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(Editor’s Note: This is a brief extract (the first 12) from an Innovation Excellence blog. The full blog is available at

Have you ever considered letting your students listen to hardcore punk while they take their mid-term exam? Decided to do away with Power Point presentations during your lectures? Urged your students to memorize more in order to remember more? If the answer is no, you may want to rethink your notions of psychology and its place in the learning environment.

Below are 35 proven psychological phenomena that affect you and your students every day:

1. State-Dependent Recall

Definition: It is easiest to recall information when you are in a state similar to the one in which you initially learned the material.

Application: Urge your students to sit in the same room they studied in when they complete their take-home quiz. Let them listen to music when they complete their mid-term essays if they usually listen to it when they write.

2. The Fundamental Attribution Error

Definition: The tendency to overemphasize internal explanations for the behavior of others, while failing to take into account the power of the situation. The student who says, “Brian got an A on his English paper because he is smarter than I am” instead of “Brian got an A on his English because he visited the Writing Center before he turned it in” suffers from the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Application: Sometimes students need your help distinguishing between internal and external factors that affect academic performance.

3. Effort Justification/Change Bias

Definition: After an investment of effort in producing change, remembering one’s past performance as more difficult than it actually was, thereby inflating the perceived value of the result.

Application: Unfortunately, effort does not always correlate positively with performance. Students may be angry if they do not receive the grade they expect on an assignment that cost them a lot of time. In your comments, always mention the work you see even if it misses the mark.

4. Cognitive Dissonance


Definition: The feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another, often resulting in the adoption of beliefs that align with one’s actions but contradict the beliefs one held before the action was committed.

Application: F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The world isn’t black or white, and neither is the mind. Share this wisdom with your students to promote critical thinking.

5. Chunking

Definition: A term referring to the process of taking individual units of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units. Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers. For example, a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be chunked into 471-1324. Chunking is often a useful tool when memorizing large amounts of information. By separating disparate individual elements into larger blocks, information becomes easier to retain and recall.

Application: A great tool for students who must memorize long series of names, numbers, pictures, dates, terms, etc.

6. Positive Reinforcement

Definition: Positive reinforcement is a concept first described by psychologist B. F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. Positive reinforcement is anything added that follows a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. One of the easiest ways to remember this is to think of something being added to the situation.

Application: Bonus and extra credit assignments are some of the most basic examples of positive reinforcement. More nuanced techniques might include positive verbal feedback, class celebrations (but not reward competitions), or opportunities to contribute individually to the curriculum.

7. Spaced Repetition

Definition: A learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to enhance retention. Proven to be significantly more effective than massed repetition (i.e. cramming).

Application: One of the most valuable things you can do to help students retain information is to hold weekly review sessions. Go over not only the main concepts presented in the past five days, but also touch on concepts covered multiple weeks or months ago.

8. Multi-modal learning

Definition: The more ways in which you learn something (visually, aurally, kinesthetically, verbally, etc.), the better you remember it. A key advantage of interdisciplinary courses and programs.Application: Provide examples of major concepts in different modes. Use texts, videos, recordings, visual representations, and creative exercises to reinforce the material.

9. Declarative knowledge vs. procedural knowledge

Definition: Knowing “what” (facts) as opposed to knowing “how” (procedural knowledge).

Application: In college, it is downright difficult, if not impossible, to train complex cognitive skills in a single semester; yet look what most problem solving courses in the corporate training world are—a couple of hours, eight hours tops. We expect learners to transfer what they have learned in the classroom to the job, but all they have are a very few simple if/then statements to take back to the job. Keep in mind that teaching your students “what” is not the same as teaching them “how.”

10. The Method of Loci

Definition: A mnemonic device used in ancient Greek and Roman times wherein items to be remembered are mentally associated with specific physical locations. Examples include the various rooms of a house and paths through the forest.

Application: A great tool to help students memorize terms, related concepts, or anything else that can be “placed” as an image on a mental map.

11. Interacting images

Definition: An item is much more likely to be remembered if it is imagined as being actively involved with another item in some way rather than sitting there doing nothing. When items are intertwined or associated they are said to be interacting and they become a single chunk or whole in memory.

Application: It is far more difficult to remember concepts and definitions than it is to remember actions and descriptions. So, use the latter to trigger the former. If you are teaching your law students about double jeopardy, advise them to imagine someone robbing a bank, going to jail, then robbing the same bank again, free of conviction.

12. Dual Coding

Definition: The ability to code a stimulus two different ways increases the chance of remembering that item compared to if the stimulus was only coded one way. For example, say a person has stored the stimulus concept, “dog” as both the word ‘dog’ and as the image of a dog. When asked to recall the stimulus, the person can retrieve either the word or the image individually or both, simultaneously. If the word is recalled, the image of the dog is not lost and can still be retrieved at a later point in time.

Application: Never present students with lists of keywords and definitions without adding stimuli (or letting them add their own). They will be far more likely to recall the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks if they associate the former with baking a layer cake and the latter with crystallizing caramel. Trust me – adding images reduces the effort needed to remember.


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