Cognitive psychology research continues to provide insight into how memory works. In this episode, Michelle Miller joins us to discuss how this research can help us design more effective learning experiences for our students.
Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. Her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World will be released in early 2022 as part of the superb West Virginia University series on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
- Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. West Virginia University Press.
- Carr, Nicholas (2008). “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” The Atlantic. July/August.
- Carl Wieman Science Center Initiative (2014). Two-stage Exams
- Tea for Teaching Episode 36. Peer Instruction A discussion of John’s use of two-stage exams in his classes.
- Studies on laptop use for note taking:
- Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168. (The study most cited by people opposed to laptop use.)
- Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2019). How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 31(3), 753-780.
- Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Williams, A. E., & O’Dowd, D. K. (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education, 59(4), 1300-1308.
- Artz, Benjamin and Johnson, Marianne and Robson, Denise and Taengnoi, Sarinda, Note-Taking in the Digital Age: Evidence from Classroom Random Control Trials (September 13, 2017).
- Bui, D. C., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2013). Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 299.
- Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132.
- Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of computing in higher education, 15(1), 46-64.
- Patterson, R. W., & Patterson, R. M. (2017). Computers and productivity: Evidence from laptop use in the college classroom. Economics of Education Review, 57, 66-79.
- Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning. Psychological science, 28(2), 171-180.
- Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31
- Lang, James M. “The Distracted Classroom.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 13, 2017.
- Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
John: Cognitive psychology research continues to provide insight into how memory works. In this episode, we examine how this research can help us design more effective learning experiences for our students.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane , an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. Her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World will be released in early 2022 as part of the superb West Virginia University series on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Welcome back, Michelle.
Michelle: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…Michelle, are you drinking tea?
Michelle: Well, nope. I’m on coffee.
John: It’s one of the most common forms of tea on the podcast.
Rebecca: So is water. John, how about you?
John: I am drinking Irish Breakfast tea.
Rebecca: Okay. All right, switching it up… switching it up.
John: The context for that is we recorded an earlier podcast today and I was drinking Prince of Wales tea. So, I did switch. Variety can be good.
Rebecca: I also made a new pot. And I have Chai now.
John: You don’t drink Chai very often.
Rebecca:No, I don’t. I drink it more around the holidays.
John: We do have some Christmas tea in the office if you ever drop by. [LAUGHTER] No one’s dropping by… everyone’s connecting remotely. But, we have lots of tea. So, we’ve invited you here to discuss Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?
Michelle: It really came together in 2019, which of course now seems so incredibly long ago. But, in the context for how it came about, I’ve gotten to connect with so many faculty, instructional designers, and others in higher education over the issues we talk about in Minds Online, and all of the student success conversations. Of course, I’ve been kicking around lots of different ideas for a longer book project for quite some time. And this is one of those, it just came to me, almost in just one fell swoop one morning. I was just kind of playing around with some different ideas and thinking about research that was coming together in some areas of cognitive psychology, and also the ongoing conversations on issues such as using devices to take notes, say laptops in class, other things that were really on the minds of a lot of teachers. And so this idea of really looking at memory and how that is changing, perhaps in terms of its nature, but also in terms of its value in such a heavily technological age. And a lot of folks have researched and written about that. But really looking at it through this unique lens of teaching and learning and what we all should know about remembering and about our own memories in this technological age. So I put those ideas down and set them aside for a little while, but then was able to connect with James Lang, the sole series editor of the West Virginia University Press’ series in teaching and learning in higher education. And we got to talking about that particular idea. I think this is a great fit. And we were off and running. We began outlining the ideas, and they all did come together just really in a relatively short amount of time for a book project like this.
John: Just as a follow up to that I remember seeing a tweet from Jim Lang, where he mentioned that he liked your manuscript so much that you were invited to be a co-editor of the series going forward,
Michelle: What an honor, and if this book manuscript and all of its early forms [LAUGHTER], helped him come to that conclusion, I’m just even more pleased about it in so many ways, just from a personal standpoint. I think, like many academics,books are so close to my heart. Although today I work as an academic cognitive psychologist, it’s not a book discipline. We disseminate our research primarily in article form. So that was also just a real connection for me as well. So the ability to jump in and also become a serious co-editor as part of this process. I agree, it was really fortuitous from my point of view. It’s such an honor.
John: We’re glad to have you there, because that’s a tremendous series. We’ve interviewed many of the authors, and we’re looking forward to all the new books, including yours.
Michelle: Oh, that’s incredible to hear. And I agree. It’s a dream team. We really assembled so many people with unique perspectives and research and practical ideas, and who are really great writers. So again, what an honor to be able to participate in that.
Rebecca: One of the things that students, but maybe also some of our colleagues, sometimes bring up is the idea that in the age of digital technology, we don’t need to remember things because we can just look things up or set reminders. And that sometimes also comes up when we start talking about retrieval practice and the need to remember things. How do you respond to that argument?
