Posts Tagged ‘Education’


April 30, 2017

Of all the skills needed for success, I believe that psychology is the most important.  Of course, being that HM is a psychologist, a degree of bias must be admitted.  Nevertheless HM shall make this argument.

Psychology is frequently confused with psychiatry.  Psychiatry is a medical specialty dealing with mental problems.  Clinical and some counseling psychologists also deal with mental problems, but they represent about half of all psychologists.  Other types of psychology are social psychology, industrial psychology, organizational psychology, engineering psychology, educational psychology, psychologists who work primarily with nonhuman organisms, and psychologists who work with humans.  HM is a cognitive psychologist meaning that he is interested in how we perceive, remember, learn, make decisions, form concepts, solve problems;  that is basically everything we do that involves our brains.

In “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big” Adams devotes several pages to biases, heuristics, different types of effects, fallacies, illusory correlation and so forth.  Our cognitive processes are very complex, and they need to be understood as well as they can be understood.  We are constrained by a limited attentional capacity that must be understood.  Memory failures can usually be attributed to failures to pay attention, but we are bombarded by much more information than can be processed.  Memories change over time, and every time we recall a memory it changes.  Memories are highly fallible, yet we have a high degree of confidence in them. In short, we need to understand our minds as best we we can so that we are aware of the mistakes we are likely to make, and so that we can use our minds to best advantage.

Adams is writing about success and his examples are how a knowledge of psychology is key to success.  But given that education involves learning, should not students be provided an understanding of how we learn?  And given that education involves memory, should not an understanding of our memory systems be taught?  And should not learning and mnemonic techniques be taught to facilitate learning and memorization?  Should not students be taught problem solving techniques and the traps that can preclude solving problems?

Meditation is beneficial to both learning and emotional health, so should not meditation be taught and regularly practiced in schools?  Mindfulness training provides a basis for understanding why we differ and how best to interact with others who think or behave differently.  Disciplinary problems would largely disappear if both meditation and mindfulness were standard practices in schools.

Many businesses are providing for meditation and mindfulness to be incorporated into their business practices and many more businesses will be adding these practices in the future.  They might also want to add courses on human cognition that are relevant to their respective workplaces.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A New School of Thoughtfulness

October 29, 2015

The title of this blog post is the title of an article in the Local Living section of the October 8, 2015 Washington Post.  It was an article about teaching thoughtfulness in the public schools. The subtitle to this article is “These educators teach kids to take their breath and practice mindfulness,” and the article is by Rachel Pomerance.  I so wish that this had been taught in the public schools when I attended them.  I would have been a better student and  better human being.  I have only been working on thoughtfulness these past several years after I started the healthy memory blog.

Research has convincingly linked mindfulness to improved focus, mood, and behavior.  The movement has ballooned and has spread from health-care institutions to Fortune 500 companies, the military and athletics.  Now it is increasingly being used at schools and with children.  It is here that mindfulness has its major impact.  Students are learning skills that will benefit them their entire lives provided they keep working at them.  And these skill will have strong benefits on learning.

Mindfulness provides a mental reset button, freeing one from a crush of distraction, swell of anger, or parade of fears and regrets that can dominate thoughts and derail behavior.  Thoughtfulness exercises  include counting breaths, focus on one of the five senses, anchors to turn to when one’s thoughts wander.

The article notes that the idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst-ridden teens to meditate might seem far fetched.   But it finds that kids often do take to it, readily turning  to the practice as a way to self-soothe, and they take these techniques home with them.

One fourth grade student said, “When I’m made and get into a fight with my brother or anyone in the family, I go up to my room, and I start breathing and doing mindfulness. It calms me down a little so things get back to normal.”

A classmate says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.

Another student said, “I thought it was totally weird at first., then I realized that it totally helped…with everything in my life.”

Yet another student was playing volleyball and getting angry at her losing team.  She said that she was about to yell at them them for not doing the right thing, but then she recalibrated, did not yell, and made positive suggestions.

It appears that mindfulness is being learned by the parents from their children, which they are finding is improving them as parents.

Mindfulness is not some magic switch that can be turned on.  It needs to be practiced and worked at.  Sometimes we fail, but it is important that we also forgive ourselves and work to improve in the future.

2015 Labor Day Post

September 4, 2015

Every Labor Day I go back to my boyhood and remember what future was predicted then for us to be enjoying today.  This was the fifties and at that time it was very unusual for mothers to work outside the home.  The basic prediction was that advances in technology would result in significant leisure time for everyone.   Back then no one dreamed of anything like a personal computer, the internet, iPADs, or wifi.  In other words, technology went far beyond what was imagined.  So I ask again, what I’ve asked in every healthy memory blog post for Labor Day, “Why Are We Working So Hard?”  Today both marriage partners are working.  The predicted increase in leisure time has not materialized.  And we in the US work more hours than those in most advanced countries.  Often this announcement is made with pride, when it should be uttered in shame.

