Testing the AS spec boundary to engage students: false memories

AQA A: Memory – Eye Witness Testimony

Students following AQA spec  A will study the wealth of research conducted by Elizabeth Loftus (Professor of Law and Psychology), and her colleagues, which is covered comprehensively in the AS textbooks. It is, of course sufficient for AS students to understand that our memories are not always accurate and be able to describe and evaluate research into the factors, identified in the spec, that can affect the accuracy of our recall.

Extension for interest and engagement

Although there is no requirement to study recovered memories, if you, as I do, like to put a bit of pressure on the outer skin of the AS bubble, you may like to talk to students with a particular interest in this area about Loftus’ later move into to the field of recovered memories. Her interest in this area started when she was asked to act as an expert witness in a “recovered memory” legal case and noted that there was a distinct lack of credible evidence in this area to support, or refute, the claims of those who have these so-called recovered memories.

Lost in the shopping mall

July’s edition of the BPS publication The Psychologist (July 2012; vol. 25, no. 7) included an interview with Elizabeth Loftus. In the interview she describes how her career developed after the initial EWT research explosion. She was interested in how people can come to believe they have a memory of quite a major, emotional event that has not happened (such as being attacked or abused). Many of these so-called recovered memories arise in therapy and it is thought that the techniques used by some therapists may lead to suggestions that are inadvertently taken on board by the client undergoing therapy, resulting in a false memory.

In the study, 25% of Loftus’ participants reported a memory (developed or partial) of having been lost, frightened and crying in a shopping mall when they were 5 or 6 years old, which had been planted by the researchers and therefore had not happened. There is a useful short video on youtube with Loftus describing the study and a participant describing his “false” memory. The video narrator also talks about the debriefing procedure that followed the experiment for each participant (Loftus, E.F. & Pickrell, J.E. (1995).The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725).

Using research that is just outside of the spec boundary productively

One obvious way to use research that is just outside of the spec is as an extension for more able students or those with a particular interest (e.g. planning to study Psychology at University) by pointing students towards this sort of material for their own use (student members of the BPS will be able to access The Psychologist themselves).

This sort of material, however, doesn’t have to be limited to those who ask for, or seem to need, it. Exposing all students to research that does not need to be retained for the exam is a useful way to explore research methods and psychology wide issues to ensure students can transfer their learning to novel contexts (vital for the application part of the AO2 assessment and notoriously more challenging for students).

Research methods

Ethics activity

Ask students to write a standardised debriefing script for an investigator to read to participants after they have taken part in the “lost in the shopping mall” experiment. They should include information that would ensure that the participant would leave the study in the same state in which they arrived.

Internal validity

Before watching the video, ask students how Loftus could be sure that it wasn’t just the case that about a quarter of 5/6 year olds have been lost in a shopping mall at some point and that the participants were therefore recalling a real memory.

Introducing a new topic area with the bigger picture

Using material that is slightly outside of the immediate boundary of the spec can also be a good way to get students ready to learn about a topic area. When students start off thinking big and broad – rather than worrying about writing everything down and remembering it all – it is often easier to spot misconceptions they might hold, their interests (for future planning) and activate relevant existing knowledge.  The latter should help them store the new knowledge more meaningfully. Making reference to research outside of the spec is also a good way to model to students that you are a reader and a learner and to help them be confident in your knowledge as a subject specialist.

Possible starter questions to introduce EWT

  • When you are older you’ll probably tell your kids that you did better at school than you did. Why?
  • Would you be a reliable eye witness if you witnessed a crime?
  • Can someone make you believe something emotional (such as being attacked by a bully at Primary School) happened when it didn’t?

After students have shared their ideas, you could refer to Bartlet’s research which found that participants distorted their performance at college, stating their grades as higher than they were (confirmed by reports). This could be used to introduce the idea that our memories are not exact replicas of what actually happened and refer to Bartlett’s discoveries in this area (avoiding spending too much time on this but still providing a context for the EWT research). The third question, clearly makes reference to Loftus’s research into recovered memories and allows Elizabeth Loftus to be introduced by considering her career in reverse. The reason why Loftus is called upon frequently to act as an expert witness is because of her earlier research into the subtle, but remarkable, changes that occur when misleading information is provided.

I love these sorts of starters for lessons, or topics, as all student contributions are equally relevant and the outcome is much more flexible. Students have a break from the pressure to retain information and can flex their thinking muscles a bit more freely. I often find that they also come up with ideas that give me an opportunity to hang a psychology wide concept on in a more natural way, which is often better retained as they are indicating they are ready to take the idea on board at that point.


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