Michelle: Well, there’s so many really compelling barriers or themes that come up time and again. As faculty, as we talk to students, those themes do tend to have lots of different parts to them. So, as far as students are concerned, increasingly, especially in the last few years, I’ve had myself fewer students, either implicitly or explicitly saying, “Why do we have to know this? Why do we have to memorize this? I don’t think that sitting for a test where I have to put down memorized knowledge is valuable.” I hear a little bit less of that myself. But I could definitely see how a student could look at it and say, “Well, why is it that I need to remember the cut off for statistical significance at that conventional level of alpha, as we say, in a statistics class? Why should I know how to define different variables? Why should I be able to define these key terms, say in a psychology of language class?” …which is something that I just finished up this semester. So, why do we need to know? I think that students themselves can be very moved by the simple practical components. And I think it’s a good thing that many of our students really are picturing themselves in their future professional lives, taking what they are learning, taking their skills that they’re acquiring in college, and putting that into practice in whatever their future passion, their future career, really is. And I think that they can see that if you’re constantly stopping and looking things up, if you’re kind of reassembling information that you might need for a given task or situation, reassembling kind of every time and then running from there, that’s going to slow you down. And I do think that students really want a sense of accomplishment. And I see more and more students getting excited about the prospect of acquiring really hard skills that are difficult to acquire, maybe memory and knowledge per se isn’t necessarily part of that, but I think it’s in the vicinity. And I think with students as well, what helps is again, either explicitly or implicitly getting across to them, that I’m also being selective, I’m not just kind of picking facts out of the book, and throwing them on an exam, just for the sake of being able to do so. Pretty much for anything that I want them to know cold, if they’ve got to have it down in a given course, there’s probably a justification for why that particular fact is going to be helpful or useful. And they’ve also been, I think, inspired by saying, “Well, yeah, professionals, they know this, and here’s how they can use this in a situation.” Now, what students don’t know, and what I’m unlikely to actually put out there, because it’s just a little bit too much, is this also emerging research in cognitive psychology that is actually linking having a solid knowledge base and the development of certain specific kinds of thinking skills. So without right off the bat getting too far into the nuts and bolts of that research, there is some promising new findings that are starting to link those two things, which I think conventionally, as teachers, we’ve been maybe socialized to believe that thinking skills and memory are these naturally opposed things in the mind, it’s one or the other, they’re kind of in a tug of war with each other, when in fact, both of those do work quite naturally together. So I also kind of in the back of my mind, am really increasingly starting to suspect and to believe that, for example, if they know more about, say, dependent and independent variables, if we’re doing a research methods class, in theory, at least, they should be able to do more of their own original thinking to extend that knowledge into say, designing their own studies or Interpreting studies they’re reading about in a more sophisticated way. So those are the things that I would put out there to students in response to that, yeah,quite reasonable question.
Rebecca: Michelle, I’m finding what you’re saying really interesting because I had students doing a lot of reflections at the end of projects this semester. And a lot of students explicitly said, “I need to memorize what some of these things are, because it’s slowing me down, and I can’t spend the time on the things I really want to be doing.” And in the case of the classes, I’m teaching are creative thinking, but that’s really exactly you’re talking about, they were feeling that same thing.
Michelle: Right. See that’s, that’s really validating to hear. And here again is that kind of our culture as higher education teachers in a very well meaning way, it’s like, “Okay, there’s creativity over here and then there’s memory and knowledge over there, and oh, no, we have to make this choice. They’re an active opposition.” But your students themselves seem to be coming upon the fact that yeah, when we do have more basic skills, basic knowledge at our disposal, sometimes that even frees us up to have more leftover for the creativity. That’s one way of thinking about it that I particularly like, and so, right, both of these things can definitely work together. And I think it brings up too what I’ve increasingly starting to describe as fluent practice, fluent application of what you know. I’m kind of getting this picture of yeah, I’m out there. I’m working with students if I’m a teacher. I’m out there in healthcare field. Or I’m writing something, if I’m a journalist, and I’m putting together my work right there on the fly, as your students are pointing out having to kind of stop and start and go: “Wait a minute, let me reassemble this knowledge.”
John: One thing I was thinking in terms of fluency concept is that if you’re going to be a scholar studying writings in another language, it would probably be a whole lot more effective if you didn’t have to look up each and every word as you read those things. Being fluent in the basic grammar of that language makes it a whole lot easier to interpret meaning from larger writings. And I think that holds in pretty much all disciplines.
Michelle: I agree. It’s a really compelling metaphor, isn’t it?
John: Most of the opposition to this concept, this bifurcation between memory and higher level learning, I’ve seen not so much from students, but from many faculty who reject the notion of retrieval practice on the grounds that they’re teaching higher level skills. And I’ve had more difficulty in trying to explain to some of our colleagues the importance of that fluency in the basic concepts to be able to reach those higher levels. And you described it really well, in many of your writings and on past podcasts too.