Some of the answers to the question, “why are we working so hard,” can be found in the three immediately preceding healthymemory blog posts.  “The Wellbeing of Nations:  Meaning, Motive, and Measurement” explained why the primary metric for measuring economies, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is seriously flawed.  This metric fails to capture many factors that make for well-being and happiness.  Moreover, it requires that economies continue to grown and expand.  Eventually the capacity for growth of the GDP will be limited and the resources for continuing this growth will be depleted.  The blog post also explained that this is an extremely difficult topic and the work in this area is still in its early stages.  Nevertheless, it has begun, so let us hope it will continue.

The healthymemory blog post “Behavioral Economics”  reviewed how classical economics is based on the model of a rational human.  There is ample evidence that we humans are not rational.  Behavioral economics is devoted to identifying behaviors that lead to desirable outcomes.  Again, there is much work to do, but it least it has started.

The  blog post “Why Information Grows”  presents a novel view of what makes economies successful.  The answer is knowledge and know how.  Again, these ideas are very new, but they offer the potential to guide us in the right direction.

Labor Day is a holiday, but  unfortunately it signals the end of summer and the traditional time for vacations and recreation.  I would suggest that Memorial Day, a holiday for the somber remembrance for those who have died fighting for our country, be switched with Labor Day.  Then Labor Day would signal the beginning of vacation and recreation time.

Nevertheless, as Labor Day is a holiday, let us engage in a fantasy so we can enjoy the holiday.  First of all, there would be a heavy investment in education, which would be free at all levels.  Moreover, education would continue throughout our lives.  This provides both for personal growth and facilitates the advancement of new technologies.  There would be ample free time.  Medical care would be guaranteed and free so people would not need to work for medical coverage.  People could drop out from time to time so that they could simply enjoy leisure time.  They could take classes in anything that
caught their fancy and found to be enjoyable.   Retirement, per se, would become obsolete as people would continue to learn and grow throughout their senior years

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Evolution vs. Creationism

April 5, 2014

The previous post was on the stupidity pandemic. A specific example of this pandemic is on whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the public schools. The Scopes Trial, commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial, and technically termed The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes took place in 1925. The state claimed that Scopes had violated Tennessee law by teaching evolution is a state-funded school. Inherit the Wind is a movie on the Scopes trial. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. Nevertheless, the debate has continued. Some argue that evolution should not be taught, or that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, or that both evolution and creationism should be taught. Frankly I am strongly in favor of the final option. My friends tell me that I am wrong, that creationists would use this option to legitimatize their position or perhaps, with biased teaching, to discredit evolution.
What my friends fail to realize is that they are advocating teaching evolution as dogma, which is the very thing that creationists are doing. What is important is that students understand what science is and how it is conducted. The evolution vs. creationism debate provides an ideal means to do this. However, the following points need to be made.
The first point is that scientific theories can be disproved. So, however unlikely it might be, evolution could be disproved on the basis of overwhelming new evidence. In fact evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing refinement. Creationists regard this as a refutation of evolution, but this fine tuning process is a vital part of science. So creationists need to be asked, if there were significant evidence to the contrary, could creationism be disproved? If it cannot be disproved, then creationism is most definitely not a science.
The second point regards the scientific method as well as a bias in the way we humans process information. The human tendency is to look for information that confirm one’s beliefs or hypotheses. However, in the scientific enterprise it is important to look for disconfirming information. In the case of creationism, one can find evidence of an intelligent creator, but looking at the historical record, an enormous number of species have failed and become extinct. True, if the creator were seriously flawed, this could be a reasonable result. But isn’t it more reasonable to propose a random selective process?
The third point is that science does express beliefs, and in probabilistic terms in statistics, but they are based on data and logic. So consider the relevant geologic information. That is based on theory and data. What is the basis for what is presented in the religious source? Arguments based on authority, regardless of the presumed status of that authority, are not acceptable.
Students should be free to draw their own conclusions. But these are the points it is important for students to understand about science.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on the Excessive Costs of Higher Education

August 25, 2013

What has happened to the costs of a higher education is unconscionable, as are the ridiculous amounts of debt young people are saddled with as a result of pursuing a college education. Moreover, it is not only these unfortunate individuals who are the only ones to suffer. The country and the economy of the country benefits from college educations. In spite of the fact that the U.S government was burdened with massive amounts of debt from World War II, it passed the G.I Bill that allowed millions of veterans to pursue a higher education. Undoubtedly the booming economy that followed was largely the result of the G.I. Bill.

The unfortunate irony is that these costs rose at a ridiculous rate when they should have been decreasing. Technology is the reason that they should have decreased. Classes can be delivered online. Texts can be distributed as PDF documents at low or no cost. Similarly library materials could be annexed online. It is a bit ironic that professional societies, whose purpose is the dissemination of information, charge fees for accessing their articles. This might change as a result of the government requiring research funded by the government to be freely accessible.

