Most believe the difficulty or complexity of a task influences our memory; that is, if something is easy to learn, then it will be easy to remember.
New research sugggests otherwise, as investigators from Columbia University, Washington University in St. Louis and Northwestern University found that the way an individual perceives intelligence influences how they believe they learn.
It has long been known that an individual’s perception of learning influences one’s motivation to learn. For example, some believe intelligence is fixed and that additional effort will not change what an individual can learn.
Individuals holding this perspective are called “entity theorists” and tend to disengage when something is challenging, said David B. Miele, Ph.D., of Columbia University. “They decide they are not really capable of learning it [the topic of study].”
A different view is held by “incremental theorists,” individuals who believe hard work and persistence will be worth the effort and improve results.
In a study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, the researchers decided to test whether these theories also affect the way people assess their own learning.
Researchers conducted two experiments: In the first, 75 English-speaking students studied 54 pairs of Indonesian-to-English translations that varied in terms of how effortful they were to learn.
The easy pairs consisted of English words that were nearly identical to their Indonesian counterpart (e.g, Polisi-Police) and required little effort to learn; many of the medium pairs were still connected in some way (e.g, Bagasi-Luggage) but required more effort to learn than the easy pairs; and the difficult pairs were entirely dissimilar (e.g., Pembalut-Bandage) and required the most effort to learn.
After studying each pair for as long as they liked, the participants reported how confident they were about being able to recall the English word when supplied the Indonesian word on an upcoming test.
Once they had finished studying and reporting their “judgments of learning” for all of the pairs, they then took the recall test.
Finally, at the end of the experiment, they completed a questionnaire which assessed the extent to which they believed that intelligence is fixed or changeable.
The results were interesting. As expected, all students did better remembering the easy pairs as opposed to the hard pairs. However, only the “entity theorists,” those who were more confident the less time they spent studying, were able to accurately predict the effort required to do so.
Incremental theorists (who expressed more confidence the more time they spent studying) tended to be overconfident about how likely they were to remember the difficult pairs and under-confident about how likely they were to remember the easy pairs.
The second experiment gave similar results. These findings suggest that the way an individual believes learning occurs can lead people to have different impressions of their own learning. Researchers believe both learning theories have credence.
“We have to be sensitive to personal limitations”—say, a learning disability—“and at the same time not feel those limitations are the end all-be all. Effort can always lead to some amount of improvement, but you also need to be aware of the law of diminishing returns,” Miele said.
The bottom line, then, is that although hard work and persistence may or may not provide additional significant gains, the effort surely does not hurt.