GUEST POST: Self-Referencing as a Tool to Improve Learning

GUEST POST: Self-Referencing as a Tool to Improve Learning

By: Sheila J. Cunningham


Dr Sheila J. Cunningham is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Abertay University. She specialises in memory biases in both children and adults, particularly the ways in which self-processing biases cognition. She has published both theoretical and applied research in this area. Dr Cunningham received her PhD in psychology from the University of Aberdeen in 2004, and continued to work as a postdoctoral research fellow exploring self-reference effects in memory at the University of Aberdeen from 2005 to 2011, when she joined Abertay. You can find more information about Dr Cunningham’s theoretical and applied work by visiting her web page:

Educators are frequently bombarded with new teaching initiatives - advice on techniques to maximise engagement and learning, the latest ‘big thing’ in education. It can be difficult to work out which ideas are genuinely helpful and easy to put into practice, and which are best ignored. One way that researchers can avoid adding to this overwhelming array is to take practices that teachers already use instinctively, and systematically test their effectiveness. We have taken this approach to examine the usefulness of a technique known to psychologists as ‘self-referencing’. 

Self-referencing is the technique of asking people to think about themselves while they are completing a task. This is something many teachers tell us they do already; for example, if a child is struggling to generate a sentence or story, they might be encouraged to think about something that has happened to them. If they are uninterested in a history topic, teachers might try to find a personal link between the topic and the child’s own hobbies or interests. But is there evidence that this technique works?

Research from my own lab suggests that self-referencing is actually very beneficial to learning. We know from memory research that if you self-reference (i.e., think about yourself) while encoding information, you will be able to use your existing autobiographical knowledge to provide a scaffold to support memory for that information, increasing your chances of successfully recalling it later (1). Also, when something is about you, it automatically captures your attention (2) – for example, if you saw your face or name while skim-reading a web page, you would definitely stop and give that piece your attention! 

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Classroom tasks can take advantage of this basic human interest in the self in lots of free and easy ways, as we have demonstrated in a number of research studies. For example, we conducted a spelling learning task in schools in which children were asked to practise their to-be-learned spelling words by generating sentences either about themselves (e.g., Start each sentence with the word ‘I’) or another character. We found that when children were writing about themselves, they wrote longer sentences and their spelling improved (3). In fact, on average we found that this simple self-referencing instruction improved the children’s spelling test performance by nearly 20%!

Clearly, not all classroom learning can be achieved by writing self-referential sentences, so we have tried a different technique that is more widely adaptable – ownership. Ownership is a very effective way of creating self-reference. This was first shown in a study in which participants were asked to sort grocery items into ‘self-owned’ and ‘other-owned’ shopping baskets in a computerised game. When asked to remember the items that had appeared in the game, the participants were better at remembering those that had gone into their ‘own’ basket (4). This happens because participants pay more attention to self-owned items, and they can also use autobiographical knowledge to enrich the memory of seeing an item linked to themselves (e.g., “Oh no, I got bananas - I hate bananas!” is a more memorable thought than “The other person got cereal!” ).  

Image by Sheila Cunningham

Image by Sheila Cunningham

We tried using an ownership game in the classroom to see if it would support children’s learning of novel shapes, which were printed on flash cards. We asked the children to sort the flashcards into three coloured baskets, by matching a coloured dot on the card. One basket was owned by the child, one by the researcher, and one was for unowned cards. When we subsequently asked the children to draw and label the shapes from memory, they were much more likely to remember those that ‘belonged’ to them (5). Importantly this improved memory for self-owned shapes did not come at a cost to their memory for the other shapes, as measured against a baseline control condition that did not involve ownership. The ownership game is one that could be applied across a whole variety of learning tasks, from second language vocabulary, to science facts or historical dates. If you are struggling to engage a child in learning specific information, make that information theirs and you are more likely to succeed in getting them to learn.

 The examples above are just two ways in which self-referencing has been shown to impact on learning, but this technique can be adapted to fit multiple tasks – any way of getting learners to think about themselves during encoding is likely to be effective. I know from my own experience of teaching in higher education that if I can get my students to think about how a particular issue has affected them, I am likely to get a much more engaged discussion. Overall, the message is simple and one that many teachers will find already resonates with their own experience – learning is improved when learners feel personally involved in the materials.

 Note: We are very interested in finding out how educators use self-referencing in practice. If you are trying this technique we would love to hear from you – please contact


(1) Symons, C. S., & Johnson, B. T. (1997). The self-reference effect in memory: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 371-394

(2) Humphreys, G. W., & Siu, J. (2016). Attentional control and the self: The self-attention network (SAN). Cognitive Neuroscience, 7, 5-17..

(3) Turk, D. J., Gillespie-Smith, K., Krigolson, O. E., Havard, C., Conway, M. A., & Cunningham, S. J. (2015) Selfish learning: The impact of self-referential encoding on children's literacy attainment, Learning and Instruction, 40, 54-60.

(4) Cunningham, S. J. Turk, D. J., Macdonald, L. M., & Macrae, C. N. (2008). Yours or mine? Ownership and memory. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 312-318.

(5) Cunningham, S. J., Scott, L., Hutchison, J., Ross, J. & Martin, D. (2018). Applying self-processing biases in education: Improving learning through ownership. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7, 342-351.