Education Professor Underscores Memory in the Classroom

“A lot of people in education think about information retrieval as a neutral event, but that’s wrong. Every time you retrieve an event, you strengthen memory,” said Andrew C. Butler, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education and of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Butler, who teaches while running a lab at the university, studies the malleability of memory, or the cognitive processes and mechanisms that cause memories to stay the same or change over time. His research has practical applications to education and mental health.

Butler has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience, where he worked with Dr. Elizabeth Marsh and Dr. David Rubin. He previously was as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, Butler discussed the importance of frequent, low-stakes testing. He also emphasized the benefits of teachers collecting feedback from students throughout the semester to gauge learning and course satisfaction.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

Teaching is always something I loved to do but it was never a formal career path. I wanted to be in academia and research first, but a lot of my research is about how people learn. As I went along, I found that I really liked teaching and that my teaching informed my research, and vice versa.

How did you become interested in memory research?

I started off as an economics major in college because I wanted to be a businessman. I was taking philosophy courses and I really like the questions, but I didn’t feel like I had the tools to answer them. Then I took a class on memory and learning and decided that this was what I wanted to do.

I’ve always been fascinated by memory phenomena. Memory is something that connects to just about everything we do. As I went forward it was a nice foundation to branch off or dive in and ask questions.

How does your research apply to education?

I started out as someone who studied learning and memory in a laboratory context. I looked at basic principles that improve learning and make it more efficient and durable. I’ve always been interested in practical applications so a natural outcrop of that research is figuring out out how you’ll use it in school settings.

As my research progressed, it opened up a Pandora’s box of other things that are going on in real world contexts. I’ve collaborated with people teaching engineering, math, and biology courses. You start to understand the nuances of specific fields and how these findings need to be applied in context in order to work. You need to know who the learners are and the skills they have to acquire. I became interested in teachers’ motivation and what they know and believe, because that impacts how they teach.

One of the things I’ve been interested in all along is false memories and how what we know can be incorrect. I’m very interested in false knowledge and misconceptions, and how you correct them.

Why did you return to Wash U after completing your doctorate in psychology here?

I really love St. Louis and this university. It’s a great community and everyone is invested in each other’s success. After I graduated from the psych department here, I went to North Carolina and did a postdoc at Duke. Then I went from Duke to the University of Texas for my first faculty position. The University of Texas was special in lots of ways, but I’m happy to be back in St. Louis. I’m still pinching myself that I had the opportunity to come back.

What are some challenges that you’ve encountered as a teacher, and how did you address them?

One of the biggest challenges coming here from the University of Texas was adjusting my teaching to meet the challenge that Wash U students needed. There were plenty of good students at the University of Texas but a lot of them were struggling and I couldn’t assume that people were doing things reliably outside of class.

Something I’ve been trying to figure out for the past year and a half is, how do I increase the level of rigor and challenge people in ways that are good for them but also help them have a great experience in the class? I feel like after a year and a half I’m better at doing that, but I still have existential crises.

How do you actively engage students in your classes?

In my Educational Psychology class, which has about 45 to 50 students every semester, we do a mix of activities. There’s some lecture but in large part students are doing things. We have teams we do in-class small group discussions and learning through various activities. Three times a semester, we take an entire class session and we do a group-designed learning experience. Students take what we learned in that unit and use best practices, topics, and theories to craft a learning experience for a certain teaching objective.

Every day we have a quiz that’s not called a quiz, it’s called a ‘YUKK,’ which stands for ‘You Utilizing Key Knowledge.’ It’s an exercise at the end of class where I give students five questions about what we covered that day. It’s low-stakes and they get practice putting what they learned in their own words. I have bonus questions so students can give me feedback about certain activities and course decisions.

Why is frequent testing an important part of learning?

A lot of people in education think about information retrieval as a neutral event, but that’s wrong. Every time you retrieve an event, you strengthen memory. Also, as you retrieve information, you change the underlying representation in your memory. That’s why I give quizzes. The indirect benefits include allowing students to practice questions that you’re going to ask on the exams so there’s less anxiety, and you spread out their grade. It also incentivizes people to come to class and keep up with the material.

What do you hope students take away from your classes?

Thinking about how to facilitate learning will help you regardless of your career path. I hope my students ask themselves what they can do differently as a learner to become more effective and efficient.

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?

Keep learning and do not become complacent. There are many different ways you can keep learning. You can read, you can go observe your colleagues, you can have conversations with people, and you can solicit feedback from students to see what their experience is in the course.

People say that teachers need to give students feedback, but the feedback that students give teachers is so important as well. It’s helpful for teaching on the fly but also for improving experiences for students. Teachers should be getting students’ feedback regularly throughout the course. It has such as positive impact.

Interview has been condensed and edited.