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When Students Remember Wrong – 3 Remedies for False Memories

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we are living out a statistically rare event that we will retell for years to come. The crazy part is that over half of us will recount this experience incorrectly. Seriously? Yes! It’s just how the brain works.

Students forgetting what was taught is one challenge teachers and students face – one we addressed last month. But what about when students THINK they remember something but they’re wrong about it? The topic of this month’s newsletter is WHY false memories occur in nearly everyone’s brain and WHAT we can do to boost their accuracy.

The Research

Students are expected to remember A LOT of information, but not all memories are formed and/or retrieved equally. There are several ways in which your memory can lead you astray.

First, you could learn something and then forget it. Forgetting is fairly common and often increases as time passes from the initial learning (Richards & Frankland, 2017). Typically, the less relevant the new information is, the more likely you are to forget it (Ozubko & Seli, 2016).

But this month’s newsletter is not about forgetting. It is about remembering, but being wrong in that memory. A false memory occurs when you remember something, but you unknowingly remember it incorrectly. False memories are a major player in many arguments (“You said …”; “Oh no, I did not! I said …”). They also account for why so many students struggle in school.

With such an amazing organ like the human brain at the helm, you might be curious how a false memory is ever possible. To understand how errors are so common, it is helpful to be reminded of how memories are formed and retrieved in the brain.

Creating new memories is a complicated process that involves multiple systems and structures in the brain dispersing information to various regions of the brain.

When it is time to retrieve (remember) most daily memories, the frontal lobe and hippocampus work with several other parts of the brain to reconstruct all the important pieces from various brain regions to recreate the memory.

Your brain goes constantly back-and-forth between dispersing and reconstructing, and it is VERY common for things to get mixed up (Schacter, Guerin, & Jacques, 2011).

This is especially true for the declarative (spoken and read) and episodic (location-based) and procedural (using your body) learning that students predominantly experience in school.

Simply because false memories are possible doesn’t explain WHY they happen so frequently. Since false memories occur with both short-term memories and long-term memories, there is A LOT at stake (Pidgeon & Morcom, 2014). Even the rare people with superior (photographic) memories experience the same frequency of false memories as the rest of us mortals (Nauert, 2018).

There are three BIG answers to the question: “WHY do my students remember so many things incorrectly?” With each answer, we provide a toolbox of practical strategies you can confidently use to reduce false memories for your students. Remember, the goal is to detect and minimize false memories BEFORE false learning is revealed on a formal assessment.

WHY #1: The Brain’s Reliance on “Gist”- Learning in a Detailed World

In everyday life, the brain is gathering a quick overview, or “gist” of the inputs, searching for anything that threatens your survival. Remember, one of the brain’s top priorities is to ensure your survival. The brain only needs to capture the “gist” of the new inputs to have enough information to keep you alive.

It’s this same feature of the brain that is responsible for students regularly creating false memories of academic content (Reyna, Corbin, Weldon, & Brainerd, 2016). Students might get the “gist” of the triple homophone their, there, and they’re, but the details might get lost in the brain’s quick scan of the information. It is also common for the brain to capture the “gist” of something and then fill in the “holes” with often inaccurate information.

It’s not just academic learning that pays the price for this “gist” learning system of the brain. This is often how stereotypes are formed, and how wrongly accused people spend years behind bars (Lacy, & Stark, 2013).

TOOL #1: Ensure 1st Exposure to Learning Is Just the Beginning

Many teachers think, “If I taught it, they should have learned it.” But our brain rarely works like that. The student’s brain is ALWAYS scanning new inputs and asking questions like, “Do I need to remember this information to keep me alive?” Now, it becomes clearer why students who are learning the difference between cytoplasm and nucleoplasm struggle. Unless taught with extra clarity and relevance, those terms rarely make the “need to know” list for survival. To ensure students get more than just the “gist” of your content area, be sure students’ first exposure to a concept is just the start. Otherwise, false memories may abound.

Here are two critical tools to keep those false memories at bay:

  • Use Pre-Exposure before the lesson: Give students a preview of an important topic/unit coming up to prime the brain for something important. This could be a partially completed content poster that gets completed throughout the unit, a short video clip exposing students to an upcoming topic, etc.
  • Use Spacing/Interleaving after the lesson: Keep new learning accurate by reviewing it several times after students’ first exposure. Tie it back in a couple of days later, and then a few days after that. Students retain information better (and more correctly) when they re-engage with the content periodically (Kang, 2016).

Also, consider trimming away any of the extra clutter that might distract the brain from deciphering what is most important. In learning, sometimes less is better.

WHY #2: Poor “Binding” of New Memories

Learning happens when you “bind” (connect) new ideas to something you already know. Think of it as connecting LEGO bricks. Without the circular knobs on LEGO pieces that “bind” them together, your structure is weak and unstable. The same is true for learning. When new learning is presented in isolation, the likelihood of false memories increases (Lyle, Bloise, & Johnson, 2006).

One of the brain’s most powerful “binders” is relevance. The brain pays closer attention to information it deems meaningful and relevant. Hence, students will create a more accurate memory the first time learning something if they find the information meaningful (Oudiette, Antony, Creery, & Paller, 2013).

