Memory Development in Children Research Paper

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Although scientific research on memory development has about the same long tradition as the scientific study of psychology (i.e., about 1880), the majority of studies have been conducted since the 1970s, stimulated by a shift away from behaviorist theories toward information-processing theories (Schneider and Pressley 1997). Given that hundreds and thousands of empirical studies have investigated the development of children’s ability to store and retrieve information from memory, only a rough overview of the most important research trends can be presented in this research paper (for recent reviews see Cowan 1997, Schneider and Bjorklund 1998, Schneider and Pressley 1989).

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1. Memory Development in Very Young Children

From birth on, infants can remember things (e.g., faces, pictures, objects) for rather long periods of time. Basic memory activities such as the association of a stimulus with a response and the distinction between old and new stimuli (i.e., recognition processes) are especially dominant early in life. Moreover, young infants can also remember activities that they had performed at an earlier point in time. Research focusing on older infants (between 10 and 20 months of age) has used deferred (delayed) imitation techniques to measure memory boundaries. In several of these experiments, infants watched as an experimenter demonstrated some novel, unusual behavior with an unfamiliar toy. Infants later imitated such strange behaviors, indicating that these events had been stored in long-term memory. Although levels of imitations are typically greater for older than for younger infants, the findings indicate that the neurological systems underlying long-term recall are present at the beginning of the second year of life (Meltzoff 1995).

Interestingly, age does not seem to be the primary determinant of whether or for how long memory will be remembered once the capacity is in place. Rather, the literature shows that the organization of events and the availability of cues or reminders determine young children’s long-term memory. Young children tend to organize events in terms of ‘scripts’ that are a form of schematic organization with real-world events structured in terms of their causal and temporal characteristics. Scripts develop most routinely for common, repeated events. Children learn what ‘usually happens’ in a situation, for instance, a birthday party or a visit to a restaurant. Memory for routine events makes it possible for infants and toddlers to anticipate events and to take part in, and possibly take control of, these events (Nelson 1996). Repeated experience clearly facilitates long-term recall in preverbal and early-verbal children.

Moreover, cues or reminders also result in better recall for very young children. Longitudinal research on young children’s long-term memory for events experienced either 6 or 18 months before showed that younger children (who were about 3 years old when the event happened) needed more prompts (retrieval cues) to reconstruct their memories than children who were about a year older at the time of the event. Although most children showed low levels of free recall, they could remember much more when specific cues were presented (for a review of this research, see Fivush 1997).

What are important mechanisms of young children’s (verbal) memory development? Recent research indicates that parents play an important role. Interchanges between parents and their young children seem highly relevant for children’s recall proficiency. Children learn to remember by interacting with their parents, jointly carrying out activities that are later performed by the child alone. Through these conversations, children learn to notice the important details of their experiences and to store the to-be-recalled information in an organized way.

2. (Verbal) Memory De elopment between 5 and 15

The vast majority of studies on memory development has been carried out with older children, mainly dealing with explicit, that is, conscious remembering of facts and events. This skill was also labeled declarative memory and distinguished from procedural memory, which refers to unconscious memory for skills. It was found repeatedly that particularly clear improvements in declarative memory can be observed for the age range between 6 and 12 years, which roughly corresponds to the elementary school period in most countries (Schneider and Pressley 1997). In order to explain these rapid increases over time, different sources of memory development have been identified. According to most researchers, changes in basic capacities, memory strategies, metacognitive knowledge, and domain knowledge all contribute to developmental changes in memory performance. There is also broad agreement that some of these sources of development contribute more than others, and that some play an important role in certain periods of childhood but not in others.

2.1 The Role of Basic Capacities

One of the most controversial issues about children’s information processing is whether the amount of information they can actively process at one time changes with age. The concept of memory capacity usually refers to the amount of information that can be held in the short-term store (STS) and has been typically assessed via memory span tasks or measures of working memory. Whereas the former tasks require children to immediately recall a given number of items in the correct order, the latter are more complex in that they not only require the exact reproduction of items but are embedded in an additional task in which children must transform information held in the STS. The maximum number of items a person can correctly recall in those tasks define their memory span. In general, children’s performance on working-memory tasks shows the same age-related increase as their performance on memory-span tasks, although the absolute performance level is somewhat reduced in working-memory tasks. Numerous studies have shown that this development is related to significant increases in information processing speed which are most obvious in early ages, with the rate of changes slowing thereafter (Kail 1991).

