Review of Bahrick's, Hall's, and Baker's "Life-span maintenance of knowledge"
by Paul F. Ross
Bahrick, Hall, and Baker describe for the professional psychologist and researcher the five-decade output of the Ohio Wesleyan Memory Lab. Ohio Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college, is located in Delaware, Ohio and experienced an enrollment of 2,000 students, almost exclusively undergraduates, in the five decades or so covered by Bahrick's work on long term human memory from his position in the university's psychology faculty. Bahrick's research, as recorded in this work's bibliography, began with publications dated in the mid 1960s and continues through the publication of this work in 2013. The _____________________________________________________________________________________
Bahrick, Harry P., Hall, Lynda K., and Baker, Melinda K. "Life span maintenance of knowledge" 2013, Psychological Press, New York NY, xvii + 310 pages
authors report that "Well over 100 [Ohio Wesleyan University] alumni earned Ph.D. degrees in psychology [at other universities, having worked in the Memory Lab at Ohio Wesleyan] during this time" (p xv). They list about 150 "alumni" of the memory lab. The book's bibliography cites about 300 items from the psychological research literature, on the order of 40 of those citations being to work for which Bahrick is sole author or coauthor. In order to study long term memory, the researcher must be able to call upon adults who have lived 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years, find records about things those adults learned decades ago, and evaluate what they can recall and the utility of that recall now. The researcher must identify eligible participants and win their cooperation. The reader will not be surprised to learn that participants in this research typically were university alumni, were recruited through their connections to their alma mater, and many were from Ohio Wesleyan University. This reviewer is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, earned a doctorate in psychology at The Ohio State University (as did Harry Bahrick), happened not to have been a student of Harry Bahrick's or fellow graduate student with him, and bought this book because it was described in an Ohio Wesleyan alumni magazine.
The news about long term human memory is good ... on several fronts. Most important to everyone, things learned well now are remembered and available for use for many years ... three decades, five decades ... from the time of their acquisition. Important to psychological science and education along with a variety of other fields, Bahrick and colleagues have pioneered ways to assess long term memory and circumstances (beyond dementia and related neural phenomena) that affect memory. Many, many people, having learned to ride a bicycle as a youngster, have not ridden a bicycle for many years, then mounted a bicycle and rode in relative safety, the skill having been "remembered" although perhaps not at the level of safety and reaction time and, certainly, not at the endurance level that was available for the most recent prior ride. Bahrick and colleagues show us that a foreign language, mathematics, landmarks in town, street names, autobiographical events and events of history occurring during our lifetimes can be recalled and are available for use - at least in part - after decades of non-use. The authors then go on to explore the conditions that cause memories to best be retained as well as to be distorted, an aspect of recall important in criminal justice, for example, when witnesses are called to testify as long as years after the events occurred. The authors examine what promotes the best retention, having performed well in school as reflected in one's grade point average being one of those conditions. They examine what distorts recall. The tendency to think well of oneself is one of those conditions, distorting recall in one's favor ... an idea captured in cultural lore by a sign I saw not long ago in a professional's office that read "The older I get, the better I was." The data presented by Bahrick, Hall, and Baker are believable because they exercise care in inventing, specifying, and quantifying their methods of observation. In sharp contrast with the Bahrick, Hall, and Baker work, sometimes attention to lifelong memories, as by psychoanalysts, can be off the mark because it has been gathered from limited numbers of cases, is gleaned using the "case study" means for doing science, and so easily can be shaped by the investigator's pre-data-gathering expectations with respect to findings.
The book seems to this reader to be written in the voice of Bahrick. That can be an advantage to the reader, only one voice having to be learned and understood. But it suggests a dark gray cloud, too, that perhaps the variety of perspectives that can happen when many are involved in gathering and scrutinizing the data has been lost. This reader has no way of knowing the risks associated with the dark side in this work.
Bahrick properly points to the paradigms of scientific thought that have influenced research on human memory. Early work on human memory in the nineteenth century focused on laboratory studies in which subjects (participants in the research) learned relatively simple things (like nonsense syllables) and retention/forgetting/distortion was measured a short time later, maybe thirty minutes, maybe two hours, maybe a week. That method for doing research became central to the science. It carried forward into work like that of Skinner at Harvard produced from the 1920s into the 1940s. The work by Bahrick and his lab took a wholly different view of what they wished to study and how they would study it, a whole new paradigm. They sought to answer questions like "Is the information learned in a one-semester introductory course in Subject A in college remembered three years later?" "Is a language learned for the first twenty years of life, then replaced and not used for forty years, still accessible to the 60-year-old? In what way is it accessible?" "Having earned a grade in a course in high school, can that person recall that grade twenty years later? Is the recall distorted ... biased upwards, biased downwards?" As Bahrick began this work in the 1960s, his questions and his methods for answering the questions were new to research on memory. Bahrick sees and reports, at least indirectly, the difficulties experienced in developing a new way of looking at human memory as well as the losses and costs to careers and societies when the paradigm shift is resisted ... or when the paradigm shift leaves capable individuals who are unable to make the shift in wrecked careers. He points to the risk of waste in program management in science when such shifts occur.
