Elon professor, alum publish research on generation effects in memory

Amy Overman, associate professor of psychology, a faculty member in the neuroscience program and an associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and Alison Richard '16 conducted empirical research on memory that was recently published in a prestigious scientific journal.

Anyone who has studied for a test with flashcards knows that they’re more effective than simply reading notes. This is an example of what cognitive scientists refer to as the generation effect – the phenomenon in which memory is better for information that is self-generated compared to information that is simply read or heard. Although the generation effect has been known for a long time, researchers are still working to figure out exactly how the mental processes involved in generation influence the way in which memories are formed.

Amy A. Overman, an associate professor in the psychology department, a faculty member in the neuroscience program, and an associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and Alison Richard ’16, an Elon College Fellows alumna, have added to scientific knowledge of the nature of generation effects with a study that was recently published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

The article, titled “A positive generation effect on memory for auditory context,” reports the results of an experiment that tested a specific theory about generation’s effects on memory for contextual information. In particular, the experiment tested whether generating a word (for example, by completing the rhyme: ROCK-S____) would improve memory not just for the word itself, but also for the gender of a voice that spoke the word after it was generated.

The study found that the theory correctly predicted in which conditions generation would improve memory for voice gender. Importantly, no prior studies had tested for this positive effect of generation on memory for auditory context, and most previous research focused on conditions where generation had negative effects on memory for context.

The results of the study suggest that under the right circumstances, self-generation can help people both to remember important information and to remember details of where and when they learned that information. Understanding memory phenoma like the generation effect can lead to more effective strategies for learning in real-world situations, for both students and older adults.

This project is part of Overman’s ongoing research into the cognitive and neural mechanisms of memory. Overman was recently awarded a $343,866 grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate associative memory—the ability to link together multiple pieces of information—in young and older adults. Overman and Richard also collaborated on the study with Joseph Stephens of N.C. A&T State University.

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review is the flagship journal of the Psychonomic Society and ranks among the top journals in the areas of experimental psychology and mathematical psychology with an Impact Factor of 3.08, according to Journal Citation Reports. The article is currently published online, and will appear in the print journal within the next few months. The Psychonomic Society’s mission is to “promote the communication of scientific research in psychology and allied sciences.”