Michelle: I have had that similar experience. Going further back to the idea for this book, I’d say this is a real hot button issue. There’s really something there when an issue is this polarizing. And it really can be when you do start to talk about memory, and an even more polarizing word: “memorization.” It is very natural for faculty, I would say probably about half to three quarters, you’ll get an immediate negative reaction of pushback. And here’s the thing, it comes from a great place, I think, in all the experiences I’ve had. People will say, “Well, aren’t we harkening back to an outdated banking model of education that has been talked about for quite some time, like, ‘I’m the teacher, and I’ve got all this great knowledge, you’ve got nothing. And so the whole teaching enterprise is a matter of me kind of cracking open my brain, and you sit there passively while I pour it all into your brain.’” And, of course, that is the last thing that any really committed, engaged teacher in higher education is going to want to be doing. So I think that that is one of, again, the really good reasons why we react with skepticism when anybody brings us up. What do you students actually know? What do they actually remember? How are you reinforcing that? But, in so many different ways, I think that we can get around it, it doesn’t have to put us back into this outdated model of transfer of kind of the student got this big blank space in their head, and I’m just starting to fill it up. We don’t have to fall into that. So I think that a class or a course that emphasizes knowledge that emphasizes memory can be really engaging, and it can honor what students already know. But there are some things that we do have to change about our mindset and maybe some knowledge of our own that we have to add, in order for that to happen.
John: In the second chapter of the book, you describe some of the classic theories of memory that show up in a lot of textbooks that many educators once were exposed to and often still are exposed to. How well do those simple models hold up to evidence? And what are some examples of those simple models?
Michelle: So these models of memory… this is something that’s inspired me going way, way back when I started writing about these issues a little over 10 years ago. So, what are the disconnects between either common sense conceptions of memory that we might have, or as you said, things we’ve actually read in textbooks that seem very, very credible. And for the most part, it’s a matter of these things have been supplanted by continuing developments in the arena of memory. Now, one of the things that I love about writing about memory is that we have been researching this in cognitive psychology for a very long time. And we’ve had detailed systematic models that go back at least 50 years at this point. So it’s wonderful we have so much to tap into, but that does mean that, at this point, we have to sometimes say “Well, how have we changed these, expanded them, or made them more sophisticated?” So that’s kind of where the field has gone and where those disconnects can arise. So I think if I were to run down some of the biggest outdated ideas, or just wrong ideas, probably the biggest one is that three stops along an assembly line model. Sometimes this goes by the name, the modal model when we were talking about it in the literature, but it’s the one that if you took Psychology 101 at pretty much any point you saw in the textbook illustrated. So,the idea is that we first gather these brief sensory impressions, and that’s sort of the first step of memory, they stay in short-term memory. Sometimes you’ll see a little circle with an arrow where we’re rehearsing like we’re trying to remember the phone number before we dial the phone. And so we’re saying it to ourselves over and over. And then there’s the next step along the assembly line. It sort of travels along to long-term memory and gets dumped there, and then you can pick it back up. So this model was based on a lot of really good solid laboratory data, and it explained a lot of important patterns that scientists of the time were seeing in things like, “Well, why is it that people remember lists in a particular way? Or why is it that we can only remember so many digits that people are asking us to say back?” …and so on. But here’s the problem with that. First of all, we now know that there is a lot that goes on to determine what ends up permanently stored, and of course, the vast majority, we don’t store. So, things like meaning, things like interpretation, that short-term or immediate memory store, these days, many scientists, including myself, believe that we have quite a few specialized ones, and they work together in a sort of a coordinated fashion. So it isn’t just this one stop, and some of this is just inside baseball for memory researchers, right? But I think for teachers, the problem does come when we do oversimplify issues like “Well, okay, if short-term memory has a certain capacity”… like you’ll sometimes see the number seven plus or minus one or seven plus or minus two, “Well, if I put seven things on a slide then students will get it all, and as long as you just keep the number of things low, then you’re golden.” And it does not work that way. So things for example, that are very meaningful to students, that students can interpret, that students care about, you can have quite a few pieces of information. And as long as they kind of hang together in that way, and have some compelling thing that will cause them to stick, well, you’re much more likely to see permanent storage. And I think, too, it also leads us down this wrong path that in a way actually harks back to that banking or transfer idea of education, which encourages us to think of memory as a place. And you’ll see metaphors like, “Oh, it’s a filing cabinet.” “It’s a bucket.” And that implies, first, that if you want to remember something, you just sort of will yourself to remember it and you just put it there. And as long as that place isn’t too full, it’s great. And I think we all know [LAUGHTER] that it’s not as simple as just wanting to remember something that you’re going to be able to get it back. So I always encourage faculty don’t think of memory as a place to put things, think of it as something that your mind and your brain can do that serves other goals, that helps you do other things. So that’s one of the things that I would say about that. Now, here’s another misconception. And actually, there was a very large scale survey of adults in the United States, I talk about it quite a bit in the book, that simply asked them about some ideas about how memory works. And this one was accepted by a majority of adults who were surveyed, but memory researchers will uniformly reject it. And that is the idea that your mind is really more like a video camera. So it’s almost like we’ve taken a technological metaphor and put that in place of the filing cabinet metaphor of yor. So, the idea is that, well, we pick up things that are sort of around us or in front of us, if we see it, if we hear it, or if we see it multiple times or hear it multiple times, we just sort of store that away in a very literal form. And sometimes people will actually take this to an extreme and say, “Well, somewhere in your mind is this hidden reserve of all these things that you’ve experienced, and if you can just tap into it, you can sort of rewind the tape and find anything.” And nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to what we currently know about memory. And so here again, for teachers, I think that that can lead us down the road of saying, “Well, if I just sort of make an announcement every day or write something on the board, and students eyes are pointed towards it, they’ll pick it up…” …and they may or may not. And for students themselves, it can lead them to think that well, even if I’m using a very passive or inefficient study strategy for acquiring knowledge, that will work. And I think we all know as well, for all kinds of different reasons, that that’s not the case simply sitting for a certain amount of time, reviewing notes, highlighting or rereading is unlikely to give much of a payoff in terms of memory. That’s because our minds, unlike video cameras, are constantly interpreting, sorting, sifting, even as we create those memories in the first place.
Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve hinted about is the idea that perhaps we don’t remember as much as we forget. [LAUGHTER]
Michelle: Yes. I don’t know what the ratio is. But it’s got to be [LAUGHTER] pretty substantial.
Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about why our minds have evolved in this way for survival purposes?
Michelle: Right, and it’s good that you’re coupling this idea of forgetting with that idea of like, what’s adaptive for us? What’s actually beneficial in terms of our memories? So again, if we’re thinking of memory, not as just a sort of bucket that is in our heads, but it’s there to help us, a few things become more clear. And I think especially for those of us who are maybe more of the typical median age and life age for faculty, we’re constantly going, “Why did I forget this? Why can’t my brain just sort of retain everything?” And this is the thing, is that while we have to be careful about making these really specific sort of evolutionary arguments, there’s been a lot of criticism of that. I think that’s reasonable. But, I also think that it is quite sensible to say, “Our minds, our brains, are evolved for efficiency.” Our memories are not going to be able to do what we need them to do if they simply pick up everything indiscriminately. That would be a really bad system design. Among other things, it would make the retrieval side of memory a lot more error prone than it is. So back in Minds Online, I use this analogy of a gigantic closet. Well, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the biggest closet in the world if it’s sort of disorganized, and you can’t find what you need when you need it. So, our minds are very selective about what they take in. And, in educational situations, that makes us sit up and take notice, right? Because, okay, I’ve got this big, thick textbook of research methods or chemistry, you name it, and I’m going to need it in three years, maybe, when I’m graduated, my brain is going to be a little skeptical [LAUGHTER] in a sense about whether and how much of that I should acquire. So, we forget things, or fail to encode or acquire them in the first place, if they don’t clearly tap into survival, into goals, and so on. And again, without getting too literal minded about what did we evolve to remember in our ancestral environments, I think it’s also fairly clear that this is, for example, why our minds and brains pick up on things that are highly emotional. And for those of us who tack a little bit more towards anxiety, we’re acutely aware of this, because we often remember negative things. I have an example in the book, a little personalexample of how I got stung by a whole bunch of wasps when I was five years old, and didn’t even know what wasps were. And I remember a lot about that episode, not because I want to, but because my brain is trying to help me, trying to say, “Yeah, this was something that you do not want to repeat.” Now, fortunately, there’s also some positive sides to this. And you can say it also makes sense for our minds and our brains to retain things that gave us joy, gave us delight, that surprised us. Those are the things where we kind of go, “Yeah, that might be helpful for the future.” So even though I’ve got a really high bar for what I want to save, that might make it through. And I guess the other place where this could really come into play is in the area of cues. So as I’ve written about, in a lot of my work, we also have to remember that our minds are trying to be efficient in bringing back what we need to know in the right context. And we see this in a lot of areas of cognition of things we know or things we can do, we can kind of blank out on them if we’re not in the right setting. And here again, it can be very frustrating if, for example, we’re sitting in an exam and going, “Oh, my gosh, I’m trying to bring this fact back. And I know I know it, but I’ll remember it later with the right cues are there. That’s really frustrating. But another case of where our brain is trying to do its job the best way it can. And so we are highly reliant on those cues to be able to retrieve. So I think having a grasp of some of those, really can start to make the pieces click into place, and make some, sometimes frustrating, sometimes strange, quirks of the mind start to make a little bit more sense.
Rebecca: So Michelle, is that why I can remember someone in my class’s name when they’re in my class, but not when I see him on the street?
Michelle: Right, and you could also see other classical memory phenomena at play, just in thast case of students’ names and students’ faces. So when I have a new class, a new crop of students comes in, that is going to kind of overwrite, in a way, my previous [LAUGHTER] students as well. So you get these sort of interference effects. And that’s another thing that can cause forgetting or cause failure to remember is, is lack of distinctiveness, sometimes, too. When I’ve got the 10 semesters’ worth of students to remember, it gets a little bit harder to pick out the particular one. And that’s another phenomenon that I talk about a little bit in the book.
