Children can improve memory by imagining future tasks

Last modified January 26, 2021. Published January 21, 2021.
Imagination might help memory when it comes to young kids. (Unsplash/Markus Spiske)

Imagination might help memory when it comes to young kids. (Unsplash/Markus Spiske)

Elementary-aged children often have issues with memory tasks, since they are still developing their cognitive abilities. But new research has determined for the first time that children improved their prospective memory when they were encouraged to both imagine completing tasks ahead of time and predict their performance.

Prospective memory, or the ability to remember to complete a previously planned intention, is not fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood. In children, this may include remembering to turn in homework assignments, return library books or wear a bike helmet. 

In a new paper published in the January edition of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a team of Italian researchers investigated whether combining future thinking, in which a person imagines executing a task, and performance predictions could improve prospective memory in children, and also whether future thinking could affect performance predictions by making them more realistic.

The study consisted of 127 children aged 8–11 who were evaluated on factors that help the development of their executive and control processes. It included measuring the children’s ability to memorize repetition and how they perceived the difficulty of set tasks, Milvia Cottini, a researcher at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy, told The Academic Times.

The children were split into groups, with some of them only predicting their prospective memory performance for a picture classification task, some only using future thinking and some using a combination of predictions and future thinking. 

Prospective memory is usually assessed by asking participants to remember to perform a predefined action while they are simultaneously engaged in a separate ongoing task, according to the paper. 

The task included more than 100 photographs of common objects such as clothes or toys as well as different rooms in a house. The children were instructed to follow a storyline by helping to “tidy up the house” and remembering to “pack” certain items separately while they were sorting other items into rooms. 

Children in the combined group — who were first asked to imagine executing the task and then to predict their performance — scored more than two points higher in prospective memory accuracy than children in the other, single-method groups. 

The researchers said the combined method group had “significantly higher accuracy rates” than the other groups. And overall, older children were more accurate than younger children in recognizing “prospective memory targets,” in which a reminder about another task takes place during a previously ongoing task.

“When children did not receive future thinking instructions prior to making predictions, they tended to overestimate their prospective memory performance, as is typical for this age [group],” the authors said in the paper. 

Though the children in the sample overall generally overestimated their prospective memory performance, children in the combined method group were more realistic in their performance predictions. 

Familiarity with a task has been shown in other research to enhance prediction accuracy in children, and it is possible that both imagining the task and familiarity with it have beneficial effects on prediction accuracy, the researchers said, similar to the effects of real experience with the task.

This study is the first to demonstrate that combining future thinking instructions with performance predictions improves a child’s prospective memory performance, Cottini said. It’s also the first to show that by imagining the execution of a prospective memory task, children’s prediction accuracy can be improved.

“It is important to understand how this memory process works in order to find ways to improve it,” Cottini said. “This topic is also relatively new, and there are not many studies addressing it.”

Cottini has a background in studying prospective memory in school-aged children. She said these findings may be relevant for the fields of cognitive, developmental and educational psychology. 

The results advance the understanding of the relation between metacognition and prospective memory, which has gained researchers’ attention only in recent years. And it could have implications for developing intervention programs that support children’s prospective memory abilities while in school.

“Being more realistic in our performance predictions and recognizing that we might fail a task, might encourage us to adopt a strategy to improve our performance,” Cottini said.

The study, “Improving prospective memory in school-aged children: Effects of future thinking and performance predictions,” was published in the January edition of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Milvia Cottini of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano was the lead author. Demis Basso of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Paola Palladino of the University of Pavia served as co-authors. 

This story has been updated to correct Cottini’s position.

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