Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

Written by Abigail Koetting

  Testing, a method to find out what students know or what they don’t know, plays an important role in measuring academic success. Children enter the world of testing as young as pre-k, with assessments on what they have been formally taught, such as their colors or shapes. At more advanced levels, students’ ability to multiply math facts or identify the adverbs in a sentence is tested to see if they have learned the presented information. According to Brown and Kaminske (in press), retrieval is when an individual reconstructs a memory so that they can recall certain information. When something is retrieved more frequently, the information becomes easier to remember because the individual gets better at rebuilding the memory. When we are testing students, we are asking them to retrieve information; this is the most effective way to learn because it requires students to not only retrieve the information from their memory, but to also produce, explain, and apply it when writing it down.

Student studying in class

To test the positive effects of retrieval in elementary-aged children, students who are in the most important years of development, Karpicke, Blunt, and Smith (2016) studied eighty-eight children around ten years old. They were asked to study a list of words and to either re-study the items, or practice retrieving them.

Children were shown two lists of twenty-four target words, ranging from three to eight letters long, and each target word had a unique category label. Each list was divided into two different sets of twelve items according to word length, frequency, and age of acquisition.

The tests were given to children as a group in classrooms, but they worked independently. In this study, three different experiments were run. Due to the fact that they were so similar, and for the purpose of clarity, the three experiments will be explained at once.

In phase one, the twenty-four target words were projected onto the screen in the front of the classroom, and students were told to study them for a memory test later. The experimenter read the words out loud for students, and then the children had an additional minute to study the words; after, the list was taken off the screen.

In phase two, there were two conditions. Children in the repeated study condition were given a sheet that showed the twenty-four target words and category cues paired with each target, and the items were shown intact (for example, fruit: banana). In the retrieval practice condition, children were given a sheet that showed the twenty-four target words and category cues paired with each target, but only the stems of the targets were shown with the rest omitted (for example, fruit: ba_____). These students had to restudy the words that were intact and recall the word that finished the stems. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

For phase three, the children from these two conditions had to complete a final free recall test. On a blank sheet of lined paper, they had to write down as many of the words as they could remember in any order. They had to be reminded though that the words they were looking for were the ones they either had restudied or completed from phase two, not the category clue words. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

Children also had to complete a final recognition test. The original twenty-four target words and the twelve distractor words were shown together in a random order on a piece of paper, and students had to read the words and decide if they had seen them earlier or not. They did this by circling either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to the words on the sheet. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

Looking at other kids notes

Additionally, children took the Maze reading comprehension test once in the fall semester and once in the spring semester; this test asked them to read passages where words were deleted and replaced with three choices, and students had to pick the word that made the most sense. The purpose of this test was to measure their reading comprehension. Children also completed the cross-out task, which required them to match geometric figures to the target figure- one that was the same. The purpose of this test was to measure their speed of processing.

Results from the three experiments showed that the retrieval practice resulted in high levels of initial retrieval achievement. Retrieval practice was advantageous over repeated study, so the experiments showed more positive effects of retrieval practice. The experiments also showed that recognition was higher for retrieved words rather than restudied words. Furthermore, children showed positive effects of retrieval practice regardless of their performance on the Maze or cross-out task.

Overall, the findings of this study support the theory that retrieving information has positive effects on learning. Therefore, testing is one of the best ways teachers can help students remember important information, as it requires them to both retrieve the knowledge and produce it.


Article sources:

Karpicke JD, Blunt JR, & Smith MA (2016) Retrieval-based learning: Positive effects of retrieval practice in elementary school children. Frontiers in Psychology 7.

Brown, A. & Kaminske A. N. (in press) 5 Teaching and Learning Myths – Debunked. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Where is your focus?

Written by Abigail Koetting


Cell phones often pose as distractions to our every day lives, especially when we are trying to focus on completing a task and a notification goes off to distract us. Cell phone notifications are meant to get our attention, so their tone will break our focus on purpose. Most ringtones have a frequency that is most sensitive to human ears, similar to a horn, fire alert, or bicycle bell- all of which are noises that get our attention quickly because of their acoustic variability (Roer, Bell, & Buchner, 2014). Whether it’s an incoming phone call, Snapchat, or Facebook notification, simply the sound of the tone causes us to attention-switch between our mobile devices and the task at hand.


