The Production Effect Aids Memorization
How to make it work for you.
Posted Aug 09, 2018
The hardest memorization task I ever had was to give an 18-minute TEDx talk from memory. I remember struggling with remembering the exact words and phrasing that I wanted to use. To solve this problem, my first task was to create some slides, which the TED format allows. The directors even show the slides on a monitor at the foot of the stage that only the speaker can see. Looking at each slide as it advanced helped provide cues in the proper order, but to be effective, slides must not have much text, and in no case can a given slide reveal on its own all the associated content. I still had a memorization problem.
Then I remembered the “production effect,” which is a way to strengthen memory by actually forcing the recall in the appropriate setting. In other words, I needed to rehearse by actually giving the speech, vocalizations, mannerisms, and all in front of a mirror. My book, Memory Power 101, summarizes a great deal about memorization principles, strategy, and tactics, but it doesn’t have much to say specifically about production effect as such, so I will summarize that here.
The usual thing we think of about improving memory is the need for rehearsal, especially the kind of rehearsal where you force recall at spaced intervals after the initial learning. But another factor in improving memory is to strengthen the initial encoding at the time of learning. Actually, this is common sense. We all have experienced the case where we remember an intense experience primarily because it is intense. In other words, the intensity strengthened the encoding.
A well-known technique is to use the “production effect.” This strengthens encoding by generating what you are learning at the time of learning by speaking it, singing it, drawing it, or deploying it in some way (as in “hands on”). Writing by hand or typing the information strengthens encoding, and studies have shown that handwriting is more effective than typing. Any of these approaches is much more effective than silent reading, viewing, or listening.
Many such studies confirm the effect. For example, in one study, saying each word in a word list to be memorized, improves recall over 15 percent more than silent reading. The same degree of improvement occurs with mouthing the words.
Why this works to improve memory probably relates to the fact that more attentiveness and processing is required in production than in just silent reading or listening. One common explanation is that production makes each item more distinctive. That is, by saying it, drawing it, or whatever, the item acquires more features and becomes more distinctive.
As far as I know, the production effect has been studied only with respect to rote memory tasks. I should think that it would be even more powerful if applied when using mnemonics. For example, if you are using the “memory palace,” as you mentally place an item to be memorized on a room object in your mind’s eye, you might actually describe aloud what you are imagining.
The production effect should also be useful during forced retrieval rehearsals as well, as I did in learning my TED talk. I am not aware of experiments that test use of production in rehearsal. Anytime you retrieve a memory item, it is an opportunity to re-learn it in a sense, and the information gets re-consolidated. So, if you speak, draw, or use another production effect during forced recall, you further strengthen the encoding and subsequent consolidation.
Bodner, Glen E. and MacLeod, Colin M. (2016). The benefits of studying by production … and of studying production: Introduction to the Sp
MacLeod, Colin M., and Bodner, Glen E. (2017) The production effect in memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 26(4), 390-395.
ecial Issue on the Production Effect in Memory. Canadian Journal of Psychology. 70(2),89-92.