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Two studies of professors' memory for their undergraduate students (at
small liberal arts colleges) suggest rapidly declining recall and
recognition memory of former students over time (Bahrick HP, 1984, "Memory
for people," in JE Harris, PE Morris, eds., Everyday memory, actions and
absent-mindedness, Academic Press; Seamon JG, Travis QB, 1993, An
ecological study of professors' memory for student names and faces: a
replication and extension, Memory, 1(3): 191-202).  The situation is
likely a little different with graduate students (with whom professors
may more often stay in touch after graduation), but the shape of the
retention curve over time may well be similar.

Recalling students from particular years may be problematic.  The
literature on autobiographical memory indicates a reasonable amount of
error is present when people estimate dates of events (typically the
events are provided to the respondent, a less difficult task than the one
you describe).  The absolute level of error increases linearly with time
since the event.

If your study is focused on the methodological question of professors'
recall, then your design would be good and the results a useful
contribution to the literature.  If your purpose is more substantively
oriented, I would recommend not relying on recall data at all; instead,
it would make more sense to give the names of former students to the
professors and ask questions about them systematically.

Devon Brewer

---------------------------------------------------------------
Devon D. Brewer, Ph.D.
Interdisciplinary Scientific Research, www.interscientific.net
Affiliate Assistant Professor, University of Washington
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On Wed, 12 Jan 2005, David Carpe wrote:

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>
> okay, sorry to bother you with this, but i've got a random question for
> those of you who have been in academia for at least 15 years or longer...
>
> i'm involved in an odd research study with a large client, looking at the
> activities and outcomes of students from select universities within a
> specific major during the mid to late 80's...one idea involved approaching
> then current profs and asking them something to the effect of, 'do you
> remember who these top students were from 1987, or 1985' and so on - in one
> case not offering the names (i have the names of all of their students) and
> seeing if they remember any off hand...there's much more to it than that,
> but what i'm really wondering is if professors typically are able to recall
> specific students by year from that long ago (versus recent students of
> their own within ms and phd programs) - these are all grad students, not
> undergrads, though that's still a large number...
>
> any thoughts? i can certainly clarify a bit more if it doesn't make sense,
> and i suppose that this has more to do with overall memory skills and not
> just the memory skills of academicians...
> -dave
>
> David Carpe
> Principal and Founder, Clew, LLC (http://www.clew.us)
> Founder, PassingNotes.com (http://www.passingnotes.com)
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Devon D. Brewer
Affiliate Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology
email: [log in to unmask]  http://faculty.washington.edu/ddbrewer
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