The Fuzzy Trace Theory

When students come to see me after after doing badly on an exam, I ask, "Did you feel you were familiar with the material?" The response is usually, "Yeah, I thought I knew it." (Students who bomb an exam they didn't study for don't come to me for advice on what went wrong ;-)
So the student clearly studied--what happened?

The answer must lie in either the quantity or quality of studying. Let's start with quantity: the more you study, the better you'll tend to do. But there are only so many hours in a day. You have a bunch of courses to study for, you want to have some downtime, you want to sleep. Telling students to just spend more time studying is disingenuous.

What if you could study better?

Fuzzy trace theory (Brainerd & Reyna, 2002 [pdf]) was originally about the development of children's memory, but it can also be applied to adults. It says there are two parallel memory representations formed in your mind:

  • verbatim traces: remembering things exactly, word-for-word, and
  • gist traces: remembering the general meaning of things
For example, if you hear the word spaniel, a verbatim trace would consist of actually remembering the word "spaniel"; a gist trace would be things that you know about spaniels (e.g., spaniels are hunting dogs, with long coats and drop ears). So, generally, verbatim memories are more specific than gist memories.

What does this have to do with studying? If you study, say, the definition of "structuralism" so that you form a verbatim memory, you will be able to write down the complete definition. However, a gist memory of "structuralism" would be more vague, like "something about consciousness," "an approach in psychology," or even "a word from my psych class." Which of these two memories would you prefer to have during an exam?

If you're studying for an essay/long-answer exam, you will work to form verbatim traces so you can put down the actual definition. You may use flashcards, or even practice writing the definitions of important terms and concepts.

When it comes to multiple-choice exams, however, there's a tendency to be more complacent: "The answer will be right in front of me, all I have to do is recognize it." Unfortunately, multiple-choice exams tend not to have gist questions like this:
1. Do you recognize this word from the textbook: structuralism?
a) yes
b) no
Instead, questions are designed to test your verbatim traces:
1. What is the fundamental basis of structuralism?
a) Analyzing abnormal conscious processes to treat clients.
b) Focusing on observable behaviours, and how they are modified by the environment.
c) Decomposing conscious processes into basic elements.
d) Studying the purpose of certain mental processes.
Forming verbatim traces requires more intensive study. That means making your own notes as you read the chapters, and using aids like flashcards. Now you've got a conceptual understanding of why familiarity with material is not as good as actually, thoroughly knowing it. (By the way, the answer is "c." UWO has some resources about "when in doubt, pick c" under Relying on Myths and Misconceptions on their Writing Multiple Choice Tests page.)

Why aren't you studying?

Reference: Brainerd, C.J., & Reyna, V.F. (2002). Fuzzy-trace theory and false memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 164-169.

The Awards: 1

I found out that I was named to the Department of Psychology's Teaching Honour Roll (with Distinction) for the two summer courses I taught this year. Yay!

The Department gives out these awards (no, they're not cash--not even a certificate!) based on the end-of-term evaluations that students fill out. Specifically, it hinges on the one item, "Overall, this instructor was excellent" which is filled out on a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. If the median rating is at least 4.0, you're placed on the Honour Roll. If at least 45% of students also indicate "strongly agree," then you get on the Honour Roll with Distinction.

I've won the Honour Roll award 18 times, and with Distinction, um, 71 times. Now, I'm not just tooting my own horn (toot!); I have to say that many of my colleagues in the Department also receive these awards: 5 on the Honour Roll, and 4 others with Distinction for Summer, 2008 term. If those numbers seem small, it's because there aren't a lot of classes offered in the Summer term. (Actually, it looks like every instructor achieved Honour Roll or with Distinction! That's pretty good.)

If you think filling out those forms is pointless, let me tell you it's not. Things like promotions, raises, and even contract renewals are based partly on student evaluations of instructors. Unfortunately, a lot hinges on responses to that "instructor was excellent" question. What if the instructor was merely very good? Would you put "strongly disagree"?

The Teaching & Learning Committee of the staff association is looking at other ways that instruction can be assessed, beyond focusing on the "excellent" question. Turns out, it's a really difficult thing, and it's been studied for quite some time. In the meantime, I still read the comments that students make, and I take those very seriously. I feel the need for constant improvement. Speaking of which...

Why aren't you studying?

The Typical Busy Day

I really should get going. Today's a busy day for me--start to finish. But I just had to post this. I'm gonna type fast...

Took my daughter to daycare a bit early today, a miracle.

Got home in time to see the Office Depot truck about to drive away, because my wife didn't hear the doorbell. Luckily, the driver saw me and I get to help him lug the pieces of my new desk up a flight of stairs. Yay.

Printed out some pages I need later in the day, answered a couple emails, and grabbed some breakfast (a big bowl of Boo Berry that I ordered off eBay; it was my favourite as a kid, but it doesn't taste the way I remembered. They had better artificial flavour back in the olden days!). I'm out the door 15 minutes early.

I've got to be early today, because I'm dropping off some midterms to be printed before I go to class. I like to get them in before the rush later in the term. But what happened to my extra 15 minutes? Now, I gotta rush off to my first class of the day.

Right after my class, I have a meeting of the Contract Academic Staff committee of the staff association. It goes for 2 hours, and I somehow get elected Vice-Chair. No need to congratulate me; I have no power and my term ends in 4 weeks. I'll have to take over the world later. Bwah-ha-ha!

Run to another class and I'm not late. Another miracle. After, I dump some assignments into the teaching assistant's mailbox, and notice that I've got 30 minutes before I have to leave for dinner--an old friend from university days is in town from Chicago.

OK, some time to breathe and crank out this blog post. I'm going to try not to rush dinner, but I do want to get home and see my daughter before she goes to bed. As much as I like my job, the reason I work is to support my family--not buy DVDs. It's great to come home and have someone yell, "Daddy!" and squeeze your neck with a great big hug. Especially if it's my daughter.

Today is not a typical day, but a typical one for a busy day. There's not a lot of time to just do nothing, or do something just for me. I know the typical day for a student is a lot like my busy day: you're rushing from class to class, trying to make time for friends and family, studying. Speaking of which...

Why aren't you studying?

The Introduction

So, why write a blog? (It's not because I've got too much free time--honest.) It's because I love DVDs. Let me explain.

I often wish I could get together with students less formally. Like sitting and having a coffee in HUB mall together. Yeah, that's (probably) not going to happen. So maybe instead I could write about some stuff in a blog. A lot of things in education are going virtual, why not talking to your prof?

That brings me to DVDs. I love DVDs that have behind-the-scenes stuff: deleted scenes, director's commentaries (except for directors who don't do commentaries--yeah, I'm lookin' at you Spielberg), camcorder footage of the shoot. You get to find out what was on the creators' minds, and maybe gain new insights. That's pretty cool.

So I'd like to make this blog a behind-the-scenes approach to the teaching of psychology. But not just that. I also want to give tips to my students (and anyone else who reads this) about how to study better, based on what we know from psychology.

Finally, I want this to be a conversation. I'd love for students to respond to what I've written, asking questions, offering suggestions, criticisms, whatever. You can post anonymously if you wish, it doesn't matter to me. I'm not going to track you down and drop your grade a notch if you offer me some valid criticism.

I'll post on an irregular schedule. Not too many, or too long. Hey, we all have other things to do, right? I hear there's a new DVD of The Breakfast Club that's got a new retrospective documentary... Anyway, why are you reading this?

Why aren't you studying?

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