Many people, particularly students, may benefit from improved techniques that help you learn notes or pieces of text off by heart. This enhances explicit memory, recognition memory or both, in terms of what you may be called on to repeat or identify later.
There are various techniques and pathways to forming these memories, which include repetition or silent reading. However, research on the efficacy of these methods yields mixed and even conflicting conclusions. In addition, some ‘memorising’ techniques may work better on some types of information compared to others.
A prominent researcher in this field, Professor Colin M. MacLeod of the Department of Psychology at Waterloo University in Canada, has recently published a new study that, as he claims, underlines the value of one particular technique in remembering information.
So, what do you need to do?
This technique involves reading the information to be memorised aloud to oneself, as opposed to reading it in silence. Dr MacLeod calls it the ‘production effect’ and maintains that it enhances distinctive information, such as text that may come up in an upcoming test.
Researchers such as McLeod started to describe the production effect in the early 2010s. These scientists have also determined that saying words aloud to memorise them may be more effective if this is done as an individual, and if the information is more distinctive than not. McLeod and his colleagues also assert that production, namely speaking words aloud, is more effective because the information to be learned is ‘encoded’ in the brain along with the information that the words were spoken aloud.
Production by another, meaning that you are hearing someone else say the words to be remembered, is also effective, but perhaps not as much as auto-production. Therefore, the production effect is a combination of motor action of a sort, such as speaking aloud, combined with self-referencing and encoding information for long-term memory storage. These processes are all handled by specific and discrete brain regions, which may help explain the apparent benefits of the production effect.
McLeod’s latest study on the production effect was intended to investigate which factor as above was more effective - self-referencing or speaking aloud. To do this, he divided 95 participants into four groups: silent readers; listeners to someone else; those who spoke aloud and those who listened to a recording of themselves speak aloud. He and his co-principal investigator, Noah Ferrin of the same department, found that those who spoke aloud had more effective recall than those who listened to their own recordings. The latter group did have more effective recall than those who listened to others or read in silence, however.
This research supports previous work that suggests the production effect is based on the effect of individual action while learning or memorising information. This research also suggests that other forms of activity that go along with memory formations are also more effective than passive listening or reading. These activities include typing or writing out the words to be remembered.
Personal context is important
The ideas and theories that underlie this research, namely that people are more inclined to remember information that comes with a personal context, have been around for decades. Some may have been confirmed in prior studies.
However, others indicate that other factors, most notably repetition, can render the recollection of silently-read information and that of production-associated information comparable. Some research has concluded that the production effect does not enhance item-order recall, whereas a 2014 study indicates that the production effect has reduced power in situations where ‘non-produced’ items to be memorised outnumber produced items.
On the other hand, research involving switching between productive and non-productive learning tasks for participants reported detriments to the recall of the non-produced items. In addition, some studies have found that the recall of information presented in over-simplified categories (e.g. concepts such as ‘lamp’ and ‘book’) is not superior when learned using the production effect compared to non-productive learning.
This research may seem like bad news for those who use products such as dictaphones to help them remember things. On the other hand, you can’t bring such a device into an exam hall with you. This new study suggests that the best way of memorising something is to read or talk about it out loud to yourself. This may make studying in the library difficult; however, you could try the tack of re-writing or typing the information for something like McLeod’s production effect.
On the other hand, it is important to note that these psychological studies are mostly observational in nature and, therefore, do not imply robust causation or correlation. However, it is interesting that research on this ‘production effect’ have had such cohesive conclusions. On the other hand, production does not enhance all facets of recall, which may include sequences in which items should be reproduced or represented.
Nevertheless, this study appears to emphasise the importance of personal verbalisation and self-referencing in the production effect. In other words, people may recall information that they know they have read aloud themselves better, even compared to information gained from recordings of themselves dictating it. It implies a potential for neurological studies that investigate specific brain regions, such as those involved in self-referential activity, such as thinking ‘I know I said this, therefore I must be able to recall it’, and their roles in the encoding and processing of information into memory. Such research may change conventional methods of teaching and learning, and may inform educational products and devices in the future.
Top image: 10 years old Dipa and 12 years old Laboni read in class 2 at "Unique Child learning Center", Mirmur-Dhaka, Bangladesh. (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Forrin ND, MacLeod CM. This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself. Memory. 2017:1-6.
MacLeod CM. I said, you said: The production effect gets personal. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2011;18(6):1197-20
MacLeod CM, Bodner GE. The Production Effect in Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2017;26(4):390-5.