What is retrieval?
A lot of attention has been paid over the years to how memories are formed. But this is only part of remembering. As well as creating a memory you also need to be able to get it out. This process is known as retrieval (Tulving & Thomson, 1973). So what factors affect retrieval (beyond needing the memory to exist in the first place)?
Cues help with retrieval
Imagine the situation – you’ve misplaced your maths textbook somewhere in your house. And you can’t remember where! You need it to complete your homework (if your homework hasn’t been set on Get My Grades). So what do you do? You start by wandering around the rooms in which the textbook could be. This, of course, helps you because you might spot the textbook, but it also helps you to retrieve memories of where the textbook might be. By walking into a room you give your brain more of the ‘cues’ it needs to retrieve the memory. Walking into the hallway and seeing your school bag ‘a cue’ this can help you remember putting the textbook in the bag.
A famous experiment on remembering was conducted by Godden and Baddeley (1975). In their experiment, they taught participants lists of words. One set of participants was taught the list of words on dry land. The other group (who were experienced divers) were taught the list underwater. The participants were then either tested on land or in water. Godden and Baddeley (1975) found that those participants who learnt the list in the same context (on land or in the water) as they were tested remembered more words on the list. This is because they had more cues to help them remember the words on the list.
The same also applies for internal cues. Chemicals in your body or moods can also act as retrieval cues. Urcos (1987) reviewed all the early evidence for mood-related retrieval effects. The idea here is that you are more likely to remember something if you are in the same mood as when you learnt it. So if you are happy when you learn something you are more likely to remember it if you are happy when you try and retrieve it. The same applies for tiredness, stress, sadness, anger etc. It also applies to other states – like if you’ve had too much coffee when you learnt something, you’re more likely to remember it when you’ve also had coffee!
Is the failure of memory just a failure of retrieval?
So without the right cues, you may not be able to retrieve or remember a memory at all. This is called cue-dependent forgetting. In the extreme, psychologists (e.g. Spear, 1971) have proposed that all forgetting is a failure of retrieval! That you actually remember everything, you just can’t get it back out. It’s a very difficult hypothesis to disprove as its hard to know what is a failure of retrieval because the memory didn’t exist or if you just haven’t got enough cues to retrieve it. In reality, memory is probably far more complex than this.
Retrieval is actually quite a complex process. Your memory storage system is not really all that like a library with a set of books in it. Bringing up a memory alters it and merges it with the context you’re retrieving it in. And other related memories. This is how false memories can be created. For more on this fascinating topic see this link.
How does all of this help us study effectively?
It would suggest that creating an environment both externally and internally that is as similar as possible to the one in which you ultimately need to remember the information should help. So try revising under exam conditions. Try doing so in a situation where you’re a little bit stressed and tired. All these extra little cues might help you to remember that vital piece of information in an exam.