How to improve recall (blog 2)

We have all experienced enough exams in our academic careers to know that exams are not much more than a test of how much inofrmation can be reacalled within the time set, whether this is in an essay form, SAQs or in the form of multiple choice questions. Although psychologists such as Bucklin, Dickinson and Brethower would argue that when a perosn is fluent in a subject then recall is fast, however, some people do not cope very well when put in a stressful environment such as an exam and this will affect their recall, this is shown by Kramer et al (1991) where higher levels of stress had a negative impact on memory recall.

One way to try and overcome this would be to learn the information in the same room as the exam will be held, or if these two events are not in the same room then an alternative would be to try and revise in the room that the exam will be taken, this is because recall has been shown to increase by up to 15% when the information is recalled in the same environment in which is was learned compared to in an environment where it was not learned (Godden & Baddeley, 1975). An example of this would be that a lot of my learning in first year was in PJ Hall, then I revised in my room at home or halls, then the exam I sat was usually in the cluster spaces, according to the research by Godden & Baddeley (1975) my recall would have been much better if I had learned the information in PJ Hall and been examined in there too, which did happen a lot in second year. To further increase recall of information a more recent study (Baker et al, 2004) found that chewing spearmint gum at the intial learning of information is associated with a higher recall of the information at a later date.

7 thoughts on “How to improve recall (blog 2)

  1. As we all know recall in university is the most important thing due to a bombardment of examinations that happen ALL THE TIME !. You have mentioned some good areas, especially the Environmental context dependant memory part but there are so many for aiding recall:


    Mnemonics is a cognitive process that has many reasons for its effectiveness, meaningfulness, organization, association, visualization and attention. Basically you try and remember things by using an acronym to associate with knowledge that you want to remember e.g. a school child wanted to be able to spell the word because, they would do this by making a term to remember the spelling, “bigger elephants can always understand small elephants which makes the word because using the first little of each word (Higbee, 2006). I have personally using this way for remembering essay plans in out exams.


    This method implies that a person would at first view large volumes of data e.g. all the parts of the auditory system and chunk them together into smaller and easier to remember parts. In the second year we had to know about section of the ear and what they do so I used chunking to help me e.g. inner ear would be grouped in a 3 the pinna, auditory canal and the tympanic membrane while the next group would be the middle and be a group of 3, ossicles, ligaments and the oval window. George Miller conducted experiments that suggested that we cannot learn any more that than 9 parts while using the chinking method and that the average was seven plus or minus two that could be successfully remembered (Miller, 1956)

    So here’s a few other ways to aid recall, I could only really remember 5 at a time with my rubbish brain but some people can do so much more.

    I enjoyed reading your blog

  2. I had a closer look into the area you mentions related to the chewing gum study. I found similar studies that also talked about memory being cue dependent, this is why if we can provide cues form encoding to retrieval our recall increases. Aggleton and Waskett (1999) found that participants recalled more information from a trip to a museum when they were cued using scents that had been present when they encoded the information.

    I agree that being in the same room provides many of these cues that may help to aid recall, however this is not usually a practical suggestion. Research by Zechmeister and Nyberg (1982) found that you can recall better if you can imagine the place that you encoded. So when revising, make a note of where you were, something that is memorable in that place or room, and this may be able to cue your recall. This could serve as a more practical suggestion of the traditional ideas.


    Aggleton, J. P., Waskett, L. (1999). The ability of odors to serve as state-dependent cues for real-world memories: Can Viking smells aid the recall of Viking experiences? British Journal of Psychology, 90, 1-7.

    Zechmeister, E., Nyberg, S. (1982). Human Memory: An Introduction to Research and Theory. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

  3. The point you make about higher stress levels impairing memory is a good one, as well as the study you mentioned I found others which supported the viewpoint (Kuhlmann, Piel & Wolf, 2005; Oei et al, 2006). This got me thinking, what psychological principles could be introduced to exams to make them less stressful for students to give them a better chance to demonstrate what they know?

    1) Research has shown that classical music has a calming effect on humans and is effective in reducing stress levels (Labbe, Schmidt, Babin & Pharr, 2007). So based on this principle instead of sitting the exam in silence, classical music could be playing in the background to reduce stress.

    2) High stress in exams is mainly the result of test anxiety so reducuing this anxiety is key in reducuing stress. Neuderth, Jabs & Schmidtke (2009) found that the use of cognitive behavioural methods have been found to be the most effeective treatment for test anxiety. So by teaching students strategies to cope with the demands of their studies at a very early stage it should prevent test anxiety from becoming an overly negative factor in their exam taking.


    Kuhlmann, S., Piel, M. & Wolf, O. T.(2005). Impaired memory retrieval after psychosocial stress in healthy young men. J. Neurosci. 25, 2977–2982.

    Labbe, E., Schmidt, N., Babin, J., & Pharr, M. (2007). Coping with stress: The
    effectiveness of different types of music. Applied Psychophysiology and
    Biofeedback, 32(3-4), 163-168.

    Neuderth S, Jabs B, Schmidtke A. (2009). Strategies for reducing test anxiety and optimizing exam preparation in German university students: a preventionoriented
    pilot project of the University of Wurzburg. J Neural Transm,
    116, 785–790.