John:One of the things you talk about in the book is the argument that so often appears in discussions about whether the use of technology enhances or erodes memory. Maybe we could start with some of the arguments against the use of technology. In what way may the use of things like smartphones and automatic reminders and other things, perhaps, do some harm in terms of our memory?
Michelle: Right. So if you’ve followed at all on the kind of popular press, the books, the articles that come out about the cognitive impacts of technology, I think it’s safe to say that it leads with the negative, even up to the point there’s a famous article that just led with “Is Google making us stupid?” [LAUGHTER] There’s a lot to that claim. But, clearly, that is implying that when Google is all around us, and perhaps when we’re relying on things, that that is going to be destructive to our inborn memory abilities. And that’s a pretty concerning narrative. And you know, in the book, I talk about another large scale study that was done in the United States, asking adults: What are some of your concerns about technology? And there are all kinds of different social and emotional and all kinds of issues people cited, but top among them was they were worried about the cognitive impact. So this is one where we have to look and say, “Alright, is there anything supporting this?” Now, in part, there are. So, there was an interesting line of research that came out, and folks still continuing to look into this, some have even termed it the “Google effect” on memory… not to call out just one particular form [LAUGHTER] of technology. But that’s one they were focusing on. And this has to do with what happens when we believe like really, really believe, that we will be able to get to some fact in the future. And there were these really neat, very clever experimental procedures done to kind of convince people as they were doing, for example, a trivia task, learning some really unusual facts that they wouldn’t have known before. They led people to believe, in some cases, that these were all going to be stored in an online folder, and they’d be able to find them and other people were led to believe that that was not going to be the case, that they were not going to be able to get back to them. And perhaps, unsurprisingly to some of us, when people think they’ll be able to get it back, they’re less likely, if you give them a surprise test [LAUGHTER]to see if they remember it on their own, they’re less likely to do that. So even without realizing it, there’s that brain being efficient theme again. If it’s stored out there, I’m not going to store it on my own. And I think there are some other interesting effects in terms of what’s starting to be known as cognitive offloading. So, if I’m going to put it over here, I’m not going to carry it, so to speak, in my brain. Use of turn by turn GPS… [LAUGHTER] so what many of us, including myself, rely on to get from place to place? Well, it does turn out that if you are more reliant on GPS for a given region, you’re going to be less likely to develop a sophisticated mental model of that. So those are definitely some of the negatives. Now there’s that line. And then another kind of line that comes down on the: “Wow, this has a negative impact on memory,” in general is, of course, distraction. Now, oftentimes, as I’ve written about and talked about a lot, you can’t separate out memory and attention. Those two things are incredibly intertwined in cognition. And what do mobile devices do better than anything in the world, they distract us. For example, there’s another line of research that looks at what happens when people are taking pictures during some kind of experience they’re having. And there’s some evidence here as well, that something about getting engaged in just the attention demanding aspects of picture taking, detract from your forming memories right there on the fly. And it probably does come down to attention in that case. So, if you’re responding to notifications, if you’re fiddling with the settings on your camera, if you’re doing that, no surprise, you won’t form the memories in the first place, and since memory is not a video camera, if you’re not forming the memories in the first place, they’re gone, you really only get that one chance. So that’s some of the negative stuff. But that’s not the only side of the story.
Rebecca:You are going to tell us about the good stuff, too, right?
Michelle:Well, I think that that’s really important. And so I think that this balance, especially when we’re talking about what we’re going to base our teaching on, and what information we’re going to share with students, it is really important to capture that. So, what does not seem to be supported, if you really look at the more anti-technology, the more alarmist strain of public debate and discussion about this, it’s that these effects are not global. It’s not that having a smartphone, having access to online searches is just across the board, decreasing my ability to store information on my own in my brain, it really is very localized. So it’s not like if I walked out of that study on storing information on Google, and now I permanently have this decrement. I think it’s quite questionable. We definitely need more research, and I don’t think a strong case can be made right now that technology is decreasing attentional abilities across the board either. So again, in the moment, if I let my technology interfere with class, or with a field trip I’m on or something like that, oh, yes, that’s going to be a problem in terms of memory. But if I put it away, then I should be able to rebound. So there is that. And I think, too, you’d mentioned the issue of reminders, right? So am I picking up on correctly, that you had mentioned that using things like calendar alerts, and so on might have some negative effects.