Change is already occurring in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Edx is a non-profit MOOC founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is no a consortium of 28 institutions. Coursera is a MOOC that has formed partnerships with 83 universities.

This is an outstanding development for autodidacts as it has opened up an enormous resource of educational opportunities. The problem is how is the knowledge for completed courses documented and how can one get a college degree. Coursera has started charging to provide certificates for those who complete its courses.

So the technology exists, the problem is what is the business model. In other words, how to make a buck from this? I think it is important to realize that education is a public good, that all benefit from its ready availability, so costs should be kept to a minimum.

I think this can be accomplished by universities and testing organizations such as the Educational Testing Service (ETS) developing assessment tests. ETS has already done this for undergraduate content areas such as psychology, history, biology, and so forth. More specific tests could be developed for specific content areas such as educational psychology, neuropsychology, applied statistics, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry. Moreover, there could be different levels of expertise associated with different tests.

Frankly, this would be more informative to me than conventional degrees. In my experience, I do not know what I’m getting when a new graduate shows up with a degree in x. One might think, that regardless of the major, that a student with a bachelor’s degree should be able to write. But I’ve known people with Master’s degrees who have terrible compositional skills.

So it will be interesting to see what develops. But I hope the development occurs quickly and that there is a general realization that higher education is good for both the individual and the country, and that costs should be minimal.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Multitasking is a Trade-Off

December 9, 2012

I completed my Bachelor’s Degree at Ohio State. Multitasking is an important and frequent topic for this blog (just enter “multitasking” in the search block to find related articles). So when I came across an article with this title in the alumni magazine, I could not resist using this source.1

Multitasking interferes with learning and performance. Studying while watching TV results in less learning. Communicating via instant messaging leads to a 50% drop in the performance of a simultaneous visual task. Communicating via voice phone leads to a 30% drop in the same task. Consequently, you should never engage in these tasks while driving. It is also true that hands free laws do not solve the problem.

A group of researchers at Ohio State recruited 32 college students who reported on their activities three times a day for four weeks. These students tracked their use of media (computer, radio, print, and television) as well as their use of social networking and other activities. For each activity and combination of activities the students listed their motivations using a list of potential needs including social, fun/entertainment, study/work, and habits/background noise. They reported on the strength of each need and whether it was met. The results indicated that if the cognitive need that was the reason for the multitasking in the first place, it was poorly met. The obvious reason is the distraction effect. In addition to the other task, the act of switching between tasks makes attentional demands. The students indicate that multitasking was very good at meeting their emotional needs (fun/entertainment/relaxation) even though they were not seeking to satisfy these needs.

Probably the most common reason that they multitask is that they are busy and time constraints demand it. Although that might be true, another reason is that it is enjoyable. Or, at least, it allows the pursuit of enjoyable activities. Students, indeed everyone, should be aware of this. If something is important, we probably should not multitask. However, if we do, we should be aware of the loss in efficiency and devote more time to the primary task. Students might not realize this and multitask because it is more enjoyable. This probably results in a lower grade unless the student has compensated for the less efficient learning.

I multitask. I frequently multitask by reading when I’m watching a sporting event. I know that if something important happens, they will replay it. I might even read while I’m watching the news or similar programs where a variety of topics are being covered, and I am only interested in some of them. But if what I am reading is important, the television is off

The choice between pleasure/enjoyment and what is good for us is a common one. Diet is another one. All we can do is make reasonable trade-offs.

1Mullin, M. (2012). Multitasking is a trade-off. Ohio State Alumni Magazine, September-October, p.24.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Google Effect and Transactive Memory

January 11, 2012

A brief piece1 in Scientific American Mind reports on some of the results of experiments done by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. In one of the experiments two groups of undergraduates were presented with trivia statements. One group was told that they could retrieve this information later on their computers, and the other group were told that they could not retrieve this information on the computer. The former group exhibited worse recall than the latter group. This finding should not surprise anyone. Sparrow said that this finding does not mean that the internet is dumbing us down. Rather we are adapting to an internet world.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should realize that relying on the internet is an example of transactive memory. When we can readily access the information on the internet, that is referred to as accessible transactive memory. When we need to search for information on the internet, then that is an example of available transactive memory. All the information that is resident on the internet is part of the vast amount of information in potential transactive memory.

I can imagine tests in the internet age allowing students to bring their computers to class and to access the internet while taking essay examination. The capacity to find and assemble this information into coherent essays should easily be accepted as a valid measure of understanding. It is understood that the essays should include references and links to references.

Still, there are dangers to relying too heavily on transactive memory. There is useful analogy here to physical exercise. Currently, there is technology available to allow some of us to avoid all physical exertion. Unfortunately, making heavy use of this technology can have adverse effects on physical health. Similarly, placing too heavy reliance on transactive memory might have adverse effects on brain health. There are also questions regarding epistemology, how do we know what we know. A reasonable assumption is that information that can be recalled from our personal memories is more deeply encoded and better understood, than information we need to look up in some external source. Too much reliance on transactive memory can led to us becoming familiar with a large amount of information, without having anything akin to mastery with any of it. Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide how well we need to know it. Transactive memory is a great convenience. Committing everything to personal memory would slow us down and limit the breadth of our knowledge. There is this tradeoff between breadth and depth of knowledge that needs careful consideration.

