The silver bullets we already have

The recent finding (following a detailed review of all available evidence on the subject) that brain-training games are not effective (nicely summarised here if you don’t fancy all 80 pages worth) is the latest in a line of setbacks for the idea that repeated training of a particular mental function can have wide-ranging benefits for cognitive functioning and health (e.g. see here and here). This is not to say that brain-training is dead; it is possible that further research or new techniques (such as neurofeedback) could still allow for more effective forms of cognitive training which transfer over to other skills and domains. So the research should continue… but the hype should stop.

The Simons et al. article was published in the journal ‘Psychological Science in the Public Interest’, and it came with a fascinating commentary, which provided a delightful counterpoint to the main article. The basic thrust of ‘Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism’, by McCabe et al. was that many of the purported benefits that are so desperately being sought by the proponents of ‘brain-training’ are already available to us, and in some case have been so for a hundred years or more, through the application of years of cognitive psychology research into memory. They give the example of three related memory strategies which have been consistently found to improve recall: elaboration, testing and spacing.

What’s really interesting about the McCabe et al. article is just how refreshingly low-key the authors’ solutions are. No novel tricks, or creative new strategies for their use – merely a reminder that before we go out searching for new silver bullets, we should check the ammunition store that we already have. The tragedy is that, for whatever reason, this does seem to happen; McCabe at al. cite a number of studies demonstrating that students still report not knowing how to study effectively. Another great champion of applied memory strategies, the Learning Scientists, have recently taken to re-tweeting students lamenting their lack of study skills as an illustration of the problem.


The great advantage of these applied memory approaches over brain-training type interventions is that they work on the level of strategies, rather than on abilities. Abilities are specific, hence the problem of transferring the development on one into the development of another (becoming very good at doing crosswords won’t necessarily make you better at Sudoku). Strategies can be used across multiple different abilities; I can self-test on geography and on history, and gain benefit in both. This is not to say that any strategy can be used regardless of the domain – the type of self-testing that works best in music may be different from that in maths – but the general principle of testing leading to effective learning does seem to hold across different areas (for excellent recent examples see Dunlosky et al, 2013 and Roediger & Pyc, 2012).

Assessment of the utility of learning techniques, from Dunlosky et al. (2013):dunlosky

Perhaps it is simply natural human nature to be a chronological snob, and to search for newer, shiner solutions to problems than the ones we already have. I suspect, actually, that teachers are unusual in their desire for ‘new’ solutions to problems, something that I will try to explore in my next post. In any event, the lesson that I felt was elegantly made by McCabe et al. is that sometimes finding new solutions can be less important than making sure that everyone knows about what we already have.

Other links for practical suggestions to apply memory strategies to their classroom (or to direct students towards):


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. a., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

McCabe, J. A., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 187–191.

Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242–248.

Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 628–54.

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186.

The silver bullets we already have

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