John: Actually, the negative effect for me is that now I no longer have an excuse for missing meetings. I can’t say I forgot it, because people know it’s in my calendar because they put it there. [LAUGHTER] So, that is a negative effect for me. [LAUGHTER]
Michelle: Okay, well, you know what I think the next book might have to be on the social aspects of memory in organizations, but okay, so you’re using your calendar alerts to organize and to say, “What do I need to do next?” You might even be carrying lists… alerts. If you really want to get fancy with it, you can even set alerts that go off at a given context. So here’s the thing… I think here too, well, what we’re talking about really is this other form of memory called prospective memory. And I’m always saying hey, don’t forget in the long term,short term, all these other forms of memory, that prospective memory is also there. And prospective memory, to me is fascinating. It is the form of memory that is not for something that we learned in the past or did in the past, it’s following through on an intention for the future. So, “I have to answer this email by the end of the day today” or “Oh, yeah, the meeting time has been changed, and I need to be sure to get to that.” Or even other things like taking medication at a certain time or stopping off to do an errand on the way home, all classic prospective memory tasks. Well, here’s the thing, basically, human prospective memory, our inborn capability to do this, the technical term is garbage. We are really, really bad at this. And it probably does come down to that our brains are there to react right in the moment. We don’t have anything really like a timer that goes off in our brains, we’re responding to the cues that are in front of us. And especially when we’re distracted, or when we’re deviating from a set routine, something that we always do, those intentions are incredibly fragile, and we just forget them. And so I think in this case, I think we all just ought to fold to just say, “We need to use the technology to do this.” So, digital memory is brilliant at this, right? It knows what time it is, and it doesn’t care what’s going on around you at any given moment. If you set the alert, the alert will go off. And especially when we can develop habits to refer to these, I think that’s a very positive thing. And it’s something that serves us very, very well. So while it might not fit into what most of us think of really classically as learning, per se, it’s an important thing that we deal with every single day. And so to be aware that our memories are incredibly fallible in this way, but there’s a technological fix. I think that’s using technology and digital memory for what it’s really good for, to buttress us in that way. And I think this is an emerging story. I don’t believe right now we have any research that would show that there’s going to be any kind of a decrement, or a problem that occurs, since most of us are so poor at this to begin with, I feel like, hey, even if we got a little bit worse, I’m not even sure if we would notice, like you I’ve got to rely on the calendar. If it’s in the calendar, I’ll be there. If it’s not, nope, I won’t.
Rebecca: And those calendar reminders and things are really good at getting your attention. So we might have to be intentional about how we actually set those alerts and things for, right?
Michelle: Right, right. And really, it’s about active management and being in charge of our tech. And that’s where I think all of us should be if we are using technology, if we do want to rely on it to be really deliberate and ruthless about “Okay, I’m not going to let just every application send me alerts because it feels like it…. A store’s having a sale or maybe even I don’t want to have my text or emails alerting me, particularly during particular times. But here’s what I do want to come through.” I think that that’s a recipe for success.
John: And both iOS and Android operating systems have gotten better about allowing different types of messages during different times . With iOS, I know, you have these new focus modes where you can choose what comes through during certain portions of the day or during certain activities. And Android has very similar capabilities now, so we can fine tune those things quite a bit more depending on what we’re doing. So we can choose to turn off all alerts sometimes or to allow some alerts to come through that are essential. And during other times, we could allow more if that’s appropriate.
Michelle: I think that’s a great point. And maybe there are some times when the phone just to be powered off. And it’s up to us to really have that insight and frankly, that metacognitive ability, to be able to do that. I think that that’s exactly what I would want for my students. And that’s exactly what I would share with them in the times when I do get to talk to them. And I wanted to bring up maybe one other positive when it comes to education, especially those of us who are teaching and are educators. Let’s not forget that technology has opened up incredible ways to take advantage of retrieval practice. So that retrieval practice, of course, when students are effortfully bringing information back into mind, what we now know is this is incredibly efficient way to build knowledge that’s solid and to build it in less time. Well, we always want to be judicious about the technology we bring into our classrooms, I think we all now know that we don’t just want to bring it in for its own sake. But quizzing programs, applications that students can use on their own. I found that many of my students are independently putting together Quizlets and using those. Well, that’s really hard to do with strictly pencil and paper, low tech tools. So that’s another way that technology can really reinforce and strengthen memory, if we let it and if we use it in the right way.
Rebecca: That’s a really great example of how to use some of this cognitive science research in the classroom. Are there other examples that you have of how we can continue to help students build their memory in a classroom setting or in our teaching practice?