1Casselman, A. (2012). The Google Effect. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Makes a Nation Intelligent?

June 5, 2011

There were many outstanding presentations at the recent meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). One of the best of these outstanding presentations was one by Earl Hunt with the title, “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?” This was his James McKeen Fellow Award Address. Hunt, who has a rich and diverse background in Physics, Business Administration, and Computer Science as well as Psychology, is currently a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington.

One of his primary interests is intelligence, and he published a book last year on the topic titled, appropriately enough, Human Intelligence. The approach he takes to intelligence is that of a cognitive psychologist rather than the traditional psychometric approach to intelligence. The psychometric approach provides estimates of the percentage of intelligence that is inherited versus the percentage of intelligence that is a product of the environment. The psychometric approach is primarily descriptive and offers few ideas for improving intelligence with the exception of eugenic approaches. The cognitive approach is interested in the cognitive processes that underlie intelligence as well as artifacts and interventions that can improve intelligence.

That is not to say that the psychometric approach is useless. Hunt points out that the correlation between IQ and occupational success is about 0.5 (the coefficient ranges with 0.0, no relationship, to 1.0, a perfect relationship, with a positive or negative sign indicating whether the relationship is direct or inverse). He said that this relationship is about twice as high as various personality measures. IQ tests measure what IQ tests measure, which is what is easy to measure. They’re good at assessing tasks that require speed, but they tend to miss culturally important skills.

To return to the question “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?”, one of his responses is cognitive artifacts. One example of such a cognitive artifact would be written records (e.g., cuneiform tables, papyrus, paper), where both business transactions and ideas could be recorded. I would call these examples of technical transactive memory, he calls them explicit artifacts. Hunt also uses the term implicit artifacts to refer to communication systems and personal trust. I would call these examples of human transactive memory. Regardless of what they are called, they are essential to a Nation’s intelligence.

Nation’s also need to respond to and adopt beneficial new ideas. Ideas spread along the Silk Road Trade Route and countries along this trade route tended to benefit from this intelligence and prosper. However, their needed to be an openness to new ideas. Japan initially closed up and ignored new ideas in favor of their own traditions. This was also true of China and Korea. These countries did not prosper until they opened up to new ideas from foreign cultures. This increased their respective national intelligence and led to increasing prosperity.

So what contributes to a nation’s intelligence? Of course there are explicit and implicit cognitive artifacts, but factors such as nutrition and environmental pollution cannot be ignored. Nutrition is essential to the development of intelligence, whereas environmental pollution degrades intelligence. The family and a formal education system are important. As Diane Halpern noted, “You learn to do what you practice doing”

Cultures, such as the Jewish culture and Northeast Asian cultures, that place a heavy emphasis on education do well on intelligence tests. Although there are sleight differences in mathematical performance between males and females, this gender effect is overwhelmed by practice. In other words, females who work at mathematics to very well on mathematics.

Hunt noted that when three outlier countries were removed, they was a correlation of 0.65 between IQ and financial success. As he put it there is an interaction between intelligence and financial success, the rich get smarter and the smart get richer.

Hunt advocates the creation of a cognitive elite, which he defines as college graduates. But he lists the obstacles to fostering this cognitive elite such as:

Lack of trained teachers and equipment.

The economic costs of a college education (this needs to be affordable and not require the acquisition of heavy financial debts).

The opposition of education aimed at modern cognitive skills.

The opposition to scientific ideas such as the opposing to vaccination because it is not in the Koran (or in our society the opposition to vaccination based on faulty scientific evidence and reasoning).

His conclusion: It is possible, although difficulty, to create better interactive environments to improve national intelligence.

The Talented Tenth

April 6, 2011

The Talented Tenth is the title of a chapter in Joshua Foer‘s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 . The Talented Tenth refers to a class in Raemon Matthews’ class in the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School. This school in located in the South Bronx in New York City. In this neighborhood nine out of ten students are below average in reading and math. Four out of five are living in poverty, and almost half don’t graduate from high school. Matthews named his class the Talented Tenth after W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion that an elite corps of African Americans would lift the race out of poverty. He teaches his students mnemonic techniques and how they can be used to learn the names, dates, and places in the content he presents. He does not only use mnemonic techniques. He does not even use the word “memory” in his class. Matthews says that education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning, you cannot analyze, without retrieving information. Mnemonic techniques are useful in enabling the students to quickly assimilate names, dates, and places so they can more readily think about the historical events, their context, how these events developed, and why they developed as they did. He also places demands on his students in his tests. Every in-class essay his students write must contain at least two memorized quotations.

