Research

In our lab, we explore various topics in human learning and memory such as educational applications of cognitive psychology, eyewitness memory, metacognition, memory illusions, people with highly superior memory and collective memory. These are diverse topics but are held together by each representing a central and interesting topic in the study of human learning and memory.

Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education

Our lab is interested in ways to enhance learning in educational settings using basic principles from cognitive psychology. Most of our projects focus on test-enhanced learning, the finding that retrieval practice enhances long-term retention. The use of testing as an assessment tool (e.g., to assign grades) assumes that retrieval is a neutral event; however, we and other cognitive psychologists have shown that tests not only measure knowledge but enhance learning. The act of recalling information usually provides a much greater boost to later retention than studying it for a second time. We have conducted research that provides evidence for this claim, but we have also shown boundary conditions of the effect.

Broadly, our purpose is to investigate the circumstances that lead to successful learning through quizzing and testing (usually with feedback) and to advocate the use of testing as a learning tool instead of only for assessment. Specifically, we explore how various variables in a testing situation (e.g., type of test, timing and type of feedback, timing and placement of tests) promote retention and how we can combine these variables to enhance learning for different types of materials (e.g., foreign language vocabulary, scientific and historical expository texts). In addition, we focus on potential detriments to learning that can result from testing (e.g., exposing test-takers to erroneous information through multiple-choice or true/false tests) and how these negative effects can be minimized or corrected. Our research includes both laboratory experiments and applied studies. For instance, our research conducted in authentic educational settings such as middle school classrooms showed positive results.

Eyewitness Memory

We are also interested in applications of cognitive psychology as it pertains to eyewitness memory. After witnessing a crime, people are typically asked to identify the perpetrator from multiple lineups over time and indicate their confidence, until the case is ready to go to court. At court, the eyewitness may identify the perpetrator of a crime and provide testimony, often with high confidence. Variables such as how much time has passed from witnessing a crime until seeing a lineup, how many lineups an eyewitness saw, whether the perpetrator was actually in the lineup, and whether feedback was given by the police can affect the confidence and accuracy of an eyewitness’ memory. In our lab, we investigate what factors hurt or help an eyewitness provide accurate testimony and a confidence level indicative of that accuracy. In addition, we investigate under what circumstances exposure to misinformation can improve or impair eyewitness memory. Although confidence in courtrooms can be in error, we (and others) find that on an initial identification by a witness, confidence is highly related to accuracy. We have also examined different methods or scales for the rating of confidence, and we have not found them to differ much (e.g., comparing a 4-point confidence scale to a 100-point confidence scale).

Metacognition

Our lab is interested in the cognitive processes that are involved in metacognition, or how people assess their own knowledge, how much they understand about good techniques for learning, and similar issues. Much of our research targets how people judge their knowledge, which factors affect people’s metacognitive judgments and how accurate people are. One finding is that students often misunderstand learning because they judge techniques that are ineffective (such as back to back reading) as more effective than techniques that are actually better (such as reading a passage once and retrieving it from memory). Often these metacognitive illusions occur even after people have just participated in an experiment. That is, after serving in two conditions, A and B, with their results showing that A is better than B in their recall, they will report that they think they did better in the B condition. We also show that just having students make metacognitive judgments for items or facts can boost their recall. By studying these topics, we hope to identify mechanisms underlying self-assessments and self-regulated learning, as well as to utilize the application of metacognitive judgments to educational settings. Many educators advocate for “putting learning into the hands of the students” under the assumption that students know best how to study. That is often not the case, so another issue is how to demonstrate to students what strategies work well for learning, even when these strategies seem counterintuitive to the students.

Much of our metacognitive research is focused on judgments of learning and confidence judgments. Through judgments of learning – that is, presenting people with information and asking, after they have studied it, how well they think they know it – we examine how people reflect on their learning. We investigate a range of factors that affect judgments of learning. We also study confidence judgments after students recall or recognize information, and we investigate the factors that affect confidence-accuracy relationships.

Memory Illusions

Although much of what we perceive and remember accurately reflects the world around us, the mind is prey to various illusions of perceiving and remembering. We study memory illusions, cases in which people remember events differently from the way they actually happened (e.g., because of interference provided by misinformation). In the most dramatic case, people can remember events that never happened at all. This program of research uses some of the techniques described in the section on metacognition. For example, under what conditions do students remember events that did not happen with high confidence? We have developed several paradigms for studying memory illusions and have also studied those developed by others using new metacognitive techniques such as confidence accuracy characteristic plots.

People with Highly Superior Memories

Another program of research examines people with highly superior memories on batteries of cognitive tests. This work is performed in collaboration with David Balota and Kathleen McDermott and their students, in addition to members of our lab. In particular, we have studied in depth the capabilities of people who compete in memory tournaments and who often perform astounding defeats (e.g., memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in under 20 seconds; 456 digits recalled in order after hearing them once). We have also studied people who have appeared on Jeopardy!, who display a remarkable but different kind of superior memory. We have also studied elite competitors in crossword puzzle competitions, as well as high school students who memorize hundreds of Bible verses.

The impetus for these studies is to examine how good our memories can be from concentrated practice, and to see what principles we might learn from people who have become participants in extreme sports or games involving learning and memory to improve strategies of learning for all people.

Collective Memory

Collective memories are memories or historical knowledge held by individuals that bear on their group identities. Collective memory differs from history in being the history that people live in and remember. A recent example in the U.S. is how Confederate monuments in the South elicit different memories, emotions and identities among different groups of people. Some people see these as monuments to slavery and argue they should be removed, whereas others see them as reminders of their forefathers who fought and died. Collective memories may not be accurate, but they form a part of group identity and often of personal identity, too. We examine how remembering as a member of a group may change or distort memory for the collective past. For example, we have shown that people overestimate their own groups’ contributions to history – people attribute more of world history to their own country than could be possible. Similarly, residents of the U.S. overestimate their state’s contribution to history of the country. As another example, when people are asked to estimate the percentage effort their nation supplied to the victory (or the loss) in World War II, they overestimate their role in the war effort. We have called this systematic bias in over-attributing historical influence to one’s own group “national narcissism,” “state narcissism,” or, more generally, group narcissism. Several factors may be at work. People know their own history better than that of other groups, so more information is available for a judgment. In addition, people tend towards “myside bias,” favoring their own group and its perspective above other groups. Also, people who demonstrate higher investment in the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity tend to demonstrate a larger group narcissism memory bias effect.

In another project, we also examine how different sub-national groups construct the origin story of their nation differently; “collective memories” may not be entirely shared after all. When asked to list the most important events during the foundation of the nation, or the events that all people in the nation should remember, people from different social groups tend to produce different clusters of events. These sub-national differences in collective memory are associated with different perceived collective trajectories into the future. How people remember their national past and imagine their collective future varies along the lines of religious and political divides.

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