Some cognitive training helps less-educated older adults more

  • A large study in which older adults underwent various types of cognitive training has found that less-educated adults benefited more from training designed to speed processing.

Data from 2,800 participants (aged 65+) in the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study has revealed that one type of cognitive training benefits less-educated people more than it does the more-educated.

While the effects of reasoning and memory training did not differ as a function of how much education the individual had, those older adults with less than a complete high school education experienced a 50% greater benefit from speed of information processing training than college graduates. This advantage was maintained for three years after the end of the training.

The training involved ten 60 to 75-minute sessions over six weeks that focused on visual search and processing information in shorter and shorter times.

Both reasoning and information processing speed training resulted in improved targeted cognitive abilities for 10 years among participants, but memory training did not. Memory training focused on mnemonic strategies for remembering lists and sequences of items, text material, and main ideas and details of stories and other text-based information. Reasoning training focused on improving the ability to solve problems containing a serial pattern.

The researchers speculate that speed of information processing training might help those with less than 12 years of education, who are at greater risk of dementia, close the gap between them and those with more education.

The training modules have been translated into online games delivered by Posit Science.

Less educated study participants were slightly older, less likely to be married, more likely to be African-American, and more likely to have hypertension or diabetes as well as heart disease than the more educated older adults.




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Coping with cognitive decline in MS

Cognitive impairment affects 40-65% of people with MS. Why? In the past year, a number of studies have helped us build a better picture of the precise nature of cognitive problems that may affect multiple sclerosis sufferers:

  • poorer performance on executive function tasks is fully explained by slower processing speed (which is presumably a function of the degradation in white matter characteristic of MS)
  • slowing in processing speed is associated with weaker connections between the executive area and the brain regions involved in carrying out cognitive tasks
  • cognitive reserve helps counter the decline in memory and cognitive efficiency
  • brain reserve (greater brain volume, ie less shrinkage) helps counter the decline in cognitive efficiency
  • working memory capacity explains the link between cognitive reserve and long-term memory
  • subjective cognitive fatigue is linked to the time spent on the task, not on its difficulty
  • mnemonic training helps protect against cognitive decline, but appears to be less helpful in those with slow processing speed.

What all this implies is that a multi-pronged approach is called for, involving:

  • working memory training
  • training in effective memory strategies
  • practice in breaking down cognitive tasks into more manageable chunks of time
  • practice in framing tasks to accommodate slower processing speed
  • physical and mental activities that encourage neurogenesis (growing more neurons) and synaptogenesis (growing more connections).

Here's some more detail on those studies:

Slow processing speed accounts for executive deficits in MS

A study of 50 patients with MS and 28 healthy controls found no differences in performance on executive function tasks when differences in processing speed were controlled for. In other words, although MS patients performed more poorly than controls on these tasks, the difference was fully accounted for by the differences in processing speed. There were no differences in performance when there was no processing speed component to the task. Similarly, MS patients with a greater degree of brain atrophy performed more poorly than those with less atrophy, but again, this only occurred when there was a processing speed aspect to the task, and was fully accounted for by processing speed differences.

[3939] Leavitt, V. M., Wylie G., Krch D., Chiaravalloti N. D., DeLuca J., & Sumowski J. F.
(2014).  Does slowed processing speed account for executive deficits in multiple sclerosis? Evidence from neuropsychological performance and structural neuroimaging..
Rehabilitation Psychology. 59(4), 422 - 428.

Functional connectivity factor in cognitive decline in MS

A brain imaging study involving 29 participants with relapsing-remitting MS and 23 age- and sex- matched healthy controls found that, as expected, those with MS were much slower on a processing speed task, although they were as accurate as the controls. This slowing was associated with weaker functional connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the executive area) and the regions responsible for carrying out the task. It's thought that this is probably due to decreased white matter (white matter degradation is symptomatic of MS).

[3938] Hubbard, N. A., Hutchison J. L., Turner M. P., Sundaram S., Oasay L., Robinson D., et al.
(2015).  Asynchrony in Executive Networks Predicts Cognitive Slowing in Multiple Sclerosis.

Brain and cognitive reserve protect against cognitive decline in MS

A study compared memory, cognitive efficiency, vocabulary, and brain volume in 40 patients with MS, at baseline and 4.5 years later. After controlling for disease progression, they found that those with better vocabulary (a proxy for cognitive reserve) experienced less decline in memory and cognitive efficiency, and those with less brain atrophy over the period showed less decline in cognitive efficiency.

