Author: Jovi Nazareno, EdM Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education

When in the midst of a busy semester, I too often find myself in moments of what I’ll call memory overconfidence. The long to-do list lures me to move quickly, to get things done. Patience with myself can begin to feel like a luxury I can’t afford when deadlines are looming. I catch myself thinking, “that topic isn’t so hard, I got this already” or “oh yea, I know that”. But when probing further, the concepts are actually difficult to describe!

Sure, there are moments when I realize I’ve successfully understood and could explain a topic. But there will always be those times when additional effort and rehearsal are required. The challenge is this: Sometimes the confidence of “I know that” comes from an attempt to persuade myself to move on to the next to-do task rather than from a result of mastery. Truthfully, I find comfort in falling back to old habits of studying, which feel easier, more familiar, and simpler to implement. I suppose I need to periodically remind myself that I can and should do better because I know better.

Humbling ourselves about the nature of memory

“The Elusive (and Non-Existent) Perfect Recording”—the theme of weekly module from a course called Becoming an Expert Learner1—describes memory perfectly. Many of us might like to imagine memory as being like a camcorder, saving the information in wondrous detail until we seek access later. Perhaps this is because such a scenario would be ideal. No more fretting about fading images, missing pieces to a story, or having embarrassing lapses of memory. Yet we also know just how fragile memory truly is, whether from personal struggles to recall bits of information or from case examples of amnesia2.

In school settings, it seems we rely so heavily on memory that we yearn for that perfect recording. We sometimes give compliments to classmates, saying things like, “you have such a good memory” or “I could never remember that.” I think we even pretend at times to know a term or concept, simply for the appearance of knowing. In situations where we’re expected to have that “good memory”, we might begin to assume it is something we just have. When it comes to strategies for studying, a major hurdle in making changes comes from overcoming biases about memory and what strategies work.

Hindsight bias is an example of how we can sort of trick ourselves into thinking we know something after learning of the answer. In a study by Kornell3, for example, participants seemed to believe they could have and would perform better on a set of questions after being given feedback; however, they did not actually do better the next attempt—they just thought that they would. Perhaps we are biased toward the idea of memory as being forever present.

In addition, we might struggle to let go of old ways of studying and believe they are more effective than they actually are. A different study by Deslauriers and colleagues4 exposes the gap between what students thought would work to increase their performance in a course and what actually resulted in improvement. Particularly, the use of active recall felt like weaker learning to students despite the fact that it increased their performance.

Our misguided notion of a solidified memory is further highlighted by research that asked questions of participants who experienced the traumatic event of 9/11 in the U.S.5 The participants were asked the same questions over time, but at each interview, the answers they shared became more inaccurate (inconsistent) with their original ones. They were only correct about 40% of the time in restating what their emotions were at the time of the trauma. Despite an intuitive feeling that we will remember details, especially from important or emotional experiences, our memories really aren’t that reliable all the time. As memory fades, we might even try to fill in the blanks and become convinced of its accuracy.

These studies, though they differ in topics, reveal that what we intuitively feel about learning and memory could be wrong. This means we must reach a level of metacognition where we question our own beliefs—a step that is not at all easy and that requires constant self-reminders.

An effective strategy that supports learning: Frequent low-stakes testing

Even though memory may always be elusive and never be perfect, we can leverage certain practices to maximize our ability to remember. Based on my college and graduate school experience, one such practice, frequent low-stakes testing, deserves more attention than it currently gets. After what felt like surviving through midterms, finals, and final papers, I realized what I really wished more teachers incorporated were assessments to strengthen my memory of core concepts.

As many of us have experienced, testing is common. As I’ve hinted, in my college and graduate school experience, high stakes testing seems to be the norm. Midterms and finals tend to be heavily weighted, determining in one or two sittings what grade a student should earn based on what they supposedly learned. There is little to no room for error, which is too bad because we can learn so much from mistakes and from trying again.

Frequent low-stakes testing takes an opposite approach, where frequent and brief tests are assigned at low percentages of a grade (e.g., 5%). This approach still requires students to prepare for tests, whether by discussing material and/or rehearsing. Thus, the students are rehearsing the material, pulling out the information from memory.6 This practice works not only because students are in a way forced to constantly retrieve information7, but also because this practice naturally spaces out the rehearsal and learning over time8. As an added bonus, frequent testing allows students and teachers to notice errors and make corrections sooner in the learning process, as opposed to waiting until the end of the semester when the course is completed.

As a student, I know I can leverage such strategies on my own as well, by using flashcards, discussions, or trying to teach someone else, to name a few examples. However, I would love to see such strategies incorporated into the classroom as a way of supporting the development of effective learning techniques. I believe this could help form healthy habits of mind, shift the focus of learning to mastery, all while avoiding the traps of memory overconfidence.

1 The class is titled EDU H110L: Becoming an Expert Learner, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Instructor: Tina Grotzer).

2 As an example, see the case of Clive Wearing. ONE Interpreting. (2015, May 16). Life without memory: The case of Clive Wearing [with CC].

3 Kornell, N. (2015). If it is stored in my memory I will surely retrieve it: Anatomy of a metacognitive belief. Metacognition and Learning, 10, 279–292.

4 Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251.

5 McGovern Institute. (2014, May 2). Fear, trauma & memory: A panel discussion [Video file].

6 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, education science. W. W. Norton & Company.

7 Brown, P. C., Roediger III, Henry L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

8 Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), 228–247. PubMed.