He also uses mind maps. Mind maps are drawings where information written in boxes is linked to other information. Each of his students creates an intricately detailed Mind Map of the entire history book.

His methods are successful. Every single member of the talented tenth has passed the New York State Regents exam in the last four years, and 85% of his students have scored ninety or better. It is not surprising that his students do well on advanced placement tests. And they come across as quite impressive individuals. Matthews has a little over forty students in his class. He brings the best twelve students along with him when he attends the U.S. Memory Championships where they compete.

At this point a reasonable question is why are mnemonic techniques not commonly employed in classrooms. One reason might be that teachers don’t know them (and if they had known them, they probably would have done better in college). You might want to read, or reread the Healthymemory Blog Post “Pseudo-Limitations of Mnemonics.” There are pronounced biases against using mnemonics in instruction that are ill-founded. Mnemonics are not to be used for all materials, but rather to provide a means of making initially meaningless material meaningful. It expedites the efficient coding of material so that it can be used for more meaningful higher level cognitive processing.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Pseudo-Limitations of Mnemonics

March 6, 2011

I’ve recently reread an article by Higbee, “Some Pseudo-limitations of Mnemonics.1” This article reminded me of the resistance that has, and presumably continues, regarding the use of mnemonic techniques. So I am using Higbee’s article to refute this limitations.

One pseudo-limitations is that mnemonics are not practical. There is much information to the contrary. Mnemonic techniques provide a good means of dealing with absent-mindedness, remembering people’s names, remembering numbers and dates, in learning foreign vocabulary, as well as in other educational applications.

Another criticism is that mnemonics do not aid understanding. Although it could be argued that mnemonics can aid understanding, it should be conceded that in learning a new subject there often is a problem of learning new vocabulary and terms that appear to be meaningless. Mnemonics provide a means of rendering the meaningless meaningful. So mnemonics can be quite helpful in the early stages of learning. As the student progress and as what was once meaningless becomes meaningful, the need for using mnemonics diminishes. No one advocates using mnemonics all the time. But for certain tasks and for certain stages of learning they can be quite helpful.

A third criticism is that mnemonics are a crutch. But so is writing something down, what the Healthymemory Blog terms using transactive memory. Yes, they are a crutch, but technology is also a crutch. There is a very interesting educational problem here. One might argue that with the proliferation of handheld computers, one need never remember anything provided they new how to look it up. That is a rather extreme position. There is likely an epistemological need to maintain some information and knowledge, other than knowing how to look things up, in one’s personal memory.

A fourth criticism is that mnemonics are a trick similar to the tricks done by magicians. Although both mnemonics and magic are a part of show business, that provides no reason for discounting either of them. Cognitive psychologists have started studying magic tricks to learn about human information processing. Mnemonics are used in show business, but they were essential to knowledge and oratory in the time of the ancient Greeks. They remained a central part of education until the ramifications of the development of the printing press and the availability manifested themselves. What happened was that technological “crutches” replace mnemonic “crutches.” There remains the question of how extensively these technological “crutches” should be used.

The Healthymemory Blog, being about healthy memory advocates the use of mnemonic techniqus as a mental exercise. Mnemonics involve creativity, recoding, visualization, and employ both hemispheres of the brain.

Please peruse the offerings under the “Mnemonic Techniques” Category. The blog post, “A Memory Course” provides a suggested order in which to read the Mnemonic Techniques postings.

1Higbee, K. L. (1978). Some Pseudo-limitations of Mnemonics. In Gruneberg, M.M., Morris, P.E., & Sykes, R.N. (Eds.) Practical Aspects of Memory. New York: Academic Press.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Learning on the Web (and Elsewhere as Well)

February 20, 2011

Most surfing done on the web is superficial. Consequently, little learning takes place.1 Readers of the Healthymemory Blog will already know that effective learning requires the spending of attention. Most of the time people scan text on websites instead of reading it closely. This is the appropriate technique if someone is just trying to find something of interest or relevance. However, if someone just scans the web, little learning will take place. Moreover, bad habits can be developed if someone is constantly enticed by “hot” topics or keeps moving from one url to another without slowing down to think about and process something of interest.

Nielsen (see the first footnote) reports the results of a paper by Karpicke and Blunt that was published in Science. They measured the amount of information people could remember a week after reading a scientific text. So these people were not reading online, rather they were reading a conventional text book. The experiment involved two groups of students. One group simply read the text. The other group completed an elaborate test after reading the text. The students who had completed the elaborate test after reading remembered 145% more content after a week than students who simply read the text and did not do anything else. It is interesting to note that the people who took the test actually thought that they had learned 15% less than people who had read the text but did not take the test. The reason the test-takers thought they had learned less was that the test-taking exposed the gaps in their knowledge, though undermining their confidence, whereas the group that had not taken the test remained ignorant of their ignorance.

