Go Fly a Kite: The Effect of Context on Memory

Marty Klein (1981) described an activity that is designed to illustrate the effect of meaningfulness on memory. In his demonstration, meaningfulness is manipulated by presenting the same passage with or without a contextual statement. Prior to reading the passage, give half of the class a piece of paper with the statement, "The context is kite flying." Tell those receiving the contextual statement not to discuss it. Then slowly and clearly read the following passage:

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill but is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

After completing the passage, ask students to take out a piece of paper and to write down as much of the passage as they can. Then ask the students that received the contextual statement to mark their paper so that they can be identified, and collect the papers. You can either immediately compare the responses of both groups by reading selected papers from each group, or you can score the responses after class and bring a data summary to the next class. Obviously, you should find that those students with a context outperform those without. Klein suggested using these results to discuss the importance of context and how it may relate to study strategies.

Another example, used by Bransford and Johnson (1972, p. 722), should work just as well if you follow the same procedures described above. Note that for this story the context is "washing clothes."

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications can arise. A mistake can prove expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but one can never tell. After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will all be used once more, and the whole cycle will have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

Bransford, J. D., & Johnson, M. K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726.

Klein, M. (1981). Context and memory. In L. T. Benjamin, Jr. & K. D. Lowman (Eds.), Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology (p. 83). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.