Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Roddy Roediger, Former President of the Association for Psychological Science

Osmosis Team
Sep 22, 2014

Dr. Roddy Roediger is the former President of the Association for Psychological Science. He is currently a professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. He also runs his own Memory Lab where his research is concerned with the retrieval processes in human memory. Throughout his career he has published over 175 articles. He is most known for his research on false memories.

How did you become interested in education?

I think it was all the way back to elementary school, because I had inspiring teachers. I grew up in a house filled with books, and everyone in my family liked to read. Going on to higher education just seemed my natural course. My sisters both went on to receive advanced degrees, too. I liked learning and was kind of amazed to find that a person could make a career in research and teaching. The life of the mind is a great life.

Why did you decide to research memory and learning?
I actually went to graduate school in social psychology, but my first semester I took a course from Robert Crowder, a young assistant professor at Yale, that was about learning and memory. We hit it off and I began to work with him. Endel Tulving joined the faculty just after that, and he and I also became close. The topics they were studying were fascinating to me, so I switched from the social psychology program to the cognitive psychology program. Crowder and Tulving were my mentors.

What do you believe is the most effective way to integrate technology into learning?

I don't really think we have it figured out yet. Some uses of technology seem to be merely using technology because we can, not because it helps. I have sat through stupefying lectures in which a researcher whizzes through a series of powerpoint slides far too fast, assuming far too much knowledge in their audience. The talk is a blur. My undergraduate students report that some classes in the university are like that. Powerpoint slide shows permit interesting delivery of information, or they can, but some professors misuse them. Simply presenting a screenful of information does not mean it gets through to the students.

On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that technology will help to transform education in the future. The internet helps research, no doubt. No more wandering around the library trying to locate journals and articles. Presentation of information on computers, tablets, and phones will change the way education happens. I just think it will take a few years of experimentation to figure it out. Some uses of technology are quite effective now, but others are not. And few researchers are assessing learning in an objective way. What practices foster the best kind of learning? We need to do research They may not be the ones that students like best and that students think are most effective.

What do you think is the biggest problem with both education and medical education today?

The biggest problem in K - 12 education, and perhaps even university education, is motivation. How do we get students interested in learning? Most educational techniques of the kind I study assume a motivated learner, but that then we find that many students do not have the drive to learn that we assume. I would not presume to know the biggest problem in medical education, because I am not an M.D. and I don't work in a medical school. However, from talking to colleagues (and my daughter, who recently became an M.D.), one problem seems to be the huge amount of information that students are exposed to. There is no way they can retain even a fraction of the information without special strategies, as discussed below.

What do you believe is the biggest change happening in the way people learn?

I suppose the greatest change is in use of technology, but as I said in response to an earlier question, I don't know if we yet have good ideas about the optimal way to use technology for learning. I would like to think that people may start looking to evidence-based practices in attempting to learn. Many of the best practices are counterintuitive. Students tend to focus on one topic single-mindedly, reading and rereading text. They think they can burn the knowledge into their minds. Yet research has shown that repeated rereading (especially back to back readings) is not an effective study strategy compared to many others. For example, if people test themselves on their readings (or just reflect back on the passages they have read and try to retrieve the information), they will later remember much better than if they restudied the information. I have written a book (with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel), Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, that provides current research on methods of effective learning. The book is written in an accessible style and provides many tips for improving learning. We highlight medical education in several spots in the book.