Maximizing Study Results with Transfer-Appropriate Processing

By Ellie Marston and Emily Topp

Studying can be overwhelming, but sometimes notecards can be useful, depending on the processing your exam requires.

ATTENTION COLLEGE STUDENTS, would you like to get more ‘bang’ for your studying ‘buck?’ Picture this: you’re sitting in an exam and can’t remember the answer to a question you know you studied the night before. What if you could improve your ability to retrieve information you studied the night before? We have the answer, and it just requires that you focus on the way you process information while studying. The best part is: it doesn’t even require that you study longer, just smarter.

Researchers have looked at how we encode information, or transfer it in to long-term memory, for years. Students are always trying to find news ways to improve their retrieval of information, which is the ability to take and remember information out of long-term memory when needed. It has been found that if you use the same processes to gather and learn information during encoding, and use those processes again for testing, your performance can improve! In 1977, Donald Morris and coworkers looked at how subjects performed on a test after encoding information in two different ways. One group of participants encoded information based on meaning, and the other encoded the information based on rhyming. In the meaning condition, the participants were asked to remember words based on their definitions. For example, if the word train was the target word, the participants would be asked to memorize that the train had a silver engine. In the rhyming condition, participants were asked to memorize words based on the sound of the word. In this group, participants would memorize the word train by encoding that it rhymes with pain.[1]


Basic structure of Morris’ TAP experiment. Rhyming versus Meaning.

The rhyming and meaning groups were asked to process the words differently, which had an effect on  remembering. The main difference between these two groups was the way that participants were asked to process these words during encoding. Retrieval was affected by how information was processed, and it was found to improve when the process by which information was encoded matched how it was processed during remembering. This phenomenon is called transfer-appropriate processing (TAP), and has been supported by a number of studies.[2] TAP is similar to encoding specificity and state-dependent learning effects, but specifically focuses on how the way we process information impacts our remembering.

So how can we use TAP to improve study habits? Think of the different types of subjects and the different ways you study for them. In high school, you might’ve studied for your Psychology exams by looking at definitions you typed out in your study guide. But for your Algebra class, you would complete practice problems so that you would be able to solve the problems on the exam. In college, Psychology exams typically require that you understand the concepts and are able to apply them to other real-life situations. This requires that you understand the semantic qualities of the exam materials. We should use what we learn from TAP to decide how to study for exams.

Although it is tempting to try and memorize mnemonic devices for a Psychology exam, if it is an exam on which you’ll need to recall the meaning of concepts, you should study that information by focusing on meaning rather than simply memorizing. However, if you have a history quiz tomorrow and you only need to remember three dates, it may be just fine if you practice superficial processing, like simply recalling the dates, without attaching any meaning to them. It is a better use of your time to study class material based on how you will need to recall it on the test. If that means making meaningful connections, do that! But, if you will only need to recall words- flashcards will work just fine! Save yourself some time. What TAP has shown us is that the levels of processing theory doesn’t always apply. This theory suggests that we remember information better if we process it on a deeper level. TAP has shown that sometimes, deeper processing doesn’t improve retrieval. As long as the conditions of processing during encoding and retrieval match, remembering can improve.

A great tool to enhance your academic success is to use pre-reading questions. They can improve your reading time and memory. Students that memorized pre-reading questions before reading a text remembered more information from the text that was relevant to the pre-reading questions.[3] Similarly, researchers who looked at a letter-substitution task, which required that participants ‘fill in the blanks’ to complete words, performed better than those who simply read the words, based on this ‘priming’ effect. Although this kind of task isn’t similar to many of the tasks we complete in our daily lives, these findings show us how being interactive with our study materials is preferable to simply reading. These findings suggest that being interactive with the material while studying will help to improve your performance on test day.[4] This research confirms that simply reading doesn’t induce the maximum amount of processing, so if you want to do well on that test, make sure you do more than simply read the notes. Try reading the questions at the beginning of the chapter in your textbook before you begin reading.

By reading those learning objectives or reading the questions at the end of the chapter before reading, you may better remember the key material presented. Similarly, another great way to improve your study skills is to peek at the lectures (if your professor provides them) before class, and take note of key terms. Additionally, ask your teacher about what kinds of questions will be on your exam so that you can better prepare yourself when learning the material and studying. When you use the same processing conditions during initial processing (studying) and during retrieval (the exam), the result is better performance due to task priming.[5] After studying the material, your brain is primed to use that method of processing again. It is best to try to match the method of processing you will need on the exam to the method you use while studying. Utilizing these study tools supported by TAP will help you to better recall important information on test day, making those late night study sessions more efficient.



[1] Morris, C. Donald, John D. Bransford, and Jeffery J. Franks. “Levels of Processing Versus Transfer Appropriate Processing.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 16 (1977): 519-33. PsycINFO. Web. 25 Apr. 2017..

[2] Lockhart, Robert S. “Levels of processing, transfer-appropriate processing and the concept of robust encoding.” Memory (2002): 397-403. PsycINFO. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

[3] McCrudden, Matthew T. “Do Specific Relevance Instructions Promote Appropriate Transfer Processing?” Springer Science & Business Media 4 Nov. 2010: 865-79. Web.

[4] Horton, Keith D., and Brenda D. Nash. “Perceptual Transfer in Stem-Completion and Fragment-Completion Tests.” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 53.3 (1999): 203-19. Web. 24 Apr. 2017

[5] Franks, Jeffery J., Carol W. Bilbrey, Khoo Guat Lien, and Timothy P. McNamara. “Transfer-appropriate processing (TAP) and repetition priming.” Memory & Cognition 23 Nov. 1999: 1140-151. Web.


2 Replies to “Maximizing Study Results with Transfer-Appropriate Processing”

  1. I thought this blog post was really interesting. I never thought that pre-reading questions were that useful. I will definitely start my reading off from now on with those questions. I agree that it is important to prime information before encoding it in order to ensure better encoding and later better recall.
    – Catherine Cunningham

  2. I thought this post was super helpful! I think all students know that the longer before a test you study the better off you’ll be, but we rarely are able to do that, so I thought it was cool to see the ways you can maximize your studying when you put it off a little too long!

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