Cognitive efficiency is a somewhat fuzzy concept, but essentially has to do with how much time and effort you need to acquire new knowledge; in this study, it was assessed using the Symbol Digit Modalities Test and Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task, two tests commonly used to detect cognitive impairment in MS patients.

[3943] Sumowski, J. F., Rocca M. A., Leavitt V. M., Dackovic J., Mesaros S., Drulovic J., et al.
(2014).  Brain reserve and cognitive reserve protect against cognitive decline over 4.5 years in MS.
Neurology. 82(20), 1776 - 1783.

Working memory capacity accounts for link between cognitive reserve & better memory

A study involving 70 patients with MS has found that working memory capacity explained the relationship between cognitive reserve and long-term memory, suggesting that interventions targeted at working memory may help protect against decline in long-term memory.

[3941] Sandry, J., & Sumowski J. F.
(2014).  Working Memory Mediates the Relationship between Intellectual Enrichment and Long-Term Memory in Multiple Sclerosis: An Exploratory Analysis of Cognitive Reserve.
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 20(08), 868 - 872.

Cognitive fatigue linked to time on task, not difficulty

A study investigating cognitive fatigue in 32 individuals with MS and 24 controls has found that subjective and objective fatigue were independent of one another, and that subjective cognitive fatigue increased as time on task increased. This increase in cognitive fatigue was greater in the MS group. No relationship was found between cognitive fatigue and cognitive load. Fatigue was greater for the processing speed task than the working memory task.

In other words, the length of time spent is far more important than the difficulty of the task.

[3940] Sandry, J., Genova H. M., Dobryakova E., DeLuca J., & Wylie G.
(2014).  Subjective cognitive fatigue in multiple sclerosis depends on task length.
Frontiers in Neurology. 5, 214.

Story mnemonic training helps some

A series of small studies have found cognitive benefits for MS patients from a 10-session training program designed to build their memory skills using a modified story mnemonic. The MEMREHAB Trial involved 85 patients with MS, of whom 45 received the training. In the most recent analyses of the data, the benefits were found to be maintained six months later, but unfortunately, it appears that those with processing speed deficits gain less benefit from the training.

The training consists of four 45-minute sessions focused on building imagery skills, in which participants were given a story with highly visualizable scenes and given facilitated practice in using visualization to help them remember the story. In the next four sessions, they were given lists of words and instructed in how to build a memorable story from these words, that they could visualize. The sessions employed increasingly unrelated word lists. In the final two sessions, participants were taught how to apply the technique in real-world situations.

[3936] Chiaravalloti, N. D., & DeLuca J.
(2015).  The influence of cognitive dysfunction on benefit from learning and memory rehabilitation in MS: A sub-analysis of the MEMREHAB trial.
Multiple Sclerosis (Houndmills, Basingstoke, England).

[3937] Dobryakova, E., Wylie G. R., DeLuca J., & Chiaravalloti N. D.
(2014).  A pilot study examining functional brain activity 6 months after memory retraining in MS: the MEMREHAB trial.
Brain Imaging and Behavior. 8(3), 403 - 406.


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Mnemonics for Children

Use of visual imagery in children

Research into whether young children can improve recall by using visual imagery has produced mixed results. It would seem that, in general, the instruction to generate mental images does not improve recall in children 5 yrs and younger, but does improve recall in children 8 years and above. Children of six and seven appear to be at a transitional stage whereby some children can use the strategy effectively in some situations.

Danner FW & Taylor AM. 1973. Integrated pictures and relational imagery training in children’s learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 16, 47-54.

Finding: trained 1st, 3rd and 6th graders to use interactive imagery to recall sets of three concrete nouns. There were three different training methods:

(1) The children were trained to generate their own interactive images, by drawing three integrated pictures of the separate pictures of nouns. For the first practice set they were shown an example of an integrated picture. The experimenter asked them to describe the relationship between the three items, then cued recall of two items with a picture of the third. There were two more practice sets, in which the child received encouragement and correction.

(2) The children were shown three integrated pictures (each showing integration of three items). Each picture was presented for 20 seconds, during which the items were named and the child asked to remember them. Recall of two items was cued by showing a picture of the third.

(3) The children were simply presented with integrated pictures.

It was found that 6th graders recalled more when required to generate own images (i.e., trained using method 1). For 1st and 3rd graders, methods 1 and 2 were equally good for training. Since pictures are usually more effective than visual imagery for these ages, these results indicate the benefits of training. It’s worth noting that only 15-20 seconds were given for the child to generate their own image, and greater benefits might well have been apparent if the child had been given more time.