I was an undergraduate in my last year at Ohio Wesleyan University when Harry Bahrick joined the psychology faculty from his newly completed doctorate program at The Ohio State University. It was 1949. I was not a psychology major. I'd elected to do an undergraduate thesis, used a questionnaire to gather data from my fellow undergraduate students, and it was spring vacation time. I knew I was in over my head with more data than I knew how to analyze. I'd had no course in statistics. There were no spreadsheet software programs then. There were no "big iron" computers then not to mention personal, desktop computers. I didn't even have a desk calculator. I did have a slide rule and I'd studied logarithms, but I don't recall using them for this project. I told my parents that I was not coming home for spring vacation since I had to continue work on the thesis in order to complete it by the deadline. Somehow, I met Harry Bahrick at that time. I'd never seen or heard of a Hollerith punched card at that time. But our college librarian had a card (not a Hollerith card), about two inches by three inches, with holes around its perimeter. If you used a special punch, you could cut a notch from the edge of the card into the hole ... a notch on this hole indicated the respondent was female, a notch on that hole saying she attended church once a month, a notch on a third hole saying her home was out of state. By putting a stack of cards together notched to reflect the answers from all respondents to my survey, I could slip a wire through Hole 7 and jostle all the cards out of the deck that were notched for Hole 7. Then I could take the escapees, put the wire through Hole 18 and jostle all the cards out of the first generation of escapees. The second level of escapees had both Characteristic 7 and Characteristic 18. It was data processing at what appears today to be a very, very primitive level. I was very grateful to Harry Bahrick for his help. My thesis was submitted by the deadline, my family forgave me my absence from home during spring vacation, and I graduated with honors. Only once in the intervening six decades have I seen Harry Bahrick and that was at the 100th anniversary celebration for the founding of the Department of Psychology at The Ohio State University.
This work by Bahrick, Hall, and Baker deals with extraordinarily important questions of human memory. It tells us, for example, that material learned in a one-semester course in undergraduate school is not remembered as short a time as a year or two later. No wonder the executives I've met throughout my career, graduates of the nation's best universities, know absolutely nothing about the behavioral and management sciences. While many college graduates have had physics and chemistry courses in high school and then again in college since they were required by their universities to "learn about science," no matter what their chosen major was, and they can remember some of what they've learned because it was repeated over a time interval of several years duration, they've had only one introductory course in the behavioral and management sciences ... maybe in psychology, maybe in sociology, maybe in economics, almost never in statistics. The work by Bahrick, Hall, and Baker demonstrates that the multiple-course approach over several years' time results in learning that is retained. Those one-semester introductions are forgotten quickly. This knowledge, and others like it, is reported in Life-span maintenance of knowledge. It has important implications for the design of education at all levels and for all periods of life.
But Bahrick, Hall, and Baker also invent and use their own scientific jargon so that they can state their findings efficiently to a scientific audience that is willing to learn their jargon. One important insight from their work is reported as follows: "Rehearsals should be spaced such that a substantial portion of the content is not recalled in subsequent training sessions. These losses enable learners to identify content that is inadequately encoded for long term retention and to adjust their encoding strategies accordingly. (p 236)" Who can understand those two sentences? Recognizing the importance of their work, their work being in psychology (my field of specialization), I knowing and sharing both Ohio Wesleyan and Ohio State roots with Harry Bahrick, I spending huge portions of my professional time in recent years struggling to report findings from my sciences so they can be appreciated and valued by every college graduate, even by every college-ready high school graduate, I lost patience with trying to read scientist-to-fellow-scientist jargon in this book. I've not read this book cover to cover as I have every other of the ~400 books I've reviewed. The "specialist writing for specialist readers" style of this work will substantially slow the dissemination of its very valuable knowledge and application of that knowledge to the benefit of students in every school, adults in every job, human beings in every walk of life. This is very valuable work made obscure and inaccessible. What a pity for its authors and for all the rest of us!
29 June 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Paul F. Ross All rights reserved.
Bahrick, Harry P., Hall, Lynda K., and Baker, Melinda K. "Life span maintenance of knowledge" 2013, Psychological Press, New York NY