TOOL #2: Give New Learning a Place to “Bind”

To minimize false memories, give new learning a place to “bind” in the brain. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Bind with Visual Tools: Help students see where this new learning fits in the big picture with a mind map, or other graphic organizers. Student recall is increased when learning is accompanied by pictures or other diagrams (Bui & McDaniel, 2015).
  • Bind with Metaphors/Analogies: Any time you can say, “This is like when (insert analogy or metaphor) …” in the middle of a lesson you’re borrowing clarity and accuracy from an existing neural network (van Kesteren, Rignanese, Gianferrara, Krabbendam, & Meeter, 2020).

WHY #3: Bland Learning

Recall from earlier that an aspect of creating new memories involves different brain regions dispersing information to various brain regions. Some of those pieces include spatial details (on the whiteboard), semantic information (words written on the board), emotional components (how the student felt), perceptual details (size, color, etc.), and many other details. The more unique and vivid these details, the greater the chance for accurate recall (Mitchell & Johnson, 2009).

When the initial experience is bland, or indistinct, from other experiences the brain’s “gist” system is quick to categorize the experience as nothing new or noteworthy and thus many of the details get lost in false memories (Wixted, 2007).

TOOL #3: Differentiate to Create Unique Memories

Students being able to predict what is going to happen in class because “we always do xyz in so and so’s class” is a breeding ground for false memories. Differentiate your instruction to create accurate and unique memories. Here are a few ways to make learning more vivid for your students:

  • Differentiate your location: rotate your classroom 90 degrees, swap classrooms with a colleague for the day, or grab the sidewalk chalk and teach your next lesson on the blacktop. A change of scenery will put that lesson in a whole new context with stronger memories.
  • Differentiate your medium of delivery: Are you known in your dept./grade level as the DocCam Diva, PowerPoint Prince(ess), Google Guru, or FlipGrid Fanatic? Take a brave step away from what’s comfortable for you and give your students a new and unique experience. There is nothing wrong with any of those tools (they all may have value) – it’s just the monotony that is bad for learning.
  • Differentiate your persona: No offense, but sometimes the sameness of the teacher can also get in the way. The occasional guest speaker is great, but not always practical in the long-term. Instead, turn yourself into the guest speaker by dressing as a character, changing your voice, or using an accessory to diversify the lesson. The possibilities are endless.

When two or more features of your lesson are unique from the “norm” the brain is better able to segregate one learning event from another, minimizing the mix-ups.

We recognize it can be frustrating (for you AND for them) when students don’t remember things correctly. When that happens, take a deep breath, and remind yourself it is normal. Then recommit to one of the tools above to keep those false memories to a minimum. 


Bui, D. C., & Mcdaniel, M. A. (2015). Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4(2), 129-135.

Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12-19.

Lacy, J. W., & Stark, C. E. (2013). The neuroscience of memory: Implications for the courtroom. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(9), 649-658.

Lyle, K. B., Bloise, S. M., & Johnson, M. K. (2006). Age-related binding deficits and the content of false memories. Psychology and aging21(1), 86.

Mitchell, K. J., & Johnson, M. K. (2009). Source monitoring 15 years later: what have we learned from fMRI about the neural mechanisms of source memory?. Psychological bulletin135(4), 638.

Nauert, R. (2018). False Memories Occur Even Among Those with Superior Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 16, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2013/11/20/false-memories-occur-even-among-those-with-superior-memory/62288.html

Oudiette, D., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., & Paller, K. A. (2013). The Role of Memory Reactivation during Wakefulness and Sleep in Determining Which Memories Endure. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(15), 6672-6678.

Ozubko, J. D., & Seli, P. (2016). Forget all that nonsense: The role of meaning during the forgetting of recollective and familiarity-based memories. Neuropsychologia90, 136-147.

Pidgeon, L. M., & Morcom, A. M. (2014). Age-related increases in false recognition: the role of perceptual and conceptual similarity. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience6, 283.

Reyna, V. F., Corbin, J. C., Weldon, R. B., & Brainerd, C. J. (2016). How fuzzy-trace theory predicts true and false memories for words, sentences, and narratives. Journal of applied research in memory and cognition5(1), 1-9.

Richards, B. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2017). The persistence and transience of memory. Neuron94(6), 1071-1084.

Schacter, D. L., Guerin, S. A., & Jacques, P. L. (2011). Memory distortion: An adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(10), 467-474.

Sikora-Wachowicz, B., Lewandowska, K., Keresztes, A., Werkle-Bergner, M., Marek, T., & Fafrowicz, M. (2019). False Recognition in Short-Term Memory-Age-differences in Confidence. Frontiers in Psychology10, 2785.

van Kesteren, M. T., Rignanese, P., Gianferrara, P. G., Krabbendam, L., & Meeter, M. (2020). Congruency and reactivation aid memory integration through reinstatement of prior knowledge. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-13.

Wixted, J. T. (2007). Dual-process theory and signal-detection theory of recognition memory. Psychological review114(1), 152.

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