Use of the story (sentence) mnemonic

The story, or sentence, mnemonic is a verbal mnemonic in which words to be remembered are linked together in a sentence or sentences. It is an effective strategy for learning a list of words.

The research confirms that memory even in very young children can be helped by teaching them to use this verbal mnemonic strategy.

It is more effective if the words (usually nouns) are linked by verbs rather than prepositions — simply stringing together words like this: The cat and the banana and the boat were in the sky” is much less memorable than composing: “The cat ate the banana and tossed the boat into the sky.”

Sentence mnemonics have been effectively used by 6th graders (10 year olds) to remember the correct spelling of words.

Levin JR & Rohwer WD 1968. Verbal organization and the facilitation of serial learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 59, 186-91.

Finding: gave 4th and 5th graders a sentence mnemonic to recall 14 nouns. For example, the grey cat/jumped over the log/and crossed the street/to find the bowl/of cold milk/under the chair/in the new house/by the blue lake/where the young boy/lost his left shoe/while eating the fish/on the wooden boat/during the storm/that came last year. Recall of the 14 nouns was better using the sentence mnemonic than simply learning the list of nouns.

Negin GA 1978. Mnemonics and demonic words. Reading Improvement, 15, 180-2.

Finding: used sentence mnemonics to reduce spelling errors. Ten misspelled words were selected from 6th graders’ written assignments. The children were given two hours’ instruction on the use of sentence mnemonics in remembering spelling. They were given examples such as, “She screamed EEE as she passed the cemetery”; “StationERy is for a lettER”; “My skin shows resisTANce to a TAN”. They were told they could use two sentences if it was too hard to put in one. They were instructed to compare their misspellings with the proper form, locate the discrepancy, create a sentence associating the word with the correct spelling and rehearse the sentence. Their learning was compared with a group of children who were told to compare misspellings with the correct form, write each word in a meaningful sentence, underline the difficult section and rehearse the word. After each practice session, the children formed pairs and dictated words to each other. After six weeks, there was no significant difference in performance between the two groups, but after ten weeks, the children using mnemonics performed significantly better.

Pressley M. 1982. Elaboration and memory development. Child Development, 53, 296-309.

Finding: reviewed the research and concluded that even nursery school children improved in their learning when instructed to generate verbal elaborations.

Rohwer WD 1966. Constraint, syntax, and meaning in paired-associate learning. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 5, 541-7. Rohwer WD 1970. Images and pictures in children’s learning: Research results and educational implications. Psychology Bulletin, 73, 393-403.

Finding: sentence mnemonics using verbs (e.g., the dog closes the gate) helped remembering more than sentences using prepositions to join the nouns (e.g. the dog and the gate).

Use of the keyword mnemonic

The keyword method is one of the most successful mnemonic strategies to be used in education. It is of proven effectiveness as a method of learning new words, foreign language words, and social studies facts. As a technique for learning new words, it has been compared with the following common strategies:

  • learning words in context
  • finding root words
  • learning synonyms and antonyms
  • presenting words in meaningful sentences
  • having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and
  • having students generate their own meaningful sentences

and is apparently more effective than any of these methods.

The keyword mnemonic has been used effectively by 4th graders (8 year olds). When pictures have been provided, it has been used effectively by 2nd graders. It is suggested that, for children 10 years and younger, instructions to visualize are supplemented by illustrating pictures.

McGivern 1981 (unpublished)

Finding: Children with greater vocabulary knowledge benefited more from generating their own keywords than being provided with them, whereas children with smaller vocabularies experienced comparable benefits from generated and provided keywords.

Levin JR 1981. The mnemonic ‘80’s: Keywords in the classroom. Educational Psychologist, 16, 65-82.

Finding: suggested that as it becomes more difficult to derive keywords, it is probable that provided keywords (rather than generated) would be more effective.

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: Studies of 2nd and 6th graders and adults have found providing pictures of interaction between the keyword and the word representing the meaning of foreign word leads to higher recall than having the person generate their own image. Keyword method successfully used with whole classrooms and small groups of elementary and junior high students. Has been employed by 8th graders to attach a persons name to a number of pieces of biographical info.

Johnson RE 1974.Abstractive processes in the remembering of prose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 772-9.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (a) learning words in context (b) finding root words, and (c) learning synonyms and antonyms

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1982. The keyword method compared to alternative vocabulary-learning strategies. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 7, 213-26.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (d) presenting words in meaningful sentences (e) having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and (f) having students generate their own meaningful sentences.

