The Difficulty of Knowing What You Will Know

One of the hard things about learning is that it’s difficult to know when you know will something. That is, when people see a piece of information they’re not great at making judgments about whether or not they will remember it. A new study by researchers at Colorado State attempts to better understand this problem by looking at what can influence judgments about future recall. It turns out that judgments about future recall that involve thinking about contextual details are much more accurate than judgments strictly based on confidence.

In a series of four experiments the researchers placed subjects into two main groups and presented them with a string of words. After each word subjects in the judgment of learning (JOL) group were asked to rate on a scale of 1-3 how confident they were that they would remember the word. Subjects in the judgment of remembering and knowing (JORK) group were asked to predict whether they would know, recollect, or forget the items. Prior to the experiment subjects were taught that there is distinction between remembering and knowing. Remembering involves the recollection of specific details; knowing is memory without any contextual details. As a result, asking subjects in the JORK condition to make a distinction between knowing and recollecting forced them to think about whether a recalled word would be accompanied by contextual details.

After subjects made their JOLs and JORKs they were shown a series of words (some new, some previously studied) and depending on their conditions, they were asked to say whether they knew, recollected, or had studied the words. In each of the different experiments and conditions subjects in the JORK condition were consistently better at predicting what they remembered. In other words, thinking about whether a word would be be recalled with contextual details led to more accurate judgments about whether the word would be recalled.

To try and pull this out of a lab setting, the results essentially say that if you want to know whether you’ll remember a person’s name, you’ll make a better prediction if you also think about whether you will remember their shoe color than if you simply think about how confident you are that you’ll remember their name. Although the study deals with a very specific type of metacognition (not to mention the distinction between conditions is rather subtle), I think you can still add the results to the pile of evidence showing that confidence on its own is usually not the best predictor of accuracy.
McCabe DP, & Soderstrom NC (2011). Recollection-based prospective metamemory judgments are more accurate than those based on confidence: Judgments of remembering and knowing (JORKS). Journal of experimental psychology. General, 140 (4), 605-21 PMID: 21707208


One Response to The Difficulty of Knowing What You Will Know

  1. A great hint about memorization strategy–it does seem that when people concern themselves with questions that start with “whether” they will be able to do something, puts enough stress on them that frequently they won’t be able to perform the task that they questioned themselves about.

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