Memory Tricks: The Production Effect

The production effect, coined by researchers at the University of Waterloo in 2010, was first observed in language learners who improved recall for new words by speaking them aloud. It was first documented in a series of experiments in which “the mere act of reading words aloud resulted in substantially better memory than reading them silently.” Although it has mostly been observed in language learning scenarios, the effect can also be used to improve learning and memory in general.

In a recent post for Psychology Today, Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, describes how the production effect helped him memorize an 18-minute-long TED Talk.

He not only practiced reading his speech aloud but also turned it into a full “production,” rehearsing by actually giving the speech, vocalizations, and mannerisms in front of a mirror. The brain likes associations, and Klemm was strengthening his memory for the information by providing cues his mind could draw on later.

“The usual thing we think of about improving memory is the need for rehearsal, especially the kind of rehearsal where you force recall at spaced intervals after the initial learning,” Klemm explains. “But another factor in improving memory is to strengthen the initial encoding at the time of learning.”

This makes sense. If you think about a particularly intense experience you had, you realize it’s easy to remember it vividly because, at the time, it impacted you so deeply that the details were firmly encoded into your memory. Klemm’s point is that we can force our brains to encode information better the first time we learn it by making it “a production.” We can speak it, sing it, draw it, or interact with it auditorily or kinesthetically.

The effect is consistent with studies on typing and handwriting, which have shown to improve recall for information due to their kinesthetic nature. Handwriting works particularly well as it’s even more tactile and physically engaging than typing. Another explanation is that greater attention and processing is required for production than for passive reading, which means your brain is going to remember the information better simply because it’s working harder.

Then, when it comes to recalling the information without an aid, you can create further associations to strengthen those connections.

“Anytime you retrieve a memory item, it is an opportunity to re-learn it in a sense, and the information gets re-consolidated,” says Klemm. “So, if you speak, draw, or use another production effect during forced recall, you further strengthen the encoding and subsequent consolidation.”

Try using the production effect yourself the next time you prepare for a presentation or study for an exam. You might be surprised how naturally it all comes to you in the end with a small boost at the start.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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