Levin JR McCormick CB Miller GE Berry JK & Pressley M. 1982. Mnemonic versus nonmnemonic vocabulary-learning strategies for children. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 121-36.

Finding: successfully taught 4th graders abstract verbs (such as persuade, hesitate, object, glisten, resolve) using the keyword method. There were two steps: the child was asked to learn a keyword (word clue) for each word – keyword(s) were phonetically similar to a salient part or all of the word (e.g., purse for persuade; he’s a date for hesitate). Each pair of items (keyword and word to be learned) were presented on a card. After they had all been presented once, the child was shown cards with just the word on and asked to recall the keyword. If the child hesitated or gave the wrong answer, the card was immediately turned over and the keyword shown. The procedure was repeated twice. Most children were able to answer correctly after two trials. In step 2, the child was asked to learn the meaning of the 12 words. A colored line-drawing showing the keyword interacting with the definition of the word was presented; each card also had the word and its definition printed below the drawing (people in the drawing had dialogue balloons coming from their mouths – one character would mention the keyword, the other the word to be learned. The sentence was constructed so that the meaning of the word couldn’t be construed directly from sentence. The child was given 15 seconds to study the picture while the experimenter read the written material on the picture. It was found that children using this method remembered significantly more than children who used an alternative, instructionally sound method (82.8% vs 55%).

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: An adaptation of the keyword method was used to teach 4th and 5th graders the US states and their capitals. Step 1: the student formed an association between the name of the state and the keyword (e.g. marry for Maryland). Step 2: the student formed an association between the name of the capital and a different keyword (e.g., apple for Annapolis). The two keywords were then shown linked by a visual image (a line-drawing in which the two keyword referents were related, e.g. “The capital of Maryland is Annapolis. Here is a picture of two apples getting married”). When learning capitals, students were asked to recall the capital from the keyword, rather than the other way around, as they would ultimately be tested for recall of the capital for each state. Because backward keyword learning is more difficult, students were given up to five trials. They learned 12 capital-state pairs on the 1st day, and on 2nd day they were given 13 more, and told to learn them any way they wished. It appeared the students did not try to transfer the keyword method; the one student who did, did so ineffectively. This is not a surprising result, since they had been given the keywords and pictures, and hadn’t been taught how to produce them themselves. Results of the 1st day: those who learned using the keyword method recalled on average 78% correct vs 65.9% for those not trained in the keyword method. After two days, the keyword group remembered some 71.2%, while the nonmnemonic group's performance had fallen to 36.4%. Clearly the keyword method is of most benefit in retaining information.

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1981. How does the keyword method affect vocabulary comprehension and usage? Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 213-26.

Finding: suggested guidelines for using the keyword method with children: concrete stimulus support needed (especially for children 10 years and younger). Instructions to visualize may need to be supplemented by experimenter-provided illustrations etc.

Pressley & Levin 1978. Developmental constraints associated with children’s use of the keyword method of foreign language vocabulary learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 26, 359-72.

Finding: taught 2nd and 6th graders the keyword method to learn Spanish words. They found that the 2nd graders didn’t benefit when keywords and translations were presented verbally, but did when presented pictorially. The 6th graders were fine with both.

Levin JR Shriberg LK Miller GE McCormack CB & Levin BB 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: taught 8th graders abstract attributes of towns (e.g., considerable wealth, abundant natural resources). Results indicated that pictures in which attributes were separately represented didn’t help recall. Recall was much better when the attributes were combined in a picture that incorporated the keyword.

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Sleeping after learning is most effective

May, 2012

A new sleep study confirms the value of running through new material just before bedtime, particularly it seems when that material is being learned using mnemonics or by rote.

We know that we remember more 12 hours after learning if we have slept during that 12 hours rather than been awake throughout, but is this because sleep is actively helping us remember, or because being awake makes it harder to remember (because of interference and over-writing from other experiences). A new study aimed to disentangle these effects.

In the study, 207 students were randomly assigned to study 40 related or unrelated word pairs at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., returning for testing either 30 minutes, 12 hours or 24 hours later.

As expected, at the 12-hour retest, those who had had a night’s sleep (Evening group) remembered more than those who had spent the 12 hours awake (Morning group). But this result was because memory for unrelated word pairs had deteriorated badly during 12 hours of wakefulness; performance on the related pairs was the same for the two groups. Performance on the related and unrelated pairs was the same for those who slept.

For those tested at 24 hours (participants from both groups having received both a full night of sleep and a full day of wakefulness), those in the Evening group (who had slept before experiencing a full day’s wakefulness) remembered significantly more than the Morning group. Specifically, the Evening group showed a very slight improvement over training, while the Morning group showed a pronounced deterioration.

