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The idea of remembering something is very familiar for students so this is a nice opportunity to focus on experimental design. All of the experiments here lend themselves to case control studies where you have a control group and another group under a condition you are testing. 

It's a great chance to introduce the concept of a control without too many other new concepts.

As remembering things is a key part of success in Junior Cycle, this is a nice chance to quietly work on some good study skills.


There are quite a few different things that will affect memory performance of students, mainly to do with distractions. 

  • Listening to music

  • Holding a conversation

  • Doing another task (checking email, etc)


Find a testable hypothesis  (NS-2)

Have student's brainstorm things that might affect memory performance. Some ideas would be:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Background music

  • Another task

  • Stress

Design the experiment  (NS-3)

How would these be tested? In this example, gender and age just require a simple memory test and then to organise the data against gender or age. Background music, another task or stress would be best done with a control group.

Some things to consider:

  • Background music can vary from soothing to our favorite song we know well to something new. Which one would you expect to have the biggest impact?

  • There are distinct parts to our working memory, overload in one doesn't always impact the others. Consider the type of task and how similar it is to the memory test. For example remembering things visually (Visuospatial sketchpad) uses a different part of the brain to remembering words you can say back to yourself in your head (phonological loop) memory.

  • Stress is a tricky one to induce. Things that have been used in psychological research include, pressure from a reward, time pressure, carrying out the test on a high suspension bridge

  • If you're doing a delayed recall test on the story, are you going to replicate the conditions you used when telling the story? For example, if background music was used, will it be played during recall? Indeed, this could be the hypothesis being tested. There is experimental evidence to support context and state based retrieval cues. In plain english, this means that experiencing the situation (context) or feelings (state) in which you learned something makes it easier to recall it. Researchers have used a variety of conditions including being underwater and being drunk. If you were to find this effect in your experiment, what implications would it have for listening to music while preparing for an exam?

The experiments provided here offer a way to provide quantitative data in a reliable way, this is especially apparent in the marking of the Anna Thompson story.

Results and Conclusions  (NS-4)

One of the interesting things about memory testing (and many other experiments) is that there will always be outliers. This raises two important points:

  • The experimental design must include enough participants to be reliable. In practice, you can combine results from across the class to get a larger data set. 

  • Why did the outliers perform differently? Interview them afterwards to see what happened. Common reasons apart from a difference in memory abilities include not understanding the instructions or applying additional memory techniques during the experiment to help them remember better. 

How is memory affected?

The two experiments, the Anna Thompson story and the letter-number sequencing will be affected in two different ways.

The letter-number sequencing relies on the capacity of the student's working memory, this is finite and if we are using some of the capacity to deal with other tasks then there is less available for the letter-number sequence. 

The Anna Thompson story relies on working memory for the immediate recall task but uses long-term memory for the delayed recall. Delayed recall is basically a school test so if you have the time it's a much more relevant test to carry out. If we are distracted when taking in new information, then it is significantly harder for our brains to consolidate this information into long term memory.

Working Memory or Short Term Memory?

In the student's section we use the language short term memory as this is easier to relate to. However, the broader concept of working memory is now used in current scientific thinking.

What's the difference?

Short term memory is simply a memory store that lasts for about 20 seconds. There is still some debate about exactly what working memory is but the key difference is that working memory includes the ability to process the information. So, rather than simply holding 2 and 5 in your mind, you can also put them in order. Any pressure on your working memory will also affect the ability to do this processing. One of the reasons students make silly mistakes in exams!

For simplicity we will use short term memory in the student's section but for accuracy we'll use working memory here. To read more about working memory, click here.

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