Self-referencing in the classroom: The influence of self-cues on children's information processing and retention

Lead Research Organisation: University of Abertay Dundee
Department Name: Sch of Social and Health Sciences


Children demonstrate learning by encoding and retrieving from memory. Therefore, it is essential that we understand the mechanisms that support memory and hence how we can support learning. The 'self-reference effect' (SRE) has shown that individuals are better at remembering information about themselves than information relating to others. This is particularly effective because it occurs in different contexts. For example, when the information is perceived as self-owned, or when the information is encoded while thinking about self. Most research exploring the extent of the SRE has been conducted in a laboratory setting. To determine the benefits for learning, this project aims to explore the potential uses of self-referencing in the classroom.

The project will explore SREs across an array of literacy processing, numeracy processing and learning tasks. Personalisation in learning, such as including personal hobbies and cartoon characters in materials, has been encouraged as it helps to promote rich encoding. However, this is costly as it requires individualised materials. Self-referencing incurs less cost as the changes are not individual (e.g., using pronouns 'you' or 'I' instead of a character name) yet there is evidence that these changes lead to improvements in learning. For example, in a spelling task, children improved the accuracy of their spelling for new words when they wrote sentences starting with the word 'I' compared to sentences they wrote about another character. They also wrote longer sentences, which indicates that they were more engaged with their learning. In an arithmetic task, self-pronouns included in maths problems (e.g., You have 3 balls. Bob has 2 more balls than You. How many balls does Bob have?") elicited faster and more accurate problem-solving than when the problems were presented entirely in the third person (e.g., "Tom has 5 balls..."). In additional to pronoun changes, another study showed that children learned novel shapes better if the shapes were 'owned' by them during a sorting game. These studies indicate that there is great potential in using self-referencing in the classroom; however, systematic research is necessary to test the efficacy of these manipulations, and their underlying mechanisms.

Three potential mechanisms for the impact of self-referencing on learning have been proposed. First is the self-knowledge framework, which is the most established account of the SRE. Self-knowledge is particularly extensive and accessible relative to other knowledge in memory, so can be used to enrich and organise new information, providing multiple routes to successful retrieval. However, there may also be an important role for attention and this has been explored to a lesser extent, particularly with regards to learning. Self-cues are difficult to ignore, and this may provide a mechanism whereby the children are engaged in the material to be learned for longer intervals. Finally, working memory, a type of short-term memory that encompasses both storage and processing, may also be affected by self-reference cues. For example, when personal pronouns are included in literacy and numeracy tasks, it reduces the number of referents or things to be remembered. This research will test the effect of self-referencing on attentional capacity, working memory load, task engagement ans memory support as a necessary step in the successful translation of self-referencing to the classroom. A further aspect of translation is to test transferability of SRE interventions, comparing the impact of training teachers v. learners. Teacher input will be sought at every stage of experimental design to ensure materials are easily transferable to classroom activities.

Based on the experiments conducted, the project will develop educational resources and a website enabling teachers and parents to implement self-referencing in learning. This will ensure the impact of this project is wide and sustainable in practice.

Planned Impact

The project tests the educational applications of self-referencing, so has impact at the centre throughout. We have incorporated consulation, participation in outreach and resource dissemination to the following stakeholders:

Focus Groups. We will consult with focus groups of educational practitioners at key stages from the beginning of the project, gauging how our experimental materials align with current teaching resources and practices. We will make use of the PI and CIs' current network of primary teachers, as well as social media networks.
CPD for teachers. We will offer free CPD workshops to schools in as many local authorities as we can reach. The usefulness and impact of these sessions on teachers' understanding and practice will be monitored through immediate and follow-up questionnaires.
Educational resources. We will build a set of literacy, numeracy and learning resources (i.e., worksheets and guides) for teachers to download and use in their own classrooms. These resources will be freely available from our dedicated website (described below), and also on professional platforms (e.g., the Times Educational Supplement website).
Educational articles and talks. Articles will be submitted to professional magazines including the Times Educational Supplement, as well as the Scottish Government's Education newsletter Engage for Education. Conference dissemination will also be achieved through participation in a national teaching conference (e.g., the Scottish Learning Festival, attended annually by 4,500 education professionals).
Higher Education talks. While our research focuses on children, it is also of relevance to those teaching in Higher education. The research team (PI, CIs) will therefore also disseminate the effectiveness of self-referential learning at internal HE events (e.g., Abertay's Teaching and Learning Enhancement Conference) and research seminars delivered at other HE institutions.

Website. A website dedicated to the project will provide information about research linking self-referencing to learning, underlying mechanisms, and ideas for application. This will include a section for downloadable resource for teachers, information for parents, a feedback section to monitor impact, training workshop details, and publications where appropriate, and contact details for the research team. Links will be advertise through university networks and social media. Once the project ends, SC will be responsible for promoting and regularly updating the website to ensure the resource has longevity.
Public engagement events. The research team will engage in a number of broad public engagement activities, particularly science festivals and non-academic publications. The PI and CIs will receive media training within their own institutions, and the External Relations team at Abertay University will support, publicise and raise accessibility of findings emerging from the project.
White paper. We will prepare a White paper on the benefits of self-referencing. This will be issued to Scottish Executive ministers who have an education brief, to increase awareness of the potential impact of self-referencing its potential relevance to policy. (For example, the current Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is written entirely in the first person, something we would recommend but which, according to the Chair of the CfE committee [personal communication], is entirely serendipitous.)

Impact for academic audiences will be achieved through both conference dissemination (national and international conferences on psychology and education) and journal publication. It is anticipated that four academic papers will result from the project, the first two of which will be large, multi-experiment papers designed to achieve maximum academic impact.


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