Just Because You’ll Read It, Doesn’t Mean You’ll Remember It

By Daniel Berg and John Clark

So you’ve read the material a few times for your essay exam coming up this week. Scanning through the words, the content is familiar and you think you are gonna ace this exam. Stop and think, especially you freshmen. This isn’t high school anymore. While you may think reading through the material for essay exam three or maybe four times is going to ensure that you get that A, it, in fact, does not. Here’s why.

Now just because you recognize the material, doesn’t mean that you truly understand what the material is explaining. According to the illusion of the familiarity effect, rereading causes material to become familiar, so when you encounter it a second or third time, there is a tendency to interpret this familiarity as indicating that you know and understand the material. However, this does not really mean you will be able to recall it later for test time. (1) So when time comes up for the test, there is a high chance that you will not be able to remember the information that you went over a few times the day beforehand. A study showed that being in a positive mood also can intervene with your knowledge and memory of the content. When you are studying and have the mindset of acing the exam, you start to get excited. The feeling of accomplishing a goal gives you that sense of purpose and direction. Maybe you are extremely interested in the content you are reading and are getting excited while learning about the subject. Or perhaps, you’re just having a good day. While it is good to be in a positive mood while studying, it can give you the illusion of the familiarity effect causing a sense of false confidence. The positive mood in combination with the familiarity of the content you have read heightens your faithfulness, trust, and positive attitude towards the content but does not indicate any that it has been stored into one’s memory. (2)

Essentially, you are tricked and blindsighted by good mood. Try and make sure you really know the material regardless of your mood because that wonderful mood you’re in could drop after getting the results back from your test you thought you were ready for. Another experiment manifested how the illusion of familiarity does not correlate with one’s memory, rather it is simply involved in the cognitive process at the time. Thus the fluency or familiarity you have with the material, does not mean it has been stored in your brain, but rather it recognizes it from previously reading. The feeling the familiarity does not arise directly and exclusively from some property of “memory traces,” but rather reflects interpretations or attributions regarding aspects of current cognition (eg. thoughts that come to mind during an attempt to remember). (3) So if you were to read the material for your test a few times, your mind could easily misattribute what you read because it was never truly stored into your long term memory. For an essay exam, there would be an every higher possibility of you totally blanking because there are no cues or hints to what you have read. You have to generate all the information yourself What does this all mean? If reading and re-reading doesn’t enhance good grades, what does? How should you study then?

There are a myriad of ways to study that work much better than simply reading the material. You’re in college now so it may be time to change your study habits into something that will make sure you get through it. Here are a couple different approaches that will ensure you come to understand what you have read so you can achieve good grades that you desire.


  • Elaborative Encoding over Rote Rehearsal

Rather than simply using repetition as your way of studying, try to relate what you read with something you already know. This association technique enhances and assures that you have encoded the content into your brain. Where rote rehearsal just means that you repeat the material over and over again which can cause the illusion of the familiarity effect discussed previously, elaborative encoding involves relating the material to something you already know and understand. It leads to better memory performance than rote rehearsal and seems to protect and preserve memory accuracy over and above change in retrieval strategy. (4) A way you could use elaborative rehearsal when studying is thinking of other words that you are really familiar with or using acronyms to memorize lists. Because these other words, letters, or phrases are already stored within your memory, you can easily recall them. Then if you associate what you have just learned with things you already know, come test time, you will be able recall the information.

  • The Generation Effect

Instead of being a passive studier, going through information at ease of mind, try to be more active. A psychological phenomenon known as the generation effect is an effective and extremely thorough strategy to studying. The generation effect involves going over material, and then actually reproducing it. This could involve filling in the blank, writing down the definitions to certain terms after review, or developing short answer or essay questions about the material. Sometimes, a professor will give numerous possible essays that could be on the test. A good way to for a tested formatted like so, would be to go over the material, and the create an outline or essay using the material, and then see if you can produce the answer without looking at your notes or the textbook. This generation effect is an encoding phenomenon where actively generating information rather than passively learning it improves the subsequent retrieval of item information. (5) Using this technique to studying will surely get you the grade you wanted.



(1)Goldstein, B. (2015). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Cengage Learning, 4, 203

(2) Claypoole, H.M., Garcia-Marques, T., Hall, C.E., & Mackie, D.M., (2008) Positive mood, attribution, and illusion of the familiarity effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 44(3), 721-728

(3) Kelley, C.M. & Lindsay, S.D., (1996) Creating illusions of familiarity in a cued recall remember/know paradigm. Journal of Memory and Language, 35(2), 197-211.

(4)Goodwin, K.A., (2013) Reducing false memories via context reinstatement: the roles of encoding and retrieval cues. The American Journal of Psychology126(2), 213-225

(5) Rosner, Z.A., (2012) The Generation Effect and Memory. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 1-5

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