This time, both groups showed a difference for related versus unrelated pairs: the Evening group showed some deterioration for unrelated pairs and a slightly larger improvement for related pairs; the Morning group showed a very small deterioration for related pairs and a much greater one for unrelated pairs. The difference between recall of related pairs and recall of unrelated pairs was, however, about the same for both groups.

In other words, unrelated pairs are just that much harder to learn than related ones (which we already know) — over time, learning them just before sleep vs learning early in the day doesn’t make any difference to that essential truth. But the former strategy will produce better learning for both types of information.

A comparison of the 12-hour and 24-hour results (this is the bit that will help us disentangle the effects of sleep and wakefulness) reveals that twice as much forgetting of unrelated pairs occurred during wakefulness in the first 12 hours, compared to wakefulness in the second 12 hours (after sleep), and 3.4 times more forgetting of related pairs (although this didn’t reach significance, the amount of forgetting being so much smaller).

In other words, sleep appears to slow the rate of forgetting that will occur when you are next awake; it stabilizes and thus protects the memories. But the amount of forgetting that occurred during sleep was the same for both word types, and the same whether that sleep occurred in the first 12 hours or the second.

Participants in the Morning and Evening groups took a similar number of training trials to reach criterion (60% correct), and there was no difference in the time it took to learn unrelated compared to related word pairs.

It’s worth noting that there was no difference between the two groups, or for the type of word pair, at the 30-minutes test either. In other words, your ability to remember something shortly after learning it is not a good guide for whether you have learned it ‘properly’, i.e., as an enduring memory.

The study tells us that the different types of information are differentially affected by wakefulness, that is, perhaps, they are more easily interfered with. This is encouraging, because semantically related information is far more common than unrelated information! But this may well serve as a reminder that integrating new material — making sure it is well understood and embedded into your existing database — is vital for effective learning.

The findings also confirm earlier evidence that running through any information (or skills) you want to learn just before going to bed is a good idea — and this is especially true if you are trying to learn information that is more arbitrary or less well understood (i.e., the sort of information for which you are likely to use mnemonic strategies, or, horror of horrors, rote repetition).




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Effect of keywords on long-term retention

Journal Article: 

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. (1995). Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-475.

Effective use of the keyword strategy requires repeated reviews of the material

Distinctiveness is not as good a cue as more meaningful information

To be effective, imagery-based mnemonics need to use relational images that bring together the to-be-remembered information and all the necessary cues

A number of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic for short-term recall, for example:

  • McDaniel et al (1987) compared the keyword mnemonic with a strategy whereby new vocabulary were studied in a meaningful context. They found immediate recall was significantly better using the keyword strategy, but after a week, recall was comparable using either strategy.
  • Wang et al (1992) compared the keyword strategy with rote rehearsal for learning foreign vocabulary. They found immediate recall was higher using the keyword strategy, but much worse after one week. But note that recall of the keywords themselves was very good - the problem came with recalling the word the keyword was supposed to remind you of.

In the present study, as with the McDaniel study, the keyword mnemonic was compared with the semantic-context strategy, and obscure English words were used. As usual, immediate recall was better for the keyword method, but after two days, recall using the keyword strategy was significantly worse (although, as before, the keyword itself was recalled very well). The same pattern of results was found using foreign vocabulary.

In the next experiment, subjects were given the opportunity to review, either three times or five times. Compared to a control condition (no review), review improved both immediate recall and recall after two days, with the number of reviews making a significant difference (for both strategies). The important finding however, was that the more rapid forgetting of the keyword mnemonic was considerably reduced with repeated reviews (bringing it to the level of recall seen using the semantic-context strategy after five reviews).

The authors' conclusions are interesting. They point out that distinctiveness cues are apparently less durable (less well-remembered over time) than cues that are relational and semantic, and that these results are thus consistent with the view that imagery-based mnemonics produce distinctiveness cues. That is, such strategies make the to-be-remembered items more vivid and concrete.

They suggest that with only a little practice, only the distinctive keyword images are formed. Extended practice is needed to generate images that effectively integrate relational qualities.

Images are only valuable to the extent that they connect otherwise unrelated information (see The myth of imagery).


  • McDaniel, M.A., Pressley, M. & Dunay, P.K. 1987. Long-term retention of vocabulary after keyword and context learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 87-89.
  • Wang, A.Y., Thomas, M.H. & Ouellette, J.A. 1992. Keyword mnemonic and retention of second-language vocabulary words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 520-528.



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