Prof. Geoff Maddox Researches How Students Can Study Better

college professor standing in front of stained glass window

Does cramming for a test have any benefits? What’s the best method for retaining information? How do memory skills change over a person’s life span? These are the types of questions Dr. Geoff Maddox, associate professor of psychology, explores with students in his Memory and Cognition Lab at Rhodes.

A major component of the lab’s research focuses on the maximization of learning and memory in young adults ages 18-22 and has recently expanded to examine study strategies and ways of enhancing learning used by middle and high school students. “A lot of students have the misunderstanding that cramming or that re-reading highlighted textbooks is good for memory and learning, and they make decisions for studying based on that wrong knowledge.”

Maddox says instead of trying to learn large amounts of information in a short amount of time, it’s better to pace studying and revisit information over an extended period, a strategy known as the spacing effect. “My research in graduate school at Washington University and in the last six years here at Rhodes has looked at this technique, which means that you may have slower learning when spacing your studying over time, but you’ll have longer retention of the material. We focus on maximizing the learning in the learning phase and slowing the forgetting over time. What we have seen is that spacing study across time almost always wins compares to cramming.”

He adds that instead of students re-reading highlighted text, it is better for them to quiz themselves to gauge if they really know the material. This is known as metamemory, or the ability to self-monitor memory. “Not only do you get to know what you do or don’t know for the test, but the act of retrieving information from long-term memory helps you more strongly store that material in memory as well,” says Maddox.

Maddox’s lab conducts a variety of experiments to better understand how the spacing effect benefits learning and memory, as well as the ways young and older adults implement this strategy as a means for learning new material. In one recent study, young and older adults were instructed to implement a spacing strategy while they attempted to learn a series of faces and names. Each age group completed the task multiple times and received feedback following each trial. Results indicated that both age groups improved their implementation of these strategies with practice and feedback, and as a result, their memory performance was enhanced as well. This was particularly true for older adults.

In addition to examining the benefits of the spacing effect and the reasons why it is effective, Maddox and his lab are currently investigating student and educator knowledge about research-based techniques for enhancing the learning and memory processes. “Our lab also looks at what educators know about cognitive processes and what techniques they use to distinguish learning from memory. Similarly, it is important to more fully understand student beliefs about the learning process and to understand the challenges they face in utilizing research-based strategies for improving memory.” Ongoing data collection in Maddox’s lab is aimed at identifying ways to make classroom instruction more effective and help students learn how to learn.

Maddox attributes much of the success of the lab to his students’ contributions. “Knowing how much the psychology department values student engagement is what made me decide to teach at Rhodes. One-on-one discussions with students and being able to include them in research is one of my top priorities.”

Maddox’s students take a myriad of paths after graduation, including medical school and a range of graduate studies. Students have pursued Ph.D.’s in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and clinical psychology, while others have pursued advanced degrees in counseling psychology and social work. One of his students is currently earning a Ph.D. in developing effective teaching strategies to maximize learning. Another, who during her time at Rhodes examined how the spacing effect translates to rhythmic patterns and memory for songs, has pursued her interest in psychology at Fordham University.

“Dr. Maddox is one of the most relatable professors I have had at Rhodes. In the classroom and in the lab, he has high expectations for his students, and he is excellent at both helping you reach those expectations and making you want to achieve them,” says psychology major Hannah Milburn ’21. “He continues to be a great resource for me in pursing grad school, and I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work with him.”

“It’s amazing to work with so many talented students,” says Maddox. “Although not everyone goes on to become a researcher, the skills developed in doing research serve students regardless of the career path they choose. Psychology is this remarkable hub that can equip and arm students with this toolbox of knowledge and skills that they can take into the world.”

By Meg Jerit ’20