Advertised frequently are the dangers in using our mobile devices while driving. Driving requires our attention and focus, especially in more dangerous conditions such as snow or fog. However, what about cell phones in the classroom? How do ringing phones affect our focus and short-term memory? Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014) studied fifty-one college students to determine how the ringing of a cell phone affects one’s short-term memory, and if others’ cell phone ringtones affect an individual more than their own cell phone ringing. Part one deals with determining if the cell phone tone’s interference with short-term memory lessens with more occurrences. Part two then deals with determining which ringtones are more disruptive, ours or another person’s?

In this study for each trial, eight digits were showed consecutively and randomly on a computer screen to participants for them to remember. Auditory distractors (a participant’s own ringtone or one from a partner, ringing along with office noise such as talking, footsteps, or typing noises) were played over headphones while the participant was remembering the list of numbers.

Each participant completed two different blocks of trials. The first block, the training block, had eight quiet trials and eight irrelevant sound trials. During the irrelevant sound trials, a different set of office noises were played. Then the second block, the experimental block, had eight trails in each of the three auditory conditions. The first auditory condition was quiet with two irrelevant sound conditions, the second auditory condition was the partner’s ringtone, and the third auditory condition was the participant’s own ringtone.

Experimenters noted the current ringtones of the participants’ phones. Two participants were paired together to be each other’s partner. Participants were not matched with each other if they had identical ringtones, so that the acoustic differences could be accounted for when each other’s ringtones played.

Since this test was looking at short-term memory, the recall test was given right after the list of numbers was shown. A succession of eight question marks were displayed on the computer screen, and participants had to use the keyboard to enter the numbers in the same order they saw them in before; there was an option for ‘I don’t know’. When scoring, the participant only got the answer correct if they typed the same number in the same exact serial position from the sequence.

Results showed that the participant’s own ringtone was just as disruptive as the partner’s ringtone, both affecting serial recall quite drastically. Additionally, participants were more likely to become accustomed to less regular sounds such as office noise and talking rather than more regular sounds. According to Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014), more regular sounds, like a cell phone ringing, may be due to non-attentional processes. On the contrary, irregular sounds cause attentional capture. As the individual is subjected to these irregular sounds more frequently, the attentional capture weakens over time. This is why the office noise and talking could be tuned out more easily, and the cell phone ringing could not. The office noise and talking were irregular noises, causing the attentional capture, which weakens with more exposure. The cell phone ringing though, always disrupts ongoing activities because of their ability to capture individuals’ attention and grasp their focus.

In conclusion, it is evident that cell phones take our focus away from the task at hand as soon as a notification is heard. We do not become accustomed to these alerts the more we are exposed to them, as we might with typical office noise in the background each day. Our cell phones are just as attention grabbing as someone else’s, so it is important to keep your cell phone on silent when performing tasks that require high attention and focus.


Roer JP, Bell R, & Buchner A (2014) Please silence your cell phone: Your ringtone captures

other people’s attention. Noise & Health, 16(68):34-39.


Keeping Focus in Focus

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt

This month CALM will be focusing on selective attention. Selective attention is the skill of ignoring distracting stimuli. In other words, selective attention is your ability to focus on one task and ignore things not related to that task. Last month we talked about a related concept, multitasking. The better you are at selective attention, at focusing, then the less likely you are to multitask. You won’t switch attention back and forth between distractions and the task at hand if you have the ability to ignore the distractions in the first place.


One of the major misconceptions about selective attention is that you can’t change it – that some people are just good at focusing and others are just bad and there’s nothing you can do to change that. While it’s certainly true that some of us are blessed with better selective attention than others (full disclosure: I am unfortunately NOT one of them…), it’s not true that we can not improve our selective attention skills. Research shows that selective attention can improve with training for children, adolescents, young adults, and older adults (Karbach & Verhaegen, 2014; Karbach & Unger, 2014). However, while you can improve your selective attention, you should be aware of the limitations of training. When we talk about selective attention we’re talking about selective attention as a domain general ability – your ability to focus on reading a book, responding to an email, or having a conversation with the person in front of you. You see the biggest gains in training for selective attention in domain specific abilities, however. In other words, you can get better at reading a book in a noisy environment, like a bus or subway, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get better at focusing on responding to that email once you get into work. There is some hope for small domain general improvements, but by and large the biggest effects are seen with domain specific improvements (Karback & Verghaegen, 2014).