Michelle: Oh, well, I would love to share with you this is a very fresh example, because I just did this last night. It’s another technique that I talk a lot about, because I’m really fired up about it. And this is the… I’ll just call it the two-stage exam… and it’s something that I have completely borrowed out of the repertoires of many innovative STEM teachers. So this is kind of the tradition and the practice that it comes out of, but I’ve been using it in my psychology classroom, and it’s just got many, many benefits. So in the two-stage exam, what you do is… well, like last night, which was a final exam, I actually figured out the logistics of how to pull this off in a final exam, because my students really wanted to do it, having had a great experience on the midterm. So, here’s how it works. You have your traditional, no notes, closed book, pencil and paper exam. But here’s the thing, we know that those exams are not just a way to assess knowledge. They’re also, in and of themselves, this great way to reinforce knowledge, but we so often just walk away from them, or we quote, unquote, go over the exam, which is just kind ofme reading the questions and saying, “Well, this is the right one…” and then maybe students come back and argue. And so it can even just devolve and be about the points and not about the learning. So what we do is, say for the midterm exam, the class period immediately after when we took the test is set aside for, I call it the post-test discussion activity. What I do is I give students tests back to them, and I have some different ways of making sure that there’s no funny business with those tests. And those tests are ungraded at that point. I’ve not looked at them. So I randomly assign students to groups, about three to five is ideal. And they sit with their peers, and I let them do this open book at this point, you don’t have to, but I do. They get a new blank copy of that same exact exam. And they fill the whole thing out, again, as a group, really talking about the different questions and coming to some consensus. And I give them a little incentive, I say anything over 90% that the group earns on this exam is added as extra credit to everybody’s exam in that group. So it won’t completely change your grade, but it does give some incentive to really focus. Now, here’s the tie to memory. We know too, that another quirk of how retrieval practice works is that, when I have answered a question, and maybe I’ve gotten it wrong, that’s a point where it creates this very fertile, very receptive, window for re-studying that information. And that makes a lot of sense, right? We’re curious, we want to know, and then sitting with a peer and having them say, “Well, actually, I came to this conclusion, and here’s why…” …you lead to substantive discussion, you take advantage of that receptive window for learning, and a side benefit that I was not expecting too, but I will put out there. Students report to me informally, that this radically reduces their testing anxiety. There’s something about just knowing you get another shot in a way, you get a little bit of resolution to say, “Oh, wait a minute, I did better than I thought, or I got this wrong but now I really understand why.” So I also pitch it to them as hey, I care about the learning… the points, you know, we have points, I do give grades, but I really want everybody to understand on their own terms, what this exam was all about, rather than just kind of closing the book and walking away from it. So that’s something that I think, on many different levels, can reinforce memory. And I think too, it also does bring about what can be a complementary relationship between: “alright, here’s what I wanted you to know, out of your own brain when you were sitting for this exam, but yeah, it’s true that you can look it all back up, and let’s go back to… we can search the net, we can search our notes, we can use that to then hopefully reinforce what the knowledge base is that we have. So, it’s a great technique, I’d say, I always encourage folks, if they do want to know all those little ins and outs of how to pull it off at different kinds of classes, give me a shout, get in touch, because I think it’s really wonderful.
John: It’s something I’ve used for a few years, and it’s worked really, really well. And I think Carl Wieman’s website has quite a bit of information on that and we do have a past podcast on that too. It’s a really good practice, and students have loved it.
Michelle: Right, and it’s a wonderful thing when we can find something that students appreciate, that they see is very fair and very supportive of their learning, that leads to a dynamic discussion and tracks so well with all this memory research and theory.
Rebecca: You’ve been teaching a seminar class on technology, mind and brain. And so what insights have your students brought to this idea in this class?
Michelle: Oh, it’s just been such a privilege to be able to teach this course. I’ve taught it in lots of iterations over the years, and I’ll be jumping into that next semester as well. And I definitely use those insights in writing this current book. So most of the students in this course are… we have to put quotes around this now… but traditional college age, so they are kind of younger people and so it’s, I think, a good kind of reality check for me to kind of balance that against those popular media depictions of today’s younger people, the Gen Z students. And on the one hand, when you do look at those stereotypical conceptions, technology is always there. They’ve got the cell phone. I mean, how many times have we seen kind of that stock photo of the young person [LAUGHTER] and they’ve got their tattoos and they’ve got their cell phone, and they’re kind of glued to it. I think that broadly speaking, all of my conversations with students, yes, they do care a lot about the technology in their lives. And they see how pervasive that it is, and one of the exercises I have them do kind of informally is just a one day technology diary. So when did you first use technology? How did it come to bear in your life throughout your day, and probably like many of their faculty members as well, their use of their cell phone does start as soon as their eyes crack open, reach under the pillow or to the bedside stand or wherever it is, and it starts there, and then you’re off and running for the rest of the day. So that is there. However, what is also very, very clear from my conversations with students is they are not just uncritically accepting that technology is part of life, just like the air we breathe. They question it, and they want to question it. I have perhaps a selective sample there in students signed up for this course. But that is something that I see time and again, that they are there to ask, “Well, what is the research actually tell us? This is what my teachers told me. This is what I’ve heard people say, but what’s actually out there in terms of what it’s doing to my mind, what it’s doing to my brain?” So they’re skeptical the technology, but they’re also skeptical of the narratives that they hear. And they do want to know, what’s the empirical evidence for these different claims? There’s also an exercise that we do, where if we’re online we do it on a whiteboard, or we might actually physically move around a classroom, I ask them, “Well, how much do you even like your technology?” And they’ve thought about that, too. And they can say, “Yeah, I accept it as kind of a necessary evil in my life, but I don’t like it. I got rid of my Instagram, I don’t like to have my cell phone on me all the time” to others who say, “Oh, I love it. I love being on Discord with my friends, I love gaming, I can’t imagine life without my phone, I love my profiles,” and so on. So, there’s also that range of attitudes, acceptance in different ways that students are using technology. Now, one thing they do have in common, too, though, they want to know how can I put this to use in my life? So some of these things we were talking about before of: How can I be in charge of this? What really should I be doing? What are some different suggestions, hacks, apps that I might want to install, apps that I might want to de-install off of my phone to fit my purposes. And I will say too, especially the last time that I taught this class, one of the options that they have for a term project is an adaptation of a type of project that we do a lot in psychology and also in health science, where people really track a behavior that they’re engaged in with the idea of better insights about what leads us to that behavior, and maybe changing it. So students have the option of choosing something… that might be social media, it might be their overall screen time, something that they say, “I really want to moderate this, this feels a little out of control in my life,” or “I’m wondering what would happen if I did this less.” And so I’ve seen students designed for themselves. Usually, they just take a few weeks to do for the project, although they might carry it on further. I’ve seen all kinds of different variations on this. Everything from totally getting off all social media to having a tech fast on the weekend for students with families who are concerned about their family time. I asked them to say “Well, did it do what you’d hoped you wanted to do? Did you feel more clear headed? Was your mood any better? Did you have more time? Did you feel more focused when you were doing your schoolwork?” So students have really, really enjoyed doing those. They really appreciate the factuallybased judgment free zone that’s tailored to them personally, they really appreciate that. And they appreciate having some techniques, because we bring those in as well, just basic behavior change techniques, if you want to do something less, here’s how to do that, and here’s how to know if you’re succeeding. So those are some of the great things that I, again, have been so privileged to have a window into through teaching this course.
