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Retrieval Practice Offers Protection from Stress-Related Memory Loss

THE RESULTS of a new study have shown that retrieval practice (RP) is an effective strategy for protecting against memory impairment caused by stress.

A team of scientists from Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, conducted an experiment that showed individuals engaging in RP, or the act of taking practice tests, appeared to create stress-resistant memories. The significance of these findings is that retrieval practice could be readily applied in real-world scenarios, such as in aiding students who experience test-related anxiety.

In the experiment, 120 participants attempted to learn a series of words and images displayed one at a time on a computer screen. Half of the participants engaged in RP where they attempted to recall as many items as they could remember. The other half engaged in study practice (SP), which involved restudying the items shown.

Twenty-four hours later, half of each group was subjected to stress induction and the other half of each group completed a time-matched task that was non-stressful. During stress induction, the participants gave unexpected, impromptu speeches and solved maths problems in front of two judges and three peers.

The ability of the participants to recall either the 30 words or the 30 images they had learnt the day before was tested 5 minutes into the task or from stress induction. It was tested again 20 minutes later and involved items that were not assessed on the first test. The results showed that in both tests the stressed RP participants outperformed the non-stressed SP participants. In the second test, an average of 11 out of 30 items were recalled by the stressed RP individuals compared to average of 9 items recalled by non-stressed SP participants.

The team also note that in both tests, the stressed RP participants demonstrated recall performance similar to the performance of non-stressed RP participants. Overall, they felt that these findings challenged a common notion that stress generally impairs memory retrieval. They also suggest that memory retrieval may be dependent on the strength of how the memory is encoded and that retrieval practice provides an effective strategy.

Jack Redden, Reporter

Keywords: anxiety, encoding, recall, retrieval, Stress