Deconstructing the effect of self-directed study on episodic memory
Self-directed learning is often associated with better long-term memory retention; however, the mechanisms that underlie this advantage remain poorly understood. This series of experiments was designed to “deconstruct” the notion of self-directed learning, in order to better identify the factors most responsible for these improvements to memory. In particular, we isolated the memory advantage that comes from controlling the content of study episodes from the advantage that comes from controlling the timing of those episodes. Across four experiments, self-directed learning significantly enhanced recognition memory, relative to passive observation. However, the advantage for self-directed learning was found to be present even under extremely minimal conditions of volitional control (simply pressing a button when a participant was ready to advance to the next item). Our results suggest that improvements to memory following self-directed encoding may be related to the ability to coordinate stimulus presentation with the learner’s current preparatory or attentional state, and they highlight the need to consider the range of cognitive control processes involved in and influenced by self-directed study.