How Judging Future Learning Influences Learning

The simple act of judging future memory may influence our actual memory.

Posted Aug 31, 2019

By Michelle Rivers

Will I remember this?
Source: Pixabay

Do you use a Fitbit or another type of technology to track your exercise? Do you find yourself trying to walk more after checking your daily steps? If so, you are taking advantage of reactivity – when people alter their behavior in response to their behavior being measured.

Typically, researchers try their best to avoid reactivity in their studies. If you are interested in observing someone’s natural behavior, you would not want to change it simply by observing it. However, reactivity can occasionally become the subject of research itself, and this is exactly what is happening with a measure used in learning research.

Hundreds of studies over the past 50 years have used a measure called judgments of learning to investigate people’s ability to monitor their own learning process. These judgments require learners to predict the likelihood of being able to remember some information in the future. For example, while studying a set of materials such as word pairs, a learner would be asked: On a scale from 0% to 100%, how likely are you to remember the word pair dog – spoon on a later test?

Research using judgments of learning has provided valuable insight into the inner workings of the mind, at times revealing surprising dissociations between how we think we learn, and how we actually learn. For instance, people tend to believe they will be better at remembering words presented in larger fonts compared to smaller fonts. In reality, research by Rhodes and Castel (2008) shows that font size has no influence on actual memory.

Rhodes and Castel (2008)
Predicted and actual memory for words presented in small and large font sizes.
Source: Rhodes and Castel (2008)

Recently, researchers have started to explore the possibility that judgments of learning are influencing the very thing they are intended to measure. Does asking learners to provide judgments of learning change the ongoing learning process?

Nick Soderstrom and his colleagues at UCLA first investigated the potential for judgments of learning to influence learning in 2015. The researchers presented college students with a list of word pairs to study. Half of these word pairs were related (e.g., railroad – train) and half were unrelated (e.g., dog – spoon). Some students made judgments of learning halfway through the presentation of each pair, and others did not. Then, all students took a final test in which they were asked to recall the word on the right when presented with the word on the left (e.g., dog –?).

Did judging learning influence learning? Yes, but not for all of the material. The authors found that making judgments of learning improved memory for related word pairs, but had no influence on memory for unrelated word pairs. Other researchers, including Mitchum and colleagues (2016) and our own research team at Kent State University (Janes and colleagues, 2018), have since replicated these outcomes. Intriguingly, making judgments of learning not only benefits memory for related word pairs, but can actually impair memory for unrelated word pairs.

Janes, Rivers, and Dunlosky (2018)
Memory for related and unrelated word pairs.
Source: Janes, Rivers, and Dunlosky (2018)

Researchers are now working to understand why judgments of learning change the learning process. One explanation focuses on the information that learners use to make their judgments. When learners make judgments for a set of related and unrelated pairs, they tend to use the relatedness of the words within the pair to inform their judgments, predicting they will recall more related than unrelated pairs. Because of this, making judgments of learning increases learners’ processing of the relationship between the words in the pair. For instance, in thinking about how likely you are to remember a word pair such as table – chair, you may think more deeply about how the two words relate, which may help you remember them later.

Research suggests that easier material will benefit from making judgments during study, and Witherby and Tauber (2017) found that these benefits appear to be durable. More research is needed to discover the precise reasons why judgments of learning are reactive, and under what circumstances they lead to benefits versus impairments in memory. So far, research in this area has only used simple materials like word pairs, and although future research promises to provide insight into how monitoring can improve your memory, making specific recommendations may be premature.

As research on judgments of learning progresses, we stand to learn much more about our own learning process and more generally, when and why our behavior is changed through measurement alone. Will you remember this post in a month? Maybe, maybe not. But simply asking the question may influence your chances.

Michelle Rivers is a Ph.D. student studying Cognitive Psychology at Kent State University. She manages, a blog written by early-career academics devoted to translating scientific research on mental processes to a general audience.


Rhodes, M. G., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Memory predictions are influenced by perceptual information: Evidence for metacognitive illusions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137(4), 615-625.

Soderstrom, N. C., Clark, C. T., Halamish, V., & Bjork, E. L. (2015). Judgments of learning as memory modifiers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41(2), 553-558.

Mitchum, A. L., Kelley, C. M., & Fox, M. C. (2016). When asking the question changes the ultimate answer: Metamemory judgments change memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(2), 200-219.

Janes, J. L., Rivers, M. L., & Dunlosky, J. (2018). The influence of making judgments of learning on memory performance: Positive, negative, or both?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 25(6), 2356-2364.

Witherby, A. E., & Tauber, S. K. (2017). The influence of judgments of learning on long-term learning and short-term performance. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 496-503.