Cognitive psychologists call the ability to see gains in one domain after training in another, transfer. In general, across most cognitive abilities like memory and attention, it’s very difficult to get transfer across domains. This means you should be wary of any program claiming to improve your memory in general or your attention in general. While you can greatly improve at the tasks you are training on, it’s very unlikely that you will improve on those cognitive abilities across the board. For a review of the research on brain training games, see this interesting article from the Association for Psychological Science.

If you want to improve your selective attention, practice at the task you are having trouble focusing on (Diamond, & Ling, 2016). For example, if you’re a student who finds it difficult to study in a noisy environment, you should practice studying in increasingly noisy or distracting environments. Studying in a quiet space will have the short-term effect of allowing you to focus for that study session, but in the long term it won’t help you deal with noisy cafes, roommates, or rude library patrons. If you have trouble focusing on a work assignment and blocking out email messages and text notifications, practice ignoring them. Set a timer that lets you know when you can take a break from your task and check email and your other notifications. Work towards longer and longer blocks of focus time on your task. The more you practice ignoring distractions, the easier it will be.


If you haven’t already been convinced that you should improve your selective attention – whether it is your ability to focus in lecture, focus on the subway, or just focus on your email – there’s a lot of research on the negative effects of poor focus. For example, research on mind-wandering shows that people perform worse on tasks when they are distracted by mind-wandering (Unsworth & Robinson, 2016) and feel less confident in their responses compared to those who are not distracted (Sauer & Hope, 2016). These issues are compounded when the task you’re supposed to be focusing on is a complex task (Adler & Benbunan-Fich). Getting distracted while folding laundry has less disastrous consequences than losing focus while studying or driving a car.

For the rest of this month we’ll be exploring the topic of selective attention, or focus, and how it affects students and teachers in the classroom. We’ll also be discussing how cell phones and other devices hurt our ability to focus and what steps we can take to avoid these harmful distractions.



Adler, R. F., & Benunan-Fich, R. (2014). The effects of task difficulty and multitasking on performance. Interacting with Computers, 27(4), 430-439

Diamond, A., & Ling, D. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34-48.

Karbach, J., & Unger, K. (2014). Executive control training from middle childhood to adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 390.

Karbach, J., & Verhaeghen, P. (2014). Making working memory work: A meta-analysis of executive control and working memory training in younger and older adults. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2027-2037.

Sauer, J., & Hope, L. (2016). The effects of divided attention at study and reporting procedure on regulation and monitoring for episodic recall. Acta Psychologica, 169, 143-156.

Unsworth, N., & Robinson, M. K. (2016). The influence of lapses of attention on working memory capacity. Memory & Cognition, 44, 188-196.

Cell Phones and Attention: Outcomes that affect learning both in the classroom and at home

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt and Dr. Adam Brown

Cell phones are one of the biggest contributors to multitasking. Those fantastic devices that allow you to connect with the world are excellent at distracting you from the task at hand.

From our previous posts, you’ll already know that multitasking does not allow you to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, instead when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching between tasks. This task switching comes at a cost, including making more errors and increasing reaction time. This cost is amplified if the tasks are complex or unfamiliar (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).
Cell phones (and really any attention-grabbing media device like laptops or tablets) force multitasking because we’ve trained ourselves to respond to them. It’s hard to ignore an incoming text message or tweet notification. In fact, these notifications harm our attention even if we don’t respond to them (Stothart, Mitchum, Yehnert, 2015). (Next month we’ll be focusing on selective attention and how these devices harm our ability to focus on one task at a time.)

Despite the fact that cell phones lead to multitasking which ultimately impairs learning, the majority of students not only use cell phones in class, but feel that cell phone use in class is acceptable. In a survey of 400 college students over 80% said they regularly use their cellphones in class (Barry & Westfall, 2015). Furthermore, almost 75% of students thought that checking their cell phones during class was acceptable or sometimes acceptable.


