity — perceived similarity — is a crucial ingredient to the connections made in your head. Similarity enables us to make connections that transcend space and time, and enables us to strengthen connections made as a result of a juxtaposition of space and time.

Thus, when you meet a person and he tells you his name is Tom Brown, the first connection is made simply because the name and person are coincident in space and time. And if you leave it there, that connection will most likely be too weak to retrieve on a later occasion.

You can (and should, if you want to remember) employ another critical element to strengthen the connection: repetition (which impacts on the perceived familiarity of the information, but that’s another story). But the new information (this person is named Tom Brown) will be much more firmly lodged in your database, and much easier to find, if you make other connections, connections to information already stored in your memory. Thus, you might associate the name with the book “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, based on the similarity of names. There might be some physical characteristic of this new person that you can link to a character in the book. If so, you are much more likely to be able to remember this name when you meet the person again. However, if you are barely familiar with the book, and have to stretch your imagination to make any further connection, such as with the characters in the book, then this similarity of names won’t greatly help you.

The important thing when connecting new information to information already existing in your database, is to ensure the existing information is itself easily retrievable, and that the connections you make are not too obscure.

So, to make new memories easily retrievable:

  • look for similarities to existing memories
  • look for similarities that are obvious to you (what other people think doesn’t matter in the slightest)
  • choose existing memories that are themselves easily retrievable

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

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