Essay Advice: Reconstructive Memory

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Revision and Exam Preparation

Reconstructive memory is a difficult topic to write about. This post will give you some advice on how to avoid common errors.

Recently my class worked on a take-home essay with the question, “Discuss research memory, making referencing to one or more studies.” When reading and giving feedback on their essays, I found myself making similar comments – and the same ones I’ve been making for ten years. So here’s some advice that might help you avoid the same mistakes. 

Before we get into the advice, I want to first say that I was very pleased with generally how well my class followed by advice about using topic sentences to introduce studies. A common mistake in many essays is that students just start writing about studies like this: “In Loftus and Palmer’s car crash study they had participants watch a video and then…”

Read More: Three Rules of Three for Essays

The problem with this is that there’s no indication for the reader how this study is going to help answer the question. A good topic sentence activates your reader’s schema so they know the points you’re about to make and they can comprehend your argument better, which is a key writing skill.

Now we come to my 5 points of advice for writing a good discussion of reconstructive memory:

#1) Application

Arguably the most common (and annoying) mistake students make in essays is they don’t apply the study to the question. In this context, it means explaining exactly what the study is showing about reconstructive memory.

Here’s an easy tip for you to use on exam day: read your conclusions of studies and ask yourself, “is the key term from the question in my conclusion?” If it’s not, you probably haven’t done a good job explaining a conclusion.

Let’s compare the following:

So Loftus and Palmer’s study can show us that the leading questions act as false information and they distort the memory.

Compared with…

So Loftus and Palmer’s study can show us that the leading questions act as false information and they distort the memory. This is an example of the misinformation effect and it’s one way to show that memory is reconstructive. 

One sentence added and now suddenly the relevance of the study is so much clearer. This is a better use of the research and arguably shows more knowledge and understanding, so you’ll score higher in an essay when you have well-explained conclusions.

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

You have to think carefully about how the studies apply to the question when you are writing good conclusions (

Remember: Always explain how the results of a study are helping you to answer the question.

#2) Definitions – get them right!

A good rule of thumb is to make sure that you define the key term in the question somewhere in your essay. This can either be in your introduction or in your central argument. In this a case, the key term is “reconstructive memory.” This can be a one sentence definition but it’s so important that the definition is accurate. The key to this term is the reconstructive part, the “re” as in again and the “construction” as in building, so a definition may looking something like: “Reconstructive memory is the idea that our memories are not like video cameras but that every time we remember something we actively rebuild that memory.” You might go on to explain how it’s during the rebuilding phase of a memory that they can be distorted by false information (see pg. 178 of the textbook).

In my course, I recommend students write about the misinformation effect as evidence that our memories are reconstructive in nature. This is also a term that you might want to define in the essay itself, but be careful, you don’t want your essay to become a string of definitions, which brings me to my next piece of advice.

Remember: Make sure you can write accurate and concise 1-2 sentence definitions of all key terms in the topics and content points in the guide. Our Revision Guide will help with this.

#3) Keep it simple, keep it relevant

To their credit, my students on this task tried some very sophisticated explanations of reconstructive memory. Some even included things like confirmation bias, schema theory and stereotypes, not to mention the standard misinformation effect and leading questions. However, the more complex the explanations the more difficult they were to understand. Also, sometimes the ideas were only loosely related to the topic.

I don’t want to crush creative and critical thinking and some of my students had some great hypotheses about how schemas might have been influencing the results of some of the studies. However, my advice is to keep your hypotheses and original thinking for later in your essay. First establish credibility with your reader by showing you comprehend the basics. Give good definitions, simple explanations of concepts and show these in the studies. After a few paragraphs of well-written and easy-to-follow arguments with supporting evidence (studies), you would have built up enough credibility with your reader (i.e. examiner) so that you can show your original thinking and come up with your own hypotheses and introduce other factors and explanations if they’re still relevant to the question.

I found that students tried to put too many ideas in their central argument, which brings me to my next point.

#4) Structure: Point – Evidence – Conclusion, Repeat

My general essay advice is to have a central argument that clearly answers the question. In this case, it’s explaining reconstructive memory.  However, not every point in the argument has to happen in one paragraph.


Spend the first 5 mins of your essay writing time planning your answer. This will help you to have a logical and coherent structure.

Similarly, the evidence for each point should immediately follow the point being made. This will make it easier to follow your points. For example, trying to include leading questions, implanting false memories, ethics, limitations and applications all in one paragraph is too hard to follow for your reader.

Instead, a good essay outline might look like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Define reconstructive memory and explain how misinformation effect is an example
  3. Explain how L&Ps study shows misinformation effect/reconstructive memory
  4. Explain limitations of L&Ps study
  5. Explain how leading questions and social influence might implant false memories
  6. Use Shaw and Porter’s study to show implanting false memories (Read more).
  7. Explain limitations of S&Ps study
  8. Explain applications of studies (e.g. eye-witness testimony and the legal system)
  9. Explain ethical issues with research in general
  10. Conclusion

Each point is being made at the right time and it will be easy for your reader to follow. Having all the limitations of all the studies at the end might not be the best structure. This might seem like it’s breaking from my “Three Rules of Three” advice but I don’t think it is – the three sections of a good essay can come anywhere and can be broken up. To score top marks you must be flexible and be able to apply your knowledge, understanding and critical thinking to the question being asked.

Remember: We use paragraphs to help our reader understand the points we’re trying to make. Too many ideas in a single paragraph and it’s too hard for the reader to follow what we’re trying to say.

#5) Critical Thinking: Evaluate studies

My students are only in their first year and so we haven’t really focused on how to evaluate studies yet. Our main focus for counter-arguments to show critical thinking has been on alternative explanations. However, it is important to note that in almost any essay a good way to show critical thinking is to evaluate the studies you are using.

In this case, you could focus on the nature of the participants in L&Ps study (they were students) or perhaps the environment (e.g. a lack of emotion and consequences unlike real life scenarios).

Remember: Good evaluations of studies will be more than one sentence and you should actually be quite proud of the point you’re making if you’ve given it any real thought. Read more about how to evaluate studies on ecological validity and population validity.

In summary…

Remember that your IB Psychology essays are about you showing that you understand and can thinking critically about a specific aspect of how and why humans think the way they do and how we know. Being able to carefully communicate this is not easy and so my best advice is for you to read and write as many practice essays as you can!

Feel free to leave questions in the comments.