Human Memory Systems: Part 3 of 5

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The higher recall of the words at the beginning of the list is referred to as a primary effect; the higher recall of words at the end of the list (the most recently presented words) is called a recency effect. Distribution of practice also has a very strong effect on recall. For example, suppose you were trying to learn a list of Spanish vocabulary words. You would probably recall more words after four separate (spaced) half-hour study sessions (perhaps one session a day for four days) than after a single concentrated (massed) two-hour session even though you had a total of two hours’ practice in each case. This effect is often referred to as the advantage of distribution (spread out) over massed (close together or concentrated) practice. I’ll post another article that shows the results of a recent study that clearly demonstrated the advantage of distributed practice. English-speaking subjects studied a list of Spanish vocabulary words and their English meanings during two sessions, which were separated by various intervals.

Even eight years later subjects recalled more English meanings when the interval between the two study sessions was greater; immediately consecutive study sessions were less useful for recall than widely spaced ones. This is one reason why studying all night just before an exam (massed practice) is less useful than studying a little bit each week all through the term (distributed practice). The ability to recall something can be strongly influenced by other stimuli presented at the time of recall. Such stimuli are often referred to as cues. For example, your ability to recall someone’s name might be aided by such recall cues as hearing his or her voice or seeing a picture of the person.

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