Encoding is the process by which we place the things that we experience into memory. Unless information is encoded, it cannot be remembered. I’m sure you’ve been to a party where you’ve been introduced to someone and then—maybe only seconds later—you realize that you do not remember the person’s name. Of course it’s not really surprising that you can’t remember the name, because you probably were distracted and you never encoded the name to begin with.
Not everything we experience can or should be encoded. We tend to encode things that we need to remember and not bother to encode things that are irrelevant. Look at Figure 8.8 "Pennies in Different Styles", which shows different images of U.S. pennies. Can you tell which one is the real one? Nickerson and Adams (1979) 1 found that very few of the U.S. participants they tested could identify the right one. We see pennies a lot, but we don’t bother to encode their features.
One way to improve our memory is to use better encoding strategies. Some ways of studying are more effective than others. Research has found that we are better able to remember information if we encode it in a meaningful way. When we engage in elaborative encoding we process new information in ways that make it more relevant or meaningful (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Harris & Qualls, 2000). 2
Imagine that you are trying to remember the characteristics of the different schools of psychology we discussed in Introducing Psychology. Rather than simply trying to remember the schools and their characteristics, you might try to relate the information to things you already know. For instance, you might try to remember the fundamentals of the cognitive school of psychology by linking the characteristics to the computer model. The cognitive school focuses on how information is input, processed, and retrieved, and you might think about how computers do pretty much the same thing. You might also try to organize the information into meaningful units. For instance, you might link the cognitive school to structuralism because both were concerned with mental processes. You also might try to use visual cues to help you remember the information. You might look at the image of Freud and imagine what he looked like as a child. That image might help you remember that childhood experiences were an important part of Freudian theory. Each person has his or her unique way of elaborating on information; the important thing is to try to develop unique and meaningful associations among the materials.
Research Focus: Elaboration and Memory
In an important study showing the effectiveness of elaborative encoding, Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (1977) 3 studied how people recalled information that they had learned under different processing conditions. All the participants were presented with the same list of 4 0 adjectives to learn, but through the use of random assignment, the participants were given one of four different sets of instructions about how to process the adjectives.
Participants assigned to the structural task condition were asked to judge whether the word was printed in uppercase or lowercase letters. Participants in the phonemic task conditionwere asked whether or not the word rhymed with another given word. In the semantic taskcondition, the participants were asked if the word was a synonym of another word. And in the self-reference task condition, participants were asked to indicate whether or not the given adjective was o r was not true of themselves. After completing the specified task, each participant was asked to recall as many adjectives as he or she could remember.
Rogers and his colleagues hypothesized that different types of processing would have different effects on memory. As you can see in Figure 8.8, the students in the self-reference task condition recalled significantly more
adjectives than did students in any other condition. This finding, known as the
self-reference effect, is powerful evidence that the
self-concept helps us organize and remember information. The next time you are studying for an exam, you might try relating the material to your own experiences. The self-reference effect
suggests that doing so ill help you better remember the information (Symons & Johnson, 1997). 4