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.


Simon said...

i had a "yeah" i thougth i knew it" moment after my 1st mid-term this semester! Thank you for the tips on studying different types of tests~

"choose c when in doubt"... does that mean you are NOT going to make as many C's in the exams?

Little Sister: AWWW that dog is soooo cute!!~~

Anonymous said...

This is a really easy to understand explanation...wish someone could explain AAT and global-matching theory in similarly understandable terms.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that at university we are still evaluated on verbatim i.e. memory. Those who learn off by heart but may not have a clue what it's all about get brilliant grades and other who read articles, books and expand their knowledge on the subject are penalized. Thankfully we are asked, on some rare accasions to actually think, and there results are reversed.

French student, Faculté de Psychologie de Nnates.

Karsten A. Loepelmann said...

@Anonymous: If it makes you feel any better, those with perfect memories can apply it only so far. Writing a term paper, for example, depends on understanding, comparing and synthesizing ideas, and an ability to write clearly. And graduate school is definitely not about being able to memorize...

clayton said...

THANKS!!So helpful!

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