Age Differences in Memory Monitoring
Memory monitoring involves knowing what you are doing mentally right now. The most popular way researchers study memory monitoring is by having people predict how well they will do on a memory task. One variation of this technique requires that people predict how well they will do before they get a chance to see the task. For example, participants are asked to predict how many words they think
they can remember from a 20-item list before they see the list. The second variation requires people to make performance predictions after they have seen the task. This time, they see the list first, and are then asked to predict how many words they will remember.
Predictions without Experience. Estimating our performance without having a chance to see what we are up against is hard. For example, guessing how well we will do on the first exam in a course is tough if we do not know anything about the exam style of the instructor. How well we think we will do depends on lots of test-related variables: item difficulty, fact versus concept questions, and the like.
When older adults are put in the position of having to estimate performance without seeing the task, past research suggests that they tend to overestimate how well they will do (Bruce et al., 1982). For example, older adults typically predict that they will be able to remember more items than they actually can. Younger adults tend to be more accurate. However, more recent research suggests that this finding depends upon the level of recall (Connor, Dunlosky, & Hertzog, 1997). In other words, older adults who had low levels of recall were the ones who were more overconfident in their predictions. Unfortunately, not all older adults use monitoring strategies spontaneously (Dunlosky & Connor,
1997) . However, they can be trained to do so, as we shall see in a later section.
Predictions after Experience. A much different picture of age differences emerges when participants have a chance to see the task before making a performance prediction. One way this is done is by asking people to rate their confidence that they will be able to remember each item on a list of words that will be learned. Results from several studies using this approach suggest strongly that older adults are just as accurate in predicting their recall and recognition performances as younger adults (Conner et al., 1997; Devolder, Brigham, & Pressley, 1990; Hertzog et al., 1994). The usual finding is that, regardless of age, adults overestimate performance on recall tasks but underestimate performance on recognition tasks.
Comparing Prediction Types. Based on the research we have reviewed, older adults are at a disadvantage when asked to predict performance if they are given no information about the task. But when this information is forthcoming—either from direct experience, from instructions pertaining to important things to think about, or from a request for predictions on familiar everyday tasks—older adults do as well as younger adults. However, these studies do not address a very important question: What happens if people are given multiple trials with a task and are asked to predict performance on each trial?
Hertzog, Dixon, and Hultsch (1990) found that older and younger adults adjust their predictions across trials on a list-learning task. On the first trial, performance predictions tend to be inaccurate, and predictions are influenced by scores on memory questionnaires. On subsequent trials, though, predictions are more heavily influenced by actual performance on the preceding trial. Going one step further, Bieman-Copland and Charness (1994) had younger and older adults make predictions over trials on list-learning tasks in which they were given letter, rhyme, or meaning cues. Age differences were found in the ways younger and older adults adjusted their predictions from Trial 1 to Trial 2. Whereas younger adults raised or lowered their predictions across cue types based on their previous performance, older adults based their changed predictions on global differences between their previous prediction and performance.
These results indicate that the presence or absence of age differences on the first trial of a task, determined by whether people have experience in advance of doing the task, may be due to factors different from those responsible for age differences in how people change predictions over trials. Metamemory may be more important in understanding how people formulate initial predictions; analyzing one’s previous performance may be more important for subsequent predictions. The good news is that evidence suggests that in older adulthood, the ability to monitor multiple aspects of memory functioning is relatively spared (Hertzog & Hultsch, 2000; Hertzog et al., 2002).
1. What is metamemory?
2. What is the difference between memory knowledge and memory self-efficacy?
3. What age differences are found in memory monitoring when predictions are made without any experience with the task?