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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All model comparisons were performed using likelihood-ratio tests.
A measure that is similar to the total number of visits is the total amount of time spent studying an item, which Voss et al. (2011b) found interacted with encoding condition, such that items studied for longer durations led to a specific benefit under self-directed conditions. The same analysis of our data revealed an effect of duration for both recognition and spatial recall, but no such interactions with encoding condition. Since study duration is closely related to number of visits, this analysis is not reported here, but the results are available on request.
Note that in Exp. 4, the number of visits was not equal to 2 for all items studied, since items at the midpoint of each sequence (at which point the window doubled back) were only visited once. The effect of number of visits was thus dependent on a relatively small number of items; importantly, removing this explanatory variable from the model did not alter any conclusions from this analysis.
Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417–444. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823
Botvinick, M. M. (2008). Hierarchical models of behavior and prefrontal function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 201–208. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.009
Carrasco, M. (2011). Visual attention: The past 25 years. Vision Research, 51, 1484–1525. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2011.04.012
Chrastil, E. R., & Warren, W. H. (2012). Active and passive contributions to spatial learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 1–23. doi:10.3758/s13423-011-0182-x
Chun, M. M., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2007). Interactions between attention and memory. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 17, 177–184. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2007.03.005
Craddock, M., Martinovic, J., & Lawson, R. (2011). An advantage for active versus passive aperture-viewing in visual object recognition. Perception, 40, 1154–1163. doi:10.1068/p6974
Dempster, F. N. (1988). The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research. American Psychologist, 43, 627–634. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.43.8.627
Doeller, C., Barry, C., & Burgess, N. (2010). Evidence for grid cells in a human memory network. Nature, 463, 657–661. doi:10.1038/nature08704
Doeller, C., & Burgess, N. (2008). Distinct error-correcting and incidental learning of location relative to landmarks and boundaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 5909–5914. doi:10.1073/pnas.0711433105
Ellen, P., Parko, E., Wages, C., Doherty, D., & Herrmann, T. (1982). Spatial problems solving by rats: Exploration and cognitive maps. Learning and Motivation, 13, 81–94. doi:10.1016/0023-969090030-3
Gruber, M., & Otten, L. (2010). Voluntary control over prestimulus activity related to encoding. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 9793–9800. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0915-10.2010
Guderian, S., Schott, B., Richardson-Klavehn, A., & Düzel, E. (2009). Medial temporal theta state before an event predicts episodic encoding success in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 5365. doi:10.1073/pnas.0900289106
Gureckis, T. M., & Markant, D. B. (2012). Self-directed learning: A cognitive and computational perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 464–481. doi:10.1177/1745691612454304
Harman, K. L., Humphrey, G. K., & Goodale, M. A. (1999). Active manual control of object views facilitates visual recognition. Current Biology, 9, 1315–1318. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(00)80053-6
Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219–224. doi:10.3758/BF03194055
Kornell, N., & Metcalfe, J. (2006). Study efficacy and the region of proximal learning framework. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32, 609–622. doi:10.1037/0278-7318.104.22.1689
Liu, C. H., Ward, J., & Markall, H. (2007). The role of active exploration of 3D face stimuli on recognition memory of facial information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 33, 895. doi:10.1037/0096-1522.214.171.1245
Luursema, J. M., & Verwey, W. B. (2011). The contribution of dynamic exploration to virtual anatomical learning. Advances in Human–Computer Interaction, 2011, 1–6. doi:10.1155/2011/965342
Markant, D., & Gureckis, T. M. (2014). Is it better to select or to receive? Learning via active and passive hypothesis testing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 94–122. doi:10.1037/a0032108
Meijer, F., & Van der Lubbe, R. H. (2011). Active exploration improves perceptual sensitivity for virtual 3D objects in visual memory. Vision Research, 51, 2431–2439. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2011.09.013
Metcalfe, J. (2002). Is study time allocated selectively to a region of proximal learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 131, 349–363. doi:10.1037/0096-34126.96.36.1999
Metcalfe, J. (2009). Metacognitive judgments and control of study. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 159–163. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01628.x
Metcalfe, J., & Finn, B. (2008). Evidence that judgments of learning are causally related to study choice. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 174–179. doi:10.3758/PBR.15.1.174
Metcalfe, J., & Kornell, N. (2003). The dynamics of learning and allocation of study time to a region of proximal learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 530–542. doi:10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.520
Nelson, T. O., & Narens, L. (1994). Why investigate metacognition? In J. Metcalfe & A. P. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 1–25). Cambridge: MIT Press.
O’Keefe, J., & Nadel, L. (1978). The hippocampus as a cognitive map. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Otten, L. J., Quayle, A. H., Akram, S., Ditewig, T. A., & Rugg, M. D. (2006). Brain activity before an event predicts later recollection. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 489–491. doi:10.1038/nn1663
Plancher, G., Barra, J., Orriols, E., & Piolino, P. (2013). The influence of action on episodic memory: A virtual reality study. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66, 895–909. doi:10.1080/17470218.2012.722657
Posner, M. (1980). Orienting of attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 32, 3–25. doi:10.1080/00335558008248231
Renner, M. (1990). Neglected aspects of exploratory and investigatory behavior. Psychobiology, 18, 16–22. doi:10.3758/BF03327209
Save, E., Buhot, M., Foreman, N., & Thinus-Blanc, C. (1992). Exploratory activity and response to a spatial change in rats with hippocampal or posterior parietal cortical lesions. Behavioural Brain Research, 47, 113–127. doi:10.1016/S0166-4328(05)80118-4
Simon, D., & Bjork, R. (2001). Metacognition in motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27, 907–912. doi:10.1037/0278-73184.108.40.2067
Son, L. K., & Metcalfe, J. (2000). Metacognitive and control strategies in study-time allocation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 204–221. doi:10.1037/0278-73220.127.116.11
Voss, J., Galvan, A., & Gonsalves, B. (2011a). Cortical regions recruited for complex active-learning strategies and action planning exhibit rapid reactivation during memory retrieval. Neuropsychologia, 49, 3956–3966. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.10.012
Voss, J., Gonsalves, B., Federmeier, K., Tranel, D., & Cohen, N. (2011b). Hippocampal brain-network coordination during volitional exploratory behavior enhances learning. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 115–120. doi:10.1038/nn.2693
Voss, J., Warren, D., Gonsalves, B., Federmeier, K., Tranel, D., & Cohen, N. (2011c). Spontaneous revisitation during visual exploration as a link among strategic behavior, learning, and the hippocampus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, E402–E409. doi:10.1073/pnas.1100225108
Yoo, J. J., Hinds, O., Ofen, N., Thompson, T. W., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Triantafyllou, C., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2011). When the brain is prepared to learn: Enhancing human learning using real-time fMRI. NeuroImage, 59, 846–852. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.063
The authors thank Patricia Chan, Hao Wang, and Devin Domingo for their help collecting the data. We also thank Joel Voss for sharing the stimuli used in the experiments.
About this article
Cite this article
Markant, D., DuBrow, S., Davachi, L. et al. Deconstructing the effect of self-directed study on episodic memory. Mem Cogn 42, 1211–1224 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-014-0435-9
- Self-directed learning
- Self-regulated learning
- Volitional control
- Decision making
- Object recognition
- Spatial cognition