My airplane conversation as an experimental psychologist who studies memory typically spirals from my seatmate feeling relieved that I cannot analyze them to concerned that I will judge them for having a terrible memory.
“I do too”, I say. “We all do.” Memory, like swimming or practicing piano, must be worked on in order to improve. Ideas that a “good memory” is fueled by a special memory genius or photographic memory are incorrect misconceptions of how memory works.
My college students learned they need to work on their memory too. When I teach a course in Human Memory to juniors and seniors, they are disturbed, even outraged, that no one has taught them about best practices in learning and memory. They see these skills, developed and practiced, in a memory course, as powerful change-agents for their learning.
As I teach them that humans have a historical need to create images that are rich, sometimes silly, to remember information like a family tradition or knowledge about a late great-grandparent, they to begin to get it. Remembering is fundamentally human. We are the sum of our memories. Part of our human experience is to share information, stories, and knowledge.
But, have we lost the need to remember? We rely on external devices like smart phones and computers to remember dates, names, numbers, and even our most treasured memories. This is a relatively new shift in how we remember. Research has highlighted how the computer has replaced our own thinking in a phenomenon called The Google Effect (1). For example, when questions come up like, “What current actor is playing Spiderman?” or “What decade did the Challenger explode?” people are highly likely to Google answers rather than rely on memory. Like a smug friend who knows the answers to trivia questions, researchers found that using the internet to answer questions develops false confidence among users who then claim to have known the answer all along (2).
Despite our reflex for using technology, we are quite interested in having a good memory. With a longer life expectancy, people value measures that ensure a productive, high quality life. Concerns of a life disrupted by memory loss through dementia have led to a public interest and demand for memory improvement techniques. Major for-profit training programs have capitalized on the fear of memory loss spearheading a billion-dollar industry. These training programs boast benefits to memory, attention, and problem-solving by having people engage in short games developed by a collection of neuroscientists, market-researchers, and game designers. Perhaps the biggest player in the market is Lumosity (Lumos Labs, Inc., San Francisco). Their website points to research supporting their training program like a 2015 study (3) that found participants who used 49 Lumosity-style training games were better on neurological tasks than a control group who did crossword puzzles. Other research (4) conflicts with these findings by demonstrating that brain-training games does improve participants game-playing skills like other video games but not on memory and cognition.
Going back to my students who say their learning has been enhanced after completing a course in cognition and memory, why not teach how memory and learning works with students? I had a strong hunch that foundational knowledge, on its own, could lead to improved memory.
My study, published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology (5), aimed to take an educational approach to understanding memory improvement by investigating the effects of classroom memory skills training and the cognitive training program Lumosity on college students’ memory.
Students in two separate sections of a Human Memory course either had either only course instruction (“no Lumosity group”) or course instruction AND twelve weeks of training on Lumosity (“Lumosity group”). Students in both sections were asked to complete three memory assessments: one at the beginning of the course, a second at the mid-term, and a third during the final week of the course.
Students in each section showed improved performance on the assessment tasks in areas of working memory performance and recall and recognition performance. For example, in the word formation task, participants were given the prompt, “come up with as many words as you can in one minute that start with the letter P”. Quickly listing several words required focused attention on the task and retrieving words from long-term memory. The word recall task, on the other hand, required participants to store up to fifteen words in memory and then report as many as possible. This task utilizes aspects of working memory, which allows one to hold and manipulate information, and long-term memory.
However, Lumosity-trained participants performed worse than the other section on a face-name recall task. During the course both groups performed a classroom activity creating a picture mnemonic for their last name. For example, my last name “Lassonde” can be imagined as a woman roping a lasso around a pond. Similarly, each student created their own name mnemonic. Then they shared their name image with the class. Having this activity at the beginning of the course really helps me and my students learn names.
Lumosity also has a specific memory task to improve name recall. Game players are introduced to many customers and asked to take a food order. When completing the order, the player is required to type in the name of the customer. Difficulty increases as multiple customers give orders and there are time delays between fulfilling orders. This training task didn’t translate to a face-name recall task given on the memory assessment. Like other studies of cognitive training, the computer game simulation for learning names didn’t reveal additional learning gains in a real-world scenario.
Did students “think” their memory had improved after taking the course? The Everyday Memory Questionnaire (6) with questions about memory, like how often do you “completely forget to do things you said you would do” revealed students thought forgetting behaviors decreased after taking the course.
While it is impossible to assert that Lumosity had no impact, there are at least three indicators that course instruction would be a more promising way to improve memory.
- First, more students in the No-Lumosity group saw memory improvement in their everyday lives.
- Second, only eight percent of the Lumosity group believed Lumosity training would lead to long-lasting benefits to memory; this is an idea consistent with research questioning the efficacy and transfer of Lumosity tasks.
- Third, over 90 percent of students in both sections thought that course techniques and course theory would lead to long-term benefits on memory.
Nearly ninety percent of students in the Lumosity group said they enjoyed playing the games and 75 percent would recommend them to their friends and family. Perhaps the act of putting time toward Lumosity led toward positive feelings about the games. Students probably enjoyed these games because they were a novel component of the classroom.
Lumosity has yet to be applied to students in this type of college classroom setting. This study is among the first of hopefully many implementing cognitive training into a classroom atmosphere.
The field of cognitive and educational psychology is on the right track. Sites like retrievalpractice.org and learningscientists.org are leaders in student learning strategies. But colleges can do better. Listen up Psychology Departments: it is time to share knowledge on learning. Join me in creating courses designed to improve learning and memory!
- Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 476-478.
- Ward, A. F., & Wegner, D. M. (2013). Mind-blanking: When the mind goes away. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 15.
- Hardy, J. L., Nelson, R. A., Thomason, M.E., Sternberg, D.A., Katovich, K., Farzin, F. & Scanlon M. (2015). Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial. PLoS One, 10 (9).
- Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Flacone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., Cooper, N., Ashare, R., Audrain-McGovern, J., Hornik, R., Diefenbach, P., Lee, F. J., & Lerman, C. (2017). No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior, or Cognitive Performance. Journal of Neuroscience, 37 (31) 7390-7402.
- Lassonde, Karla A; Osborn, Rebecca M. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology; Washington (Dec 13, 2018). DOI:10.1037/stl0000125
- Royle, J., & Lincoln, N. B. (2008). The everyday memory questionnaire-revised: Development of a 13-item scale. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 30(2), 114-121.