By Yana Weinstein
Imagine if I asked you this question: “Are there large parts of your childhood after age 5 that you cannot remember?”. How would you answer: Yes, or no? Are you sure? And what might influence your answer? (Note that the “after age 5” part is important, because most of us do not remember much prior to that age).
It turns out that your answer to this rather straightforward question might flip-flop, and can easily be influenced by what you had been thinking about just prior to being asked. A group of researchers set out to see whether they could influence people’s judgments of their own childhood memory by giving them a retrieval task before asking the question above (1).
The method was very straightforward: Participants simply attempted to retrieve some childhood memories, and then answered the question about whether there were large parts of their childhood after age 5 that they could not remember. In the easy retrieval condition, participants tried to write about 4 different childhood memories: two from age 5-7, and two more from age 8-10. In the difficult retrieval condition, participants instead tried to write about 12 different childhood memories – six from each of the two time-periods, instead of only two.
The majority of participants were able to complete the retrieval task, regardless of whether they were asked to retrieve 4 or 12 childhood memories (the 8.5% of participants who didn’t quite get to 12 childhood memories in the time allotted were removed from analyses). But even for those who successfully retrieved 12 memories, the experience left them much less confident about their own memories. When asked the question “Are there large parts of your childhood after age 5 that you cannot remember?”, 46% of participants who had just successfully retrieved 12 different childhood memories said yes, compared to only 19% of participants who had just successfully retrieved 4 childhood memories!
This results was published 20 years ago, and yet, I still find it amazingly powerful. Not only is it so easy to manipulate what we think about our own memories, but it’s also a somewhat counterintuitive result: after all, participants who retrieved 12 childhood memories actually produced more information about their childhoods than did those who only retrieved 4 childhood memories – and yet, they are now less confident in how well they remember their childhoods.
How does this apply to leaning? The finding suggests that the more students are asked to retrieve, the less confidence they will have in their own memory for the subject – even when they are successfully retrieving. Of course, this does not mean we should discourage students from practicing retrieval! In the same paper, the authors found an easy fix: simply telling participants, before they started retrieving the 12 childhood memories, that people typically found this task difficult mostly neutralized the negative impact of the task on their confidence: in this case, only 27% of participants claimed to have forgotten large parts of their childhood (compared to 46% in the version where they were not warned that the task was difficult). Applying this back to education, it seems important to keep reminding students that retrieval practice is hard for everyone, and having to make an effort to retrieve doesn’t mean that their memory of a subject is poor.
(1) Winkielman, P., Schwarz, N., & Belli, R. F. (1998). The role of ease of retrieval and attribution in memory judgments: Judging your memory as worse despite recalling more events. Psychological Science, 9, 124-126.