The Art and Science of Memory Part 1

by Althea Kaminske

Do students learn differently in Arts than in Science?

When I’ve given lectures and workshops on learning and memory to my colleagues I’ve been accused of focusing too much on how learning works in the Sciences and not enough on how learning works in the Arts. There seems to be a strong sentiment that one learns differently in a English class than in a Chemistry class. “You’re telling me how to get my students to remember more, but I want them to think,” my Arts colleagues tell me. This feels awfully similar to the old argument that there is a difference between rote memory and learning. As Yana has discussed before, this distinction feels strange to memory researchers. I see no difference between memory and learning. It has always struck me as a bizarre and unproductive false dichotomy. You can’t have memory without learning, or learning without memory.

When people make the distinction between learning and memory, they are often emphasizing the difference between “rote” memory – memory for surface level details that are unconnected by a deeper understanding of process or theory – and “deep” learning or understanding – the understanding of process and theory that would allow one to create and extrapolate new ideas. Typically one is seen as the stepping-stone for the other. That first students must memorize basic terms and definitions, then students must synthesize the information and expose fresh ideas based on this synthesis. Therefore, when I talk about improving memory by practicing retrieval, spacing retrieval, providing concrete examples, and so on, people will tell me, “That’s fine for improving memory, but my students need to move on to the real learning.”

On it’s surface, thinking of memory and learning this may not seem wrong. It must be easier to discuss the use of literary devices in a text once one has memorized the definition of “literary device” or to understand chemical reactions once one has memorized elements in the periodic table. This approach views learning as a strictly linear and hierarchical process, with a clear first step and end goal. However, research on memory suggests a much more iterative, and cyclical process. One’s understanding and memory of what literary devices are is strengthened by a discussion of how literary devices are used in different texts. One’s understanding and memory of the periodic table is strengthened by a greater understanding of how chemical reactivity works.

Item-specific and relational processing: Opera and dinosaurs

While I feel the distinction between learning and memory is unproductive, there are a few distinctions within learning and memory that may be productive to help understand how learning is an iterative process. First, is what memory researchers call item-specific and relational processes. Item-specific processing refers to processing that highlights the differences or distinctiveness of concept, word, topic, or thing. Relational processing, on the other hand, refers to processing that highlights the similarity or organization of concepts, words, topics, or things. Both item-specific and relational processing improve memory (and learning) (1).

My favorite example of item-specific processing is the von Restorff effect, named after Hedwig von Restorff (2). In von Restorff’s dissertation work she found that items in a list are better remembered if they are distinct. For example, look at the two lists below.

List 1

cow, goat, opera, horse, sheep

List 2

museum, opera, theater, play, gallery

In the first list, opera stands out as different, and is therefore more memorable. In the second list, however, it does not stand out as different and is therefore not as memorable. This first list is an example of item-specific processing because the nature of the word list forces you to focus on the differences between opera and the other words on the list.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

It is important to note, however, that we can only get this item-specific processing because of the relational processing that is already present in these lists. Both of these lists are examples of categorized word lists. In the first list opera stands out because it is the only non-category member in what is otherwise a list of farm animals. In the second list it doesn’t stand out because it is a category member in the list of arts events (or what I thought of as “classy date night ideas”). If we create a list of items that bear no relation to each other and rely solely on item-specific processing then we lose the benefit of item-specific processing.

List 3

mastiff, opera, desk, trial, daisy

We would not find the von Restorff effect in the third list because all the items are unique. We also would not find the von Restorff effect in the second list because none of the items are unique. Both item-specific and relational processing work together to make items more memorable. A better understanding how items – concepts, words, topics, or things – relate to each other and how they are different from each other, improves our memory for those items.

An excellent and adorable example of how relational and item-specific processing help memory comes from a paper entitled, “Network Representation of a Child’s Dinosaur Knowledge” by Chi and Koeske (3). In this study the authors interviewed a 4 ½ year old boy about dinosaurs, a topic he was very enthusiastic about. Dinosaurs were sorted into two lists: 20 dinosaurs which he mentioned often and knew a lot about (as judged by his mother) and 20 dinosaurs which he did not mention as often and knew less about. The researchers made a semantic network of each of the lists of dinosaurs by seeing how he grouped dinosaurs when he was asked to list them and by response to a “clue game”. In the clue game the researchers and the child took turns being a “chooser” who listed properties of dinosaurs and a “guesser” who guessed which dinosaurs had these properties. For example, “I am thinking about a plant-eating dinosaur, and his nickname means double beam.” A year later, the child’s memory for the dinosaurs was tested by presenting him with both lists of dinosaurs and asking him to then say as many dinosaurs as he could remember from each list. Researchers also tested memory by presenting pictures of the dinosaurs and asking him to name them.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

There were two main findings from this study. The first was that there were more linkages in the list of better known dinosaurs semantic network. In other words, he had better relational processing of the dinosaurs he talked about most often. The second main finding was that a year later he remembered more dinosaurs from this list. The dinosaurs that he talked about most often and saw more relationships between were the dinosaurs that he was able to remember later. Chi and Koeske argued that his memory for the dinosaurs was a function of his understanding of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs that had a better semantic network - where he had more relational and item specific information about the dinosaurs - were remembered better.

I love this example for a few reasons. First, I was also slightly obsessed with dinosaurs when I was younger. I had dinosaur sheets, a favorite dinosaur (brontosaurus), and watched The Land Before Time as many times as my parents would let me. Second, I think it offers a unique and very relatable example of how learning and memory go hand in hand. Many kids have topics that they get slightly obsessive over. On the surface it may seem like a 5 year old can just rattle off every dinosaur (or Pokemon or cartoon character from that one show) because they simply memorized it. This study suggests that they actually have a fairly complex and deeper understanding of the relationships, processes, and theory behind their favorite discussion topic.

Note: Since this post was getting rather long, I decided to split it up into two posts. I will continue the discussion of the relationship between learning and memory in next week's blog post.


(1) Hunt, R. R. & McDaniel, M. (1993). The enigma of organization and distinctiveness, Journal of Memory and Language, 32, 421-445.

(2) Hunt, R. R. (1995). The subtlety of distinctiveness: What von Restorff really did. Pyschonomic Bulletin and Review, 2(1), 105-112.

(3) Chi, M & Koeske, R. D. (1983). Network representation of child’s dinosaur knowledge, Developmental Psychology, 19(1), 29-39.