Home > Attention, Education, Memory > Listen to Miley Cyrus then study or Study while listening to Miley Cyrus?

Listen to Miley Cyrus then study or Study while listening to Miley Cyrus?

           Forgetting, which is defined as an inability to remember something, occurs daily. We forget a variety of things such as where we parked our cars, what our old and new cellphone numbers are, who Paul Walker was, the color of our parents’ cars and when assignments are due. Forgetting is a common occurrence and we have invented numerous methods to help us remember important information. However, writing down information does not always help, especially in circumstances like interviews or exams where we have to rely on our memory. When you try to remember an event that is filed in your memory, and you can’t remember, it seems like it has disappeared or was never there to begin with. Despite this feeling, the information is stored in long-term memory, but at that time you cannot access it. Most students can relate to this experience, because sometime after an exam we immediately remember the answer to a certain question—sometimes just a second after submitting the examination paper. Instead of relying on written information, we can increase the probability of remembering stored material by engaging in challenging learning practices, such as self-quizzes.

           Getting information into memory involves three processes: we encode information, store it and then retrieve it. Encoding information involves being aware of sensory stimuli and converting them to a usable form. This process can be likened to computer programming, where you enter a lot of meaningless zeros for example, and then modify the code until something sensible like an image is created. Once the material is encoded, it is stored, and transferred to long-term memory, where we become unaware of it. After sometime, we retrieve the information by bringing stored material into consciousness, while we search and find stored events. Engaging in challenging learning practices, more than just regurgitating information, improves the ability to recall information later. Taking self-generated quizzes challenges us when we encode information, a phenomenon known as desirable difficulties. An analogy of desirable difficulties can be adjusting camera settings to get a clear image. It takes effort and a lot of time to focus until you get the accurate settings, and the same goes for accurate encoding, which increases the chance of successful retrieval later.

            Retrieval practice (such as quizzing yourself) is an example of desirable difficulties that increase long-term performance. In order to know if you are ready for an exam, it is important to have a way of assessing how much you know and what to focus on as you study. During retrieval practice, information is encoded and re-encoded resulting in strong retrieval cues, defined as clues that trigger retrieval of information from long-term memory. While retrieval practice increases long-term performance, divided attention (allocating attention to multiple tasks at once) lowers performance. Because attention is a limited resource, allocating it to more than one task will lead to a difficulty in encoding. With loosely encoded information, stored information cannot be retrieved well, and performance suffers.

          To recap, practicing retrieval is an example of a desirable difficulty that improves retention, leading to higher long-term performance. On the other hand, divided attention is a distraction that leads to lower short-term and long-term performance, especially during the initial stages of learning. However, according to previous research, divided attention does not significantly affect performance during later stages of learning. Since information has already been fully encoded, dividing attention at this stage does not affect performance that much. Because there is an extra effort required to concentrate, some people argue that divided attention can be a form of a desirable difficulty during later stages of learning, such as Gaspen, Ruthruff and Pashler (2013).

           Gaspen et al. (2013), studied the effects of divided attention during retrieval practice at a later stage of the learning process to examine whether divided attention is a form of a desirable difficulty. Participants learned Swahili-English word pairs (e.g., utando-film) in the first phase. During the second phase, some participants re-studied the word pairs without any form of distraction, while the other half divided their attention and practiced retrieval as they focused on certain musical tones. This is analogous to trying to quiz yourself while learning the lyrics to Miley Cyrus’  “Wrecking Ball.” To assess performance, participants were asked to give the English word when given a Swahili word from the list they had previously learned (e.g. utando-?) during a test under full attention. Results from the test taken immediately after learning show that performance was higher for the participants who restudied word pairs. These results are in line with desirable difficulties theories, which state that performance under the retrieval practice condition should only increases in the long-term. When tested after two days, performance was still lower in the practice retrieval-divided attention condition when compared to participants in the restudy-full attention condition. The results show that divided attention is not a desirable difficulty but a distraction.

            Overall, we can see that memory processes are complex and take a lot of effort. Even when the material has been learned well, dividing attention by studying and going on Facebook or tweeting at the same time leads to poor performance. This might explain why distractions such as music, television, and internet are not allowed in examination rooms.


Gaspelin, N., Ruthruff, E., & Pashler, H. (2013). Divided attention: An undesirable difficulty in memory retention. Memory & Cognition, 41(7), 978-988. doi:10.3758/s13421-013-0326-5

  1. mjhunsic
    November 25th, 2013 at 10:43 | #1

    Swahili and English arguably are very different languages, so how might a divided attention task effect this experiment if the two tasks were either both very related (i.e. english and german), or if they were both very different: one employing visuospatial working memory and one using the phonological loop.

  2. December 3rd, 2013 at 21:43 | #2

    In class, we learned about the importance of a match between encoding and retrieval: information is better remembered in the same context it was learned. If attention was divided during both encoding and retrieval, would this be better than divided attention only during retrieval? Also, some activities require more attention than others- I like to listen to instrumental music or music in a different language when I study, and although I don’t process it for meaning, I am still attending to it. I know this doesn’t cause as many problems as music with recognizable language, but I wonder if it has an effect on retrieval.

  3. December 9th, 2013 at 15:18 | #3

    Interesting question – although I think this might be one case where matching would not be that good… There is some evidence that dividing attention at retrieval is not as “harmful” as dividing attention during learning, which has led some researchers to suggest that retrieval processes are more automatic. Interestingly, one gets more effects of divided attention at retrieval on the “secondary” task (especially in older adults).

  4. March 20th, 2014 at 00:29 | #4

    In my cognitive psychology class, we were talking about how attention is a limited resource, proposed by the Capacity Framework Models. Trying to focus on lyrics of a song as well as recall words both involve processing for meaning, or late selection, and thus take up more attention and leave less for the other task. It would be interesting to see if music has the same effect on recalling if the songs are familiar to the person, so that it does not take up as much of this resource since its meaning has already been processed. I also noticed this idea of studying in a quiet environment for all people may contrast with an idea learned in personality psychology that introverts work best in less stimulating spaces, while extroverts need more activation from environment to work optimally.

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