    Oei, N. Y., Everaerd, W. T., Elzinga, B. M., van Well, S., & Bermond, B.
    (2006). Psychosocial stress impairs working memory at high loads: An
    association with cortisol levels and memory retrieval. Stress, 9,

  4. There are many ways to improve recall and these should be considered when students are revising for exams. A basic revision technique of making a mind map has been shown to aid recall. A mind map is drawn on paper and contains a central idea which is linked to various other concepts. The important ideas (key phrases and definitions) are written in large letters whilst the less important concepts are written in a smaller font. Studies have shown that mind maps are an effective revision technique; students who used mind maps recalled 10% more factual knowledge compared to a control group who used other study methods (Farrand, Hussain & Hennessy, 2002).

    Sometimes learning material in the same room as the exam is held is impractical and often impossible. However, having a certain cue present whilst revising and again whilst in the exam can aid recall. This relates to the encoding specificity principle which proposes that an individual’s memory is enhanced when contextual stimuli that is encoded at the same time as target information is present at retrieval (Tulving, 1983). Studies have shown that ambient odours (such as perfume/aftershave) present at the time of encoding and retrieval enhances memory (Cann & Ross, 1989; Schab, 1990; Smith, Standing & de Man, 1992).

    The rehearsal of information is vital in order to transfer information from the short-term memory store into the long-term memory store; this will increase the chance of future retrieval (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). However, over rehearsing information can impair memorisation skills; research has shown that the more times a word is repeated the more it begins to lose its meaning (Kuhl & Anderson, 2011) therefore, over rehearsal should be avoided.

    Farrand, P. Hussain, F. & Hennessy, E. (2002). The efficacy of the ‘mind map’ study technique. Medical Education, 36, 426-431.
    Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of episodic memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Cann, A., & Ross, D. A. (1989). Olfactory stimuli as context cues in human memory. American Journal of Psychology, 102, 91-102.
    Schab, F. R. (1990). Odors and the remembrance ofthings past. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning. Memory, & Cognition, 16, 648-655.
    Smith, D. G., Standing, L., & Deman, A. (1992). Verbal memory elicited by ambient odor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 74, 339-343.
    Atkinson, R. C. & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: a proposed system and its control processes. In The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory (Spence, K.W., ed.), pp. 89–195. New York, US: Academic Press.
    Kuhl, B. A., & Anderson, M. C. (2011). More is not always better: Paradoxical effects of repetition on semantic accessibility. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(5), 964-972

  5. One of the things you mentioned in terms of recall was being able to revise in the room you will be examined in – I would like to expand on this a bit in an attempt to explore why. Research by Baum, Fisher and Solomon (1981) suggests that the familiarity of the setting may have an impact on stress, and with it being well documented throughout these blogs that stress has a negative effect on performance, any way to reduce stress can only be positive. On a personal note, throughout my time in boarding school during high school and college, one of our exam rooms was a hall that we had access to during the evening, and as well as a place to revise, we also used it as a general place to meet and spend time, meaning that we would have been a lot more comfortable there than other students who had maybe one half hour class in there a week – although I couldnt compare boarders grades to those of non-boarders (and there would be too many variables to count!), but can say the boarders tended to be more comfortable in the surroundings, reducing stress, and more than likely having at least a small effect on grades.

    Another theory which could be related to improved performance when revising in the same place as an exam is the idea of a loci – an imaginative technique, where a scene or route is imagined, and information attached to objects. The student could practice ‘attaching’ facts to noticeable features in the room to aid recall. The effectiveness of this technique has been well established, but would surely be more effective if rather than an imagined room or route, it was in an actual setting.

  6. I noticed you looked at a lot of context dependent memory and would like to add another method that has been shown to be beneficial. Music and context dependent memory . An experiment conducted by Smith (1985) illustrated that when participants were presented with a list of words either with background sound or silence. For the background sound that participants either heard white noise or instrumental music. Results demonstrated that with the instrumental music participants showed improved recall and reduced forgetting if the music was present both at encoding and recall phases. This experiment suggests that background sound provides a benefit to participants as it provides a contextual cue. Implications of applying music to research and consequently the exam may be beneficial but also possess issues such as cheating. However this does not mean it cannot be done as recently a girl was allowed an iPod during an exam illustrating that maybe this method could be applied (although this may be idealistic, as checking 300 iPod’s to ensure no cheating takes place would be a lengthy task). Overall I agree that context memory cues can be beneficial, however I believe that there are application issues (such as being able to revise in the same place you take the exam or listening to music). To eliminate these issues it has been suggested visualising where your revision has taken place can be a beneficial method (Smith, 1994).


    Smith, S. M. (1985). Background music and context-dependent memory. The American journal of psychology, 591-603.

    Smith, S. M. (1994). Theoretical principles of context-dependent memory.Theoretical aspects of memory, 2, 168-195.

  7. In my previous comment I discussed that learning material in the same room as the exam isn’t always possible. However, when researching strategies to increase the recall of information I found research that suggested when an individual is in the examination room they should imagine the environment the environment they revised in as this can increase recall. Participants who were instructed to imagine the room they were in when they learnt the information had significantly higher levels of recall (Smith, 1984).

    Smith, S. M. (1984). A comparison of two techniques for reducing context-dependent forgetting. Memory and Cognition, 12, 477-482.

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