The test-taking condition employed here was a retrieval practice test. This involves

  1.  Reading the Text
  2. Recalling as much of the information as they could on a free-recall test.
  3. Reading the text again.
  4. Completing another free-recall test.

There was another group that simply read the text four times. Although these people remembered more than the people who read the text only once, the recall of the group doing the retrieval practice test was 64% better than the group that just read the text four times. So replacing 2 rereads with 2 tests substantially boosted people’s week-later performance. It is reasonable to think that the retrieval practice group in step 3 was aware of any information they had missed during their recall efforts in step 2. The reread only group remained ignorant of these gaps in their knowledge.

Of course, much more effort is involved in the retrieval practice test. One is constantly confronted with the problem of how much attention should be paid to an item of information. Does it need to be stored in memory so that in can be easily recalled, that is, accessible in personal memory. Or does one only need to take note of it and make a note, bookmark, or tag it. This is what the Healthymemory Blog terms accessible transactive memory. This is information that you cannot recall, but can easily find. Oftentimes, we know that the information is someplace, but cannot remember where. In this case, we say it is in available transactive memory, in that we know it is there, but cannot readily access it, In these cases we need to look for it or search for it.

It should be noted that it can be advantageous to take a test on a topic before you read or study the material. Previous Healthymemory Blog Posts on the work by Roediger demonstrate provide evidence for the benefits of this practice (“To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First”, and “The Benefits of Testing”).

1Nielsen, J. (2011). Test-Taking Enhances Learning. Http://www, 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Jeopardy, Watson, and Transactive Memory

February 17, 2011

The recent competition between expert human contestants and the IBM computer, Watson, raises some interesting questions. These questions relate to transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to information that is not stored in one’s personal memory, but resides in another human’s memory or in some technological artifact, such as the internet or a library. So consider the answers presented on Jeopardy to which the contestant, human or Watson, needs to find the appropriate question to ask. In the case of the Jeopardy competition, either the individual memories of the participating humans had to find the correct question, or a technological artifact, Watson, had to find the correct question.

Normally, when someone needs to find a piece of information, they can either ask someone, or look it up in a reference, or search for it with a computer. In either case they are relying on transactive memory. If they know that the information exists someplace, that is termed available transactive memory. If they know where to find or whom to ask, then that is termed accessible transactive memory.

Given the ready availability of technology, one question is whether humans need to commit any information to personal biological memory if they can simply look it up or search for it. Of course, if no human commits any information to personal biological memory, asking other humans will not be an option. I would argue that the answer to this question is “no” for a couple of reasons.

Given the philosophy of the Healthymemory Blog, a healthy memory requires mental exercise, and committing information to memory is a good means of providing this exercise. This is true if mnemonic techniques are employed. Mnemonic techniques employ both hemispheres of the brain, and require imagination, creativity, and recoding. Now some Jeopardy contestants might employ mnemonic techniques some of the time, but I doubt that they are a major activity. Jeopardy contestants read widely. For material to be remembered, it needs to be meaningful. So much knowledge on a wide variety of topics has been linked together in their brains’ memory circuits. This activity also makes for a healthy memory. Moreover, most of the topics employed on Jeopardy are not trivia. Most represent substantive learning. However, even the learning of trivia can be healthy to the brain, as it does exercise the brain and build memory circuits. Although one might argue that the time could be better spent, if the activity is enjoyable that should be justification enough.

Nevertheless, given the wide availability of technology, there is a serious educational question here. Historically, most learning has been assessed by determining how much material has been memorized via true false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, or essay questions. Is this still the best way to assess learning? Rather than assessing what knowledge has been memorized, might it be better to assess how well a student can use this knowledge. In this case, there might be no need for closed book tests, and students might be given access not only to their own notes, but also to the internet. Exam questions would require them to solve problems given access to all these resources. Of course, giving citations for the sources of material should be a requirement.

I don’t know the answer to this question. The stage of education and the type of material are relevant considerations. But testing does need to be reconsidered given the new technology.

When we encounter new information we are confronted with several questions. One is whether the information has any interest or relevance. If the answer is yes, then the question is how much attention needs to be paid to it. Does it need to be committed to personal biological memory? Or do I simply need to know how to access or whom to ask, when this information is needed? 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First!

March 22, 2010

A recent article, “The Pluses of Getting it Wrong” by Henry Roediger and Bridgid Finn has profound implications for students, in particular, and education, in general.1 They present research that makes the case not only for difficult tests in school, but also for testing before any instruction takes place. Students who make an unsuccessful attempt to answer a test question before receiving the correct answer the material remember the material better than if they simply study the information. One can certainly ask, how can this be?

One possibility is that asking questions before studying the material focuses the students’ attention on critical concepts. This could be beneficial, but might not the same benefit be achieved by allowing students to preview the questions without having to answer them? This issue was addressed by comparing three groups in a study. One group, which you might call the standard control group, was allowed to study the material in advance of the first test. A second group previewed the questions before studying the material. The third group not only saw the questions, but was also required to attempt to answer them. All groups were allowed to study the material again and were given a final test.