Although there is little doubt that performance on memory span tasks improves with age, the implications for whether working-memory capacity changes with age are not so obvious. It still remains unknown whether the total capacity store factually increases with age or whether changes in information processing speed, strategies and knowledge allow more material to be stored within the same overall capacity.

2.2 Effects of Memory Strategies

Memory strategies have been defined as mental or behavioral activities that achieve cognitive purposes and are effort-consuming, potentially conscious and controllable (Flavell et al. 1993). Since the early 1970s numerous studies have investigated the role of strategies in memory development. Strategies can be executed either at the time of learning (encoding) or later on when information is accessed in long-term memory (retrieval). The encoding strategies explored in the majority of studies include rehearsal, which involves the repetition of target information, organization, which involves the combination of different items in categories, and elaboration, which involves the association of two or more items through the generation of relations connecting these items. Retrieval strategies refer to strategic efforts at the time of testing, when the task is to access stored information and bring it back into consciousness.

Typically, these strategies are not observed in children younger than 5 or 6. The lack of strategic behaviors in very young children was labeled ‘mediational deficiency,’ indicating that children of a particular (preschool) age do not benefit from strategies, even after having been instructed how to use them. The term ‘production deficiency’ refers to the fact that slightly older children do not spontaneously use memory strategies but can benefit substantially from strategies when told how to use them. More recently, the construct of a ‘utilization deficiency’ has been proposed to account for the opposite phenomenon, that is, the finding that strategies initially often fail to improve young children’s memory performance (Flavell et al. 1993, Schneider and Bjorklund 1998). The explanation for this discrepancy favored by most researchers is that executing new strategies may consume too much of young children’s memory capacity.

Although strategies develop most rapidly over the elementary school years, recent research has shown that the ages of strategy acquisition are relative, and variable within and between strategies. Even preschoolers and kindergarten children are able to use intentional strategies, both in ecologically valid settings such as hide-and-seek tasks, and in the context of a laboratory task. Although the majority of (crosssectional) studies suggest that strategy development is continuous over the school years, recent longitudinal research has shown that children typically acquire memory strategies very rapidly (Schneider and Bjorklund 1998). Moreover, there is increasing evidence of substantial interand intrasubject variability in strategy use, with children using different strategies and combinations of strategies on any given memory problem (Siegler 1996).

Taken together, age-related improvements in the frequency of use and quality of children’s strategies play a large role in memory development between the preschool years and adolescence. However, there is now an increasing realization that the use of encoding and retrieval strategies depends largely on children’s strategic as well as nonstrategic knowledge. There is broad consensus that the narrow focus on developmental changes in strategy use should be replaced by an approach that takes into account the effects of various forms of knowledge on strategy execution.

3. The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge (Metamemory)

One knowledge component that has been explored systematically since the early 1970s concerns children’s knowledge about memory. The term metamemory was introduced to refer to a person’s potentially verbalizable knowledge about memory storage and retrieval (Flavell et al. 1993). Two broad categories of metacognitive knowledge have been distinguished in the literature. Declarative metacognitive knowledge refers to what children factually know about their memory. This type of knowledge is explicit and verbalizable and includes knowledge about the importance of person variables (e.g., age or IQ), task characteristics such as task difficulty, or strategies for resulting memory performances. In contrast, procedural metacognitive knowledge is mostly implicit (subconscious) and relates to children’s self-monitoring and self-regulation activities while dealing with a memory problem.

Empirical research exploring the development of declarative metamemory revealed that children’s knowledge of facts about memory increases considerably over the primary-grade years, but is still incomplete by the end of childhood. Recent studies also showed that increases in knowledge about strategies are paralleled by the acquisition of strategies, and that metamemory-memory behavior relationships tend to be moderately strong (Schneider and Pressley 1997). Thus, what children know about their memory obviously influences how they try to remember. Nonetheless, although late-grade-school children know much about strategies, there is increasing evidence that many adolescents (including college students) have little or no knowledge of some important and powerful memory strategies.

