Learning Verbatim

The Concept of Learning Verbatim Examined

Students on occasion must remember information verbatim (word for word). For example, English students may need to learn poems off by heart, and it is sometimes worthwhile for psychology Opens in new window students to learn key information (e.g., important quotations) verbatim.

We can gain insights into the processes involved in learning verbatim by focusing on the strategies used by actors and actresses. Whenever you go to a theatrical production, you have probably been very impressed by the ability of actors and actresses to remember tons of lines when performing a play. You may have wondered whether what they are saying really corresponds to the words written down by the playwright. In fact, research shows this is nearly always the case (Oliver & Ericsson, 1986).

It seems perplexing that actors can fairly rapidly manage to memorize a script verbatim. We know that learners have much better memory for material that has been processed in terms of its meaning as is predicted by levels of processing theory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). However, processing of meaning typically produces good recall of the gist of a text but not of its exact wording.

How long-lasting is an actor’s memory for a script?

Schmidt, Boshuizen, and van Breukelen (2002) addressed this question in a study in which actors recalled their parts from Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) 5 months after the end of the production.

Overall, 53% of the script was recalled verbatim, with a further 28% being recalled in paraphrases capturing the meaning of the original script. In addition, 3% of what the actors said represented inferences based on the script. Thus, 85% of the text was retained in some form, with most inaccurately recalled material capturing the gist of the script.

Findings

One of the most surprising findings to emerge from research on professional actors is that they generally do not start by trying to learn the exact words of the script! Instead what they do is to focus on the needs and motivations of their characters.

Noice (1992) asked seven actors to describe how they learned their roles. Her central conclusion was as follows:

  • “They [the actors] read the script many times, trying to infer the motivation behind each utterance. All the actors stressed the importance of identifying the underlying meaning and explaining why the character used those exact words.”

We can see how this works in practice by considering the following example. An actor playing the part of a mayor says to a reporter, “Don’t pester me now, please.” (Noice & Noice, 1996). The actor assumed from the word pester that the mayor regarded the reporter as a bothersome child, which is why that word was in the script rather than bother or annoy. The mayor softens his statement by adding “please” at the end of the sentence, because he does not want to alienate the reporter.

Seamon, Punjab, and Busch (2010) obtained similar findings in a study on JB, a 74-year-old man who had spent 3,000-4,000 hours learning Milton’s Paradise Lost, which consists of over 60,000 words. He achieved verbatim recall via a deep conceptual understanding of the poem, which led him to become animated and emotional when reciting it (see here Opens in new window).

Noice and Noice (1996) examined in detail how actors learn a script. They presented six actors with a scene from a play in which a man and a woman discuss love and possible infidelity. They were instructed to verbalize their thoughts as they worked through the script.

Over 40% of the thoughts belonged to the category of interactions (“statements concerning mental or emotional interactions between characters in which one character affects, tries to affect, or is affected by, another character”; Noice & Noice, 1996, p.6).

The second and third most common categories of utterances were metastatements (general statements regarding the actor’s learning process) and memorization (the reasons why some lines are easier or harder to learn).

In sum, actors achieve verbatim memory for their lines by striving to obtain a deep understanding of why their character would use those precise words in context. As a result of achieving this deep understanding, actors can still remember most of their role several months later, mostly in verbatim or gist form.