The third group, the one that not only previewed the test questions, but were also required to attempt to answer them, performed the best. The group that previewed the questions came in second, and the standard traditional group performed the poorest. So testing in advance not only facilitates the identification of key concepts, but the attempt to answer the questions provides additional benefit. This might activate memory circuits that facilitate learning.

A previous blog post “The Benefits of Testing” also cited the work of Roediger. Testing before studying resulted in better recall. Roediger has used his results and the results of others to modify his teaching. Every class begins with a test on the material of the day. When this test is completed he proceeds to cover the material. This results in better retention, long term retention, in particular.

When or whether the educational establishment acts upon these findings remains to be seen. However, the industrious student can use these results to improve the effectiveness of her own study. If there are questions in the back of a chapter, attempt to answer them before reading the chapter. If there are no questions, then read headings and try to construct questions based on the headings and then attempt to answer them before reading the chapter. Then read the chapter.

1Roediger, H. L. III & Finn, B. (2010). The Pluses of Getting It Wrong, Scientific American Mind, March/April, 39-41.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Benefits of Testing

February 9, 2010

The distinguished psychologist Roddy Roediger was invited to give the keynote address for the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Psychonomic Society. The title of the address is “The Critical Role of Retrieval in Enhancing Long-Term Memory: From the Laboratory to the Classroom.” A streaming video of this keynote address came be found at

Roediger begins his address by stating the implicit bargain that is usually made between teachers and students. Students don’t like taking tests and teachers don’t like giving them. Not only does the teacher need to construct the test, but she also needs to grade them, a time consuming task. So testing and exams are usually kept to a minimum. Moreover, testing is used to measure learning and the assumption has been that little or no learning takes place during testing. Roediger’s address should disabuse anyone of this notion.

Roediger presents a series of studies that vary the respective number of study and test trials. Little difference was observed during learning. But on retention tests that were given two days later, retention was solely a function of the number of test trials. He presents a series of studies varying the materials and the nature of the tests, but they all basically hammer home the same theme. Not only does learning occur during testing, but more learning occurs during testing than during study. One study done with a group of middle schoolers showed that repeated testing had the result of raising the average grade from a C+ to an A-.

It is interesting to examine the subjective ratings of students and test participants. They feel that they are learning more during study than during testing. When students keep re-reading highlighted material in a textbook, they get the filling that they really know the material and their confidence goes up. However, when a student tries to recall material from memory and fails, confidence is lowered. Yet the looking up of the material that was forgotten is more beneficial and the student has a more realistic appraisal of what is known and what needs to be studied. In the end, this latter experience is more beneficial.

The actual attempt to remember information forces the person to access the correct retrieval routes to that information. If the information is found, then that retrieval route is strengthened. When it is not found, the information is restudied and the retrieval route relaid. More effort is involved in testing than simply studying material, and there is evidence that this increased effort is also beneficial.

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First of all, cramming is not recommended. Even if you learn enough to pass the test, the information will quickly be lost. So its availability on a final exam or later in life is questionable.

Secondly, test yourself and recited the material frequently. This testing should be even more effective if spread out over time.

And what, if any, are the implications for the education system? Break the silent bargain between teachers and students and test more frequently. Roediger and his colleagues have taken to the practice of having a ten minute test at the end of every lecture. This practice not only forces students to keep up, but it also leads to better lifelong learning.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Transactive Memory1 and Educational Testing

December 30, 2009

The most common criterion for learning in our educational system is whether you can remember certain information. Sometimes recognition memory is tested, as in true false or multiple choice tests. At other times recall memory is tested, as in fill in the blank or essay tests. These tests are carried up the educational hierarchy all the way to comprehensive written tests for Ph.D. qualifying exams. Open book exams are the exception and not the rule. And the use of crib notes can get a student into serious trouble.

Educators have tended to regard the proliferation of transactive memory (the internet, for example) as a threat to education. They fret about students plagiarizing text from the internet and their inability to recognize or identify this plagiarism. This blog posting will argue that the abundance and availability of transactive memory should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a threat.

When I taught introductory or lower level courses in college, I placed heavy reliance on multiple choice tests. The main considerations here were time and resources. Given an abundance of students and no teaching assistants, practical considerations dictate multiple choice tests. When I needed to construct make up tests for students who had missed scheduled tests for legitimate reasons, I made up essay tests. It is not practical to construct multiple choice tests for one or several students. Usually I was appalled when I graded these tests. Part of the problem often was poor composition skills, but the conclusion I drew was that the students had but the flimsiest grasp of the material. So students seemed to be learning much less than what I had inferred from their multiple choice test performance.

