Students overestimate memory, underestimate studying

iStock_000001519996SmallWhy don’t your students spend more time studying? It may be because they are overconfident about their memories and are underestimating the amount they will learn by studying, according to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“When asked (essentially outright) about the effects of studying, our participants underestimated the amount they would learn by studying– by more than 50% in the current experiments–even when warned not to do so,” the authors write.

Students may be deluded by the “stability bias,” a belief that their memories are more stable than they actually are, the researchers say. People are prone to think of their memory as something like a computer’s hard drive, the authors write.

In a series of 12 experiments, undergraduate students were presented with word pairs and asked to predict how well they would remember the second word when cued with the first word on a later test. The number of times they were told they would be allowed to study and the number of tests they would take varied from 1-4. Item difficulty varied across the experiments. Particpants were asked to predict how they would perform item by item. In one experiment, they were asked to predict their chance of forgetting the 2nd word in an item. In another, participants were explicitly warned not to underestimate how much they would learn by studying.

“Despite gain in actual learning that were often very large, our participants predicted that they would learn little or nothing as a result of future study opportunities and seemed to make predictions based on the current state of their memories,” the researchers say.

“This underestimation even occurred, in some cases, when they had already experienced large increased in their own test performance across previous test trials.”

Students who had one study-test cycle and students who had 4 study-test cycles predicted recall levels of 35% and 30%, respectively. Actual recall was 5% and 71%, respectively. A curious finding was that students showed less confidence the more study-test cycles they had.

“A Stability Bias in Human Memory: Overestimating Remembering and Underestimating Learning,” by Nate Kornell and Robert Bjork, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2009, Volume 138, Number 4, pps. 449-468.

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