Automaticy and Other Memory Information

The final aspect of memory I want to look into at this point are the controlled and automatic processes. Although we don’t often think of processes as part of memory, they are. When you are learning to drive a car, you are overwhelmed by the complexity of the skill. There is so much to think about that it is difficult to imagine yourself driving for enjoyment. There are so many things to think about, you can hardly get to where you are going. Over time, as you practise the skill of driving (or reading, or writing etc.) many of the details and procedures that make up driving (or whatever) become automatic. The brain encoded shortcuts, that make up automaticity, remove much of the conscious thought that is initially required when you are learning something new. All of this is stored in memory.

When an experienced driver gets behind the wheel, they do many things without thinking about it. All of these processes become part of the overall skillset, and over time, become part of what makes someone an expert for whatever skill is in question. One of the hallmarks of a true expert (among other things) is that many of the processes that they engage in become automatic. The knowledge or skill appears to be just there, all the time. It becomes an automatic process to assess and pass judgment on a situation, and (often) sees the solution, seemingly without effort, that a novice would have to labour over to see.

Automaticity is an important aspect of memory that formal education can help builds up. A number of basic skills (basic addition, multiplication, reading etc.) should be learned to a mastery level, where the steps involved are invisible, and the solution or outcome is all a person sees. The problem 2×2 should bring 4 to mind without any (seeming) effort on your part. There are easy and simple ways to achieve this, but they are rarely applied in formal education. I’ll post about SAFMEDS in a few days to introduce you to one of the most effective methods there is. The problem of non-mastery of some skills  brings us to another glaring failure in education – grading. I’ll talk about this later, but would ask you to consider the following question. What does a “C” grade given to a child who is learning their multiplication tables mean?

Some Important but Ignored Memory Findings

Here are three findings that show us how we can increase the strength of the memory traces that are laid down during encoding. The three findings are: the disfluency effect, the testing effect, and the spacing effect. All three are referred to by Bjork as desirable difficulties. Difficulties that, when introduced into learning, make the learning more durable.

Disfluency Effect

The disfluency effect is simple. If students are presented with notes Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 8.26.20 AM, they remember about 15% more of the information, when tested a week later, than when their notes are presented in this font. The why is quite simple. The first font is a bit more difficult to read than the second font, and requires a bit more processing to understand the notes. The greater processing requirements mean that the information is processed slightly deeper in the disfluent font than in the fluent font. The deeper processing strengthens the memory traces, making the memory of the information more durable and easier to recall. It is interesting to note that when the effect was tested in the classroom, there were teachers who refused to participate because they wanted to protect their students from working too hard.

Testing Effect

The testing effect is another desirable difficulty that strengthens memory traces. In fact, it is the most powerful of the effects we will be looking at. In the study I’ll use for illustration, there were three groups of learners who were trying to remember material that was presented to them. They learned the material one week, and then their recall was measured a week later to see how well they remembered the information.

The first group had four, ten minute time slots to learn some material as well as they could (group SSSS). The second group had three, ten minute time slots to learn the same material as well as they could, with a recall test in the fourth ten minute time slot (group SSST). The third group had one, ten minute time slot to learn the material, and then had three ten minute tests to recall as much of the material as they could. Half of the subjects in each group took a test five minutes after the study was finished during the first week in order to measure their recall immediately following the learning phase of the study (5 min column in Table 2). All of the subjects then came back a week later to have a ten minute test to measure how much they recalled (1 week column in Table 2). Table 1 shows you how the study was organised, and an estimate of how much time the subjects had to learn the material, and Table 2 shows you the outcome.


Table 1 (based on Roediger & Karpicke (2004))

Mean number of times subjects were able to read the entire passage during 5-minute study periods in Experiment 2

   Study Period

Condition                   1          2          3          4                      Sum

SSSS                            3.4       3.5        3.6        3.7                  14.2

SSST                            3.2        3.5       3.6                                10.3

STTT                           3.4                                                            3.4


Table 2 (based on Roediger & Karpicke (2004))

Mean percentage of idea units recalled on the retention tests and forgetting scores in Experiment 2

Retention Interval

Condition                   5 min              1 week                        Forgetting

SSSS                                 83%                  40%                                  43%

SSST                                 78%                  56%                                  22%

STTT                                71%                   61%                                  10%


Amazingly, although the group who spent all their time learning the material (going over the passage an average of 14.2 times) remembered by far the most material immediately following their study phase (83%), they forgot the most during the following week (43%) with the subjects who only went over the passage an average of 3.4 times in total performing the worst in the first week (71%) but forgetting the least a week later (10%). Trying to repeatedly recall information has been demonstrated to provide the greatest benefit for remembering what it is that you learn, but, because of the “overassessment” philosophy in education, our children don’t do this. Remember, it is considered a waste of time measuring what the students learn more than once.

Spacing Effect

The spacing Effect is another one of those effects that helps produce long lasting, durable memory traces, but has been ignored by teachers. In this study, subjects were learning Spanish words. Their lessons were spaced at either one lesson a day, one lesson a week, or one lesson a month. Table 3 shows you how well the subjects remembered the words from previous lessons during the review that was administered during each lesson.


Table 3 (based on Bahrick 1979).

Mean percentage of correct recall of Spanish words on successive learning sessions.

                       Study Period

Lesson Interval                      2          3          4          5          6

1 Day                                            53         86        94        96        98

7 Days                                          39        68        83        89        94

30 Days                                       21         51        72        79         82


Clearly, across the sessions, having lessons once a day, for six days, produces better learning than having lessons once a month, for six months. However, when the subjects were brought back for a test of their Spanish words recall 30 days after their learning sessions had finished, the once a day group scored 68%, the once a week group scored 86%, and the once a month group scored 95%. Learning over a longer period of time requires more work to remember what you learned before, and the more work that is involved strengthens the memory traces, making what is learned far more durable.

In all three of these examples, the memory traces for what is being learned are stronger and more durable when more effort is required to learn than when less effort is required. However, in two of the three cases, the easier option (for the learner) produced a better immediate performance indicator. This leads me to believe that educators are more interested in immediate peak performance than real learning.

Having said all this, we need to realise that the findings I have referred to are relatively recent in the literature. The disfluency effect is the newest, having been initially observed only about 10 years ago. However, the Testing Effect was found in 1913 by Ballard, and so it has been around for only 100 years. The Spacing Effect was observed and documented by Ebbinghaus in 1885, about 130 years. How long does it take for findings about learning to move over into education?

If the goal of learning is to demonstrate peak performance, then educators are doing the right things. However, if the goals of the learner (and society) are the goals and question we talked about in our earlier post:

  • knowledge and skills acquired during the learning process should be stable and durable
  • knowledge and skills learned should be able to survive long periods of time when the knowledge or skills are not used, and be able to be recalled in a useful state when needed
  • produce and have available a mental representation of the knowledge or skill that allows for flexible access to that information in different settings
  • what is it that we really want memory to do?

we need to be doing better than we are.

As learners, as parents and grandparents, as a society, we need to decide what we want, and then advocate for change in an educational system that I have found much more focussed on teaching and student performance than on learning. We can do it, but it won’t be easy.


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