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Tests of Recall

To recall something is to retrieve it, calling it back from memory. Several different recall tests were used frequently during the heyday of verbal learning theory, from about 1915 to 1965. These include serial learning, paired-associates learning, free recall, and cued recall. The techniques are still used today, although not usually with