One could make the argument that because students have grown up with cell phones they are better able to multitask with them. However, students who grew up in the digital age and who are used to frequent digital media perform no better at instructional multitasking than do those who are naïve  to the digital world (Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko, 2011). Even though students are used to cell phones and social media, they are not necessarily better at multitasking with them.

Trying to pay attention and learn? Turn off your cell phone. Better yet, put it in another room.


Barry, M. J. & Westfall, A. (2015). Dial D for Distraction: The making and breaking of cell phone policies in the college classroom. College Teaching63, 62-71.

Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., & Evans, J.E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., Yehnert, C., (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.

Wood E, Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., Nosko, A. (2011) Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.

Negative Effects of Cell Phone Use on Attention and Memory

With increasing use of cell phones, society has grown attached to these mobile devices and our attention and memory have been strongly affected. In a recent article, Galván, Vessal, and Golly (2013) examine the effects of one-sided and two-sided conversations on attention and memory of bystanders.

Cell Phone Distraction

In this experiment, researchers led participants to believe that the study’s purpose was to test their ability to complete an anagram, a task that requires the unscrambling of letters to complete a word. Participants were in fact given anagrams, however this was not the direct purpose of the study. During the anagram task, participants either overheard a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone, a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone but there was also a silent confederate in the room ignoring the conversation, or a two-sided conversation between two confederates. A confederate is an individual who is in on the study, but will act as a random participant. The conversations presented were scripted and covered three different topics.

After the conversation ended, participants were given a recognition test. This included words from the conversation, related words that were from the same category as the actual words used but weren’t part of the conversation, and other words of varying relatedness to the conversation. Additionally, participants were given a distractibility scale, which was a questionnaire about how distractive participants thought the conversations were.

For the experiment, the participants were assigned one of the three conditions (a one-sided conversation on the phone, a one-sided conversation on the phone with another confederate in the room, or a two-sided conversation between confederates). Once the participant sat down at their desk, they were given the anagram task. The researcher would pretend that the other copies of the anagram tasks were bad, so they had to leave the room to make more copies for the confederate in the room. Once the participant began completing the anagram tasks, the confederate would either answer a phone call or begin conversing with the other confederate, depending on the assigned condition. Once the experimenter got back to the room, they gave the participant the recognition memory test and the distractibility scale.

Individuals that received the treatment where they heard a one-sided conversation but there was a silent confederate in the room were grouped together with those that just heard the one-sided conversation. Then, there was the second group of participants who heard the two-sided conversation. Results from the distractibility scale showed that the participants in the group that heard the one-sided conversation found it to be more noticeable, distracting, found the content and volume was more annoying, and were more surprised that the conversation took place than the group who heard the two-sided conversation. Individuals who heard the one-sided conversation also had more accurate scores on the recognition task and were more confident in their responses to the words in the conversations. This goes to show that individuals are more distracted by and pay more attention to one-sided conversations on a cell phone, rather than two-sided conversations.

This issue of cell phones and attention is one that is very current and applicable, as the increasing use of cell phones have affected everyday tasks that require our attention. This fairly new development in technology brings us many benefits, such as immediate communication and portable access to the Internet. However the addicting nature of attachment to the device has its negative effects.

Cell Phone in Class.png

Within the classroom especially, the existence of cell phones has presented a huge problem. Students, especially at the college level, have access to their cell phones during class time on a regular basis. Further research has found that simply having a cell phone out on a student’s desk can be distracting, in addition to texting or surfing the web. Thus, it doesn’t have to be as blatant and straightforward as a verbal conversation that can be distracting towards others; the simple presence of the device can affect attention and memory as well.

It is important to become educated on these issues, particularly for students or educators. As learning in a classroom environment requires high levels of attention, eliminating causes of distraction will be beneficial for the students’ success. Using this research-based evidence, educators can make informed decisions regarding their classroom protocol, and have cell phone policies to eliminate their use during class time instruction.


Galvan, V. V., Vessal, R. S., & Golley, M. T. (2013). The effects of cell phone conversations on the attention and memory of bystanders. PLoS ONE, 8(3).


Abigail Koetting


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