The situation regarding developmental trends in procedural metamemory is not entirely clear. Several studies explored how children use their knowledge to monitor their own memory status and regulate their memory activities. There is evidence that older children are better able to predict future performance on memory tasks than younger children, and that there are similar age trends when the task is to judge performance accuracy after the fact. Also, older children seem better able to judge whether the name of an object that they currently cannot recall would be recognized later if the experimenter provided it (feeling-of-knowing judgments). However, although monitoring skills seem to improve continuously across childhood and adolescence, it is important to note that even young children can be fairly accurate in such metamemory tasks, and that developmental trends in self-monitoring are less pronounced than those observed for declarative metamemory. It appears that the major developmental improvements in procedural metamemory observable in elementary school children are due mainly to an increasingly better interplay between monitoring and self-regulatory activities. That is, even though young children may be similarly capable of identifiying memory problems than older ones, in most cases only the older children will effectively regulate their behavior in order to overcome these problems.

4. The Impact of Domain Knowledge

Striking effects of domain knowledge on performance in memory tasks has been provided in numerous developmental studies. In most domains, older children know more than younger ones, and differences in knowledge are linked closely to performance differences. How can we explain this phenomenon? First, one effect that rich domain knowledge has on memory is to increase the speed of processing for domainspecific information. Second, rich domain knowledge enables more competent strategy use. Finally, rich domain knowledge can have nonstrategic effects, that is, diminish the need for strategy activation.

Evidence for the latter phenomenon comes from studies using the expert-novice paradigm. These studies compared experts and novices in a given domain (e.g., baseball, chess, or soccer) on a memory task related to that domain. It could be demonstrated that rich domain knowledge enabled a child expert to perform much like an adult expert and better than an adult novice—thus showing a disappearance and sometimes reversal of usual developmental trends. Experts and novices not only differed with regard to quantity of knowledge but also regarding the quality of knowledge, that is, in the way their knowledge is represented in the mind. Moreover, several studies also confirmed the assumption that rich domain knowledge can compensate for low overall aptitude on domain-related memory tasks, as no differences were found between highand low-aptitude experts on various recall and comprehension measures (Bjorklund and Schneider 1996).

Taken together, these findings indicate that domain knowledge increases greatly with age, and is clearly related to how much and what children remember. Domain knowledge also contributes to the development of other competencies that have been proposed as sources of memory development, namely basic capacities, memory strategies, and metacognitive knowledge. Undoubtedly, changes in domain knowledge play a large role in memory development, probably larger than that of the other sources of memory improvement described above. However, although the various components of memory development have been described separately so far, it seems important to note that all of these components interact in producing memory changes, and that it is difficult at times to disentangle the effects of specific sources from that of other influences.

5. Current Research Trends

During the 1990s, research interests in memory development shifted from the more basic issues discussed above to certain aspects of event memory or autobiographical memory. In particular, children’s eyewitness memories have attracted substantial research attention. Not surprisingly, much of the recent interest has been stimulated by children’s increasing participation in the legal system, either as victims of or as witnesses to reported crimes (Ceci and Bruck 1998). Major research interests concerned age trends regarding the reliability of children’s memory of witnessed events, age-related forgetting processes, and age trends regarding children’s susceptibility to suggestion (Brainerd and Reyna 1998).

The main findings of this research can be summarized as follows: (a) Children’s free recall of witnessed events is generally accurate and increases with age. Despite low levels of recall, what preschoolers do recall is usually accurate and central to the witnessed event. (b) Preschoolers are especially vulnerable to the effects of misleading questions and stereotypes. Although young children’s erroneous answers to misleading questions do not necessarily reflect an actual change in memory representations, such changes may occur, with young children being more likely to make such changes than older children (Ceci and Bruck 1998). (c) To obtain the most accurate recall, questions should be asked in a neutral fashion, and should not be repeated more often than necessary. (d) Autobiographical memories are never perfectly reliable. Although there is great development during the preschool years and into the elementary school years with respect to the accuracy and completeness of event memories, no major differences between the event memories of young school children and adults can be found. This does not mean that primary school children’s event memory is already close to perfect but simply illustrates the fact that even adults’ memories of witnessed events are fallible at times, particularly when delays between the to-be-remembered events and the time of testing are long.

As noted above, the focus of this overview was on the development of explicit, verbal memory. Although there has been less research on other memory systems such as implicit memory (i.e., memory for some information without being consciously aware that one is remembering) or visuo-spatial memory, the available evidence suggests that age differences found for these kinds of memory—if noticed at all—are typically small and far less pronounced than those observed for verbal memory, indicating that findings from one area cannot be transferred to other domains.


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