Now consider this new type of test in today’s world of ubiquitous transactive memory. Students would arrive at the exam with their laptops and would be given full internet interactivity. There would be no restriction on any materials they had prepared for the exam. They would be given a problem, perhaps more than one. And it is possible that these questions would be taken from a set of potential exam questions that the students had been given in advance. They would be required to answer the problem or problems to the best of their ability using all the resources at hand. The premise underlying this type of test is that the critical test of knowledge is how well you can use it rather than whether you can recall it by rote. Using the knowledge of others is not a problem as long as credit is given. Failure to provide sources would be heavily penalized.

What do you think of this new type of test for the 21st Century?

1Transactive memory, as presented in previous blog postings, is memory external to our personal selves. So this is memory resident in our fellow humans and in the vast expanses of technology, for example libraries and the internet.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


December 16, 2009

The mnemonic techniques posted thusfar on this blog have dealt primarily with learning arbitrary associations.  For example, the posting on learning the Bill of Rights by the number of each right.  Although the Bill of Rights is certainly meaningful, the number associated with each right is not.  Similarly the posting on foreign vocabulary.  Although these words initially will become meaningful at the outset they are arbitrary sounds.  So these techniques provide strategies for converting material that is initially not meaningful into something meaningful and memorable.

 However, when the material you are trying to learn is inherently meaningful, you want to capitalize on that meaning and store they key information so that it is easily remembered.  SQ3R is a proven technique for mastering school coursework and other meaningful information.  SQ3R stands for Survey, Query, Read, Recite, and Review.  Here is how the technique would be applied to a reading assignment you might be given or to reading material you wanted to understand and master.

Survey refers to paging through the material to gather what is being covered and how it is organized.  You will encounter books that use what are termed advanced organizers that describe the topics that are going to be covered.  So you are conducting an initial survey of the information.  Sometimes when you are doing research on a topic this initial survey might indicate to you that it did not contain the information you were seeking, or you did not like the organization of the material, that you already knew this material, or that the material was being presented at either a too advanced or a too elementary a level.  When this is the case and the reading is not required, you can stop here.

 However, if the material appears to meet your needs, or if it is required reading,  the next step is to query, ask questions that you hope will be answered in the material.  Actually, you will encounter texts that do this for you.  They will state that at the end of the chapter you should know this, this, and this.  But if this is not done for you, and it usually is not, then it is good for you to construct questions like this before you start reading.

The next step is to read the material.  This must be done by you.  And you want to read it at a speed governed by the organization you gathered during your survey and by questions you generated during your query.  Do not hesitate to reread sections that are not clear.  Do not just read straight through without considering the organization of  the material or the questions you want answered.

The next step is to recite, that is to try to recall the important points from the text from memory.  When you cannot recall something go back and look for it in the text and make an effort to store the meaning in memory.  This recitation is not a one shot thing.  It should be done repeatedly.  Many students remain being poor students because they simply reread material or mark it with a highlighter and do not practice retrieving the information from memory.  Multiple retrieval attempts are important and it is beneficial if you space these retrieval attempts further and further apart.

The final step is review.  This is a matter of reviewing the material and not only putting it in the organizational structure of the material you are reading, but relating it to the larger body of information you know.  These 3Rs are to be repeated many times until you have mastered the material to the desired level.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can Transactive Memory Be Harmful?

November 28, 2009

Larry Sanger is an interesting fellow. He holds a Ph.D in philosophy and is a co-founder of Wikipedia,, an on-line encyclopedia written by users. Yet he is concerned that the internet is harming education1. If so much information is available, and you know how to find it (an important proviso), why do you need to learn it when you can just look it up? Why do we need schools? Could not all children be home schooled if they had a computer and an internet connection? Would that not be so much cheaper? College is expensive. Who needs it?

Remember the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none? That reflects part of the concern. Now the knowledge landscape is so vast there is no chance that anyone can be familiar with all of it. Indeed, it is growing so fast that it would be impossible for an individual just to keep up with new information. But one can spend most of his or her time, social networking, playing online games, participating in chat boards, following incoming news events, etc.. If one were so disposed, one could spend the entire day on the internet and become familiar with a vast amount of information. I write information rather than knowledge, as knowledge implies some depth of understanding. This is Sanger’s concern, that people will become information savvy, yet lack knowledge. It is important to achieve some depth of knowledge in some areas. Some topics warrant careful study and the exploration of different media.

There is a trade-off that needs to be made between breadth and depth of knowledge. Too much concentration in one area will result in lack of knowledge in other areas. No concentration in any area and you can be accused of being a dilettante. People differ in their interests and how they spend their time. You want to do what is enjoyable and interesting, keeping in mind the dangers of being extreme in one direction or the other.

So the problem is not with transactive memory. Indeed, transactive memory encompasses both people and technology. Technology is not bad, but the manner in which it is used can be destructive. It is interesting to know that Socrates was appalled when the Greek alphabet (an early form of technology) was developed. He feared that the richness of the spoken language and the interaction with others would be lost. Clearly, his fears were misplaced.

1Casey, M.A. (2009). Ohio State Alumni Magazine. Nov-Dec, p.37

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.