This recent study reinforces a conclusion that’s been emerging among cognitive psychologists and education researchers for many years: Telling people something is, by and large, a really bad way of getting them to remember – or act – upon it:
Between sights, sounds, and tactile sensations, what we hear is hardest for us to recall, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. They pitted our senses against each other in a recent study to determine which works best with memory, and found that while seeing and feeling are about equal, hearing just can’t compete.
The study consisted of two experiments that focused on short-term memory. Participants were exposed to different pictures, sounds, and objects to touch (shielded from view), and then asked to distinguish each thing from a similar item or identify it among a larger group. Sometimes participants’ memories were tested after only a matter of seconds, but in other instances the study stretched the time before recall to a day or even a week. While the accuracy of the participants’ memories declined across the board as time went on, the accuracy of their auditory recall plummeted more rapidly than that of the the other two senses.
We don’t remember what we hear , and we don’t learn from hearing very well either, as this article by David Freedman in Discover, January 2012 noted:
A University of Maryland study of undergraduates found that after a physics lecture by a well-regarded professor, almost no students could provide a specific answer to the question, “What was the lecture you just heard about?” A Kansas State University study found that after watching a video of a highly rated physics lecture, most students still incorrectly answered questions on the material. Wieman himself found that when he quizzed students about a fact he had presented 15 minutes earlier in a lecture, only 10 percent showed any sign of remembering it.
Investigating further, Wieman learned what cognitive scientists have proven repeatedly in recent years: Humans don’t learn concepts very well by having someone blab on about them. In other words, the college lecture is to a large extent a waste of time.
If lectures don’t work — if the listener doesn’t hear it and the lecturer doesn’t get the results that it’s supposed to generate — then why do we use a lecture model to run public meetings? And if lectures don’t work for students — who, at least in theory, have the threat of a bad grade to give them a little extra motivation to try to learn — why are we surprised when our residents and our elected officials don’t learn or deeply think about the things that we’re trying to get through to them — or that our residents are trying to tell us?
As I say multiple times in Part II of the book (for example, here), if the approaches that we are using to engage the public in our local government decision-making ever worked, they’re definitely not working now.
So why aren’t we learning from psychology and educational research and using more hands-on, more engaging methods?
Why do we keep doing crappy public engagement, and wondering when we get crappy results?