John: Are there any other suggestions you have for faculty in terms of how to use technology effectively to enhance learning?
Michelle: To kind of pivot back to that idea… In the book, I do take on this very specific question, one that really generated a surprising amount of controversy, to my mind, the question of whether students should be taking notes on laptops in their classrooms. And here, just to kind of summarize, there have been some real questions about replication of some of the key findings of one of the major studies that came out on that topic, the one that you see cited again, and again, from people who say, “No, taking notes by hand is superior.” Well, there’s some questions about that. So, I would really encourage faculty to dive into that question more and to look at some of the more recent research if they’re actually going to set their in-class policies based on that research. Now, there are lots of other things that they might look at to say, “Well, what should be allowed in a classroom? Should we have a strict no-technology policy, covering phones and so on as well?” First, the downside of that is you can’t do something like run quizzes, and so on. I tend to tilt more towards options, and a little bit more flexibility for students, I tend to have a somewhat more lenient and open technology policy in my own classroom, because I do want to give options for students to do things like quizzes, and being able to take notes on laptops, I think, for some students is a really good thing. That said, there are downsides as well. And I always like to have options for students who don’t want to pull out their phone, or, believe it or not, who don’t carry devices with them. So there are ways to do things like engage in in-class quizzes or quiz games that don’t entail those. So that’s something that I would advise faculty to really, really think through. James Lang’s work, his Distracted Students series in the Chronicle of Higher Education and his recent book on the subject also gives a different perspective on how to design appropriate things like policies for different situations, different kinds of classes, and so on. So I would say that, I would encourage them to anytime you feel you have that sort of teachable moment or receptive window to talk to students about their technology, to encourage them to do things like clean up their notifications, see if they might want to use calendar alerts to help stay on top of their classwork and so on, to take advantage of that. So those are some of the specific things that I would say for faculty, but it is something that I think we should all be thinking about. And when we come back to just the issue of memory, I would say be reflecting on what are the key pieces of information that do lead to that fluent practice. So,when you’re putting those backs on the study guide, or saying, “Here’s what I want students to know,” step back for a minute, ask yourself: Why? Should it belong in that kind of pantheon of remembered knowledge? But, at the same time, don’t think that memory, or even memorization, is something to shy away from. I think we could stand up proudly, and I think our students will support us if we presented in the right way to say, “Yeah, part of what you’re doing in my courses is you are memorizing, that’s not all you’re doing. And in fact, this will help you advance towards becoming that accomplished person in this discipline, or perhaps even a future professional in this discipline.”
Rebecca: Such great advice, Michelle. Thank you so much for all of this food for thought.
Michelle: Oh, thank you as well.
Rebecca: We always wrap up, though, by asking what’s next?
Michelle: Well, okay, well, now that this book is off to the printer, [LAUGHTER] off to the press, of course I’m looking at what topics in cognitive psychology and applications of cognitive psychology to dive into next. And I keep coming back to the topic of attention. So, I guess, stay tuned for more projects that specifically focus on that. So, looking at that, also looking at ways to bring these into classrooms that really support students through this incredibly challenging time that we have, I think that we are undergoing a much needed transformation. And I definitely count myself there as well in looking at how to better support students not just academically, but also emotionally and make our classrooms more places for safe and joyful learning for all students. So, engaging in that conversation as well and keeping an eye on what the next few semesters are going to look like not just at my institution and in my classes, but really in higher education in general. So that’s the point I’m at and always looking forward to connecting with faculty, instructional designers, and others across the field.
John: Well, thank you, Michelle. It’s always great talking to you and we’ve learned a lot from you over the years.
Michelle: Oh, you all as well. Thank you so much for all you do.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com.Music by Michael Gary Brewer.