Deconstructing the Effect of Self-Directed Study on Episodic Memory

By Markant, Douglas; DuBrow, Sarah et al. | Memory & Cognition, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Deconstructing the Effect of Self-Directed Study on Episodic Memory


Markant, Douglas, DuBrow, Sarah, Davachi, Lila, Gureckis, Todd M., Memory & Cognition


Published online: 19 June 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Self-directed learning is often associated with better long-term memory retention; however, the mechanisms that underlie this advantage remain poorly understood. This series of experiments was designed to "deconstruct" the notion of self-directed learning, in order to better identify the factors most responsible for these improvements to memory. In particular, we isolated the memory advantage that comes from controlling the content of study episodes from the advantage that comes from controlling the timing of those episodes. Across four experiments, self-directed learning significantly enhanced recognition memory, relative to passive observation. However, the advantage for self-directed learning was found to be present even under extremely minimal conditions of volitional control (simply pressing a button when a participant was ready to advance to the next item). Our results suggest that improvements to memory following self-directed encoding may be related to the ability to coordinate stimulus presentation with the learner's current preparatory or attentional state, and they highlight the need to consider the range of cognitive control processes involved in and influenced by self-directed study.

Keywords Memory * Metacognition * Self-directed learning * Self-regulated learning * Volitional control Decisionmaking * Metamemory * Object recognition * Spatial cognition

One way to characterize different learning tasks is along a dimension of volitional control. In a self-directed task learners exert influence over the flow of information, including the order and timing of new study episodes. In contrast, in a frilly passive task information flow is determined by the dynamics of the environment in which the learner is simply an observer. Experimental paradigms for studying learning and memory often fall at the passive end of this continuum. In many studies of memory the experimenter determines the sequence and timing of study items, precluding any significant influence by the participant over the flow of events. Yet volitional interaction with the environment-deciding what to learn about and when-is a ubiquitous feature of human learning and may have consequences for basic learning processes (Gureckis & Markant, 2012; Komell & Bjork, 2007; Komell & Metcalfe, 2006).

Previous studies have shown that self-directed study leads to better episodic memory than passive observation in a vari- ety oftasks, including face recognition (Liu, Ward, & Markall, 2007), object recognition (Harman, Humphrey, & Goodale, 1999; Voss, Galvan & Gonsalves 2011; Voss, Gonsalves, Federmeier, Tranel & Cohen 2011; Voss, Warren, Gonsalves, Federmeier, Tranel and Cohen 2011), and spatial learning (Meijer & Van der Lubbe, 2011; Plancher, Barra, Orriols, & Piolino, 2013). Memory improvements have also been found in tasks in which learners choose which items to study in preparation for future cued recall tests (Komell & Metcalfe, 2006). At the same time, people often have incorrect beliefs about how their own memory works, leading them to pursue inefficient study strategies (Bjork, Dunlosky, & Komell, 2013). For example, students often believe that massed practice (e.g., cramming for a test) will benefit mem- ory more than distributing practice over time (Komell & Bjork, 2007; Simon & Bjork, 2001), which nuis counter to robust evidence that spacing study sessions improves memory (Dempster, 1988).

A challenge in understanding the effect of self-directed learning is determining what constitutes an appropriate control condition in which such decisions are not present. Komell and Metcalfe (2006) compared performance between items on the basis of whether learners' study decisions were honored or not (e.g., in the dishonor condition, only items that were not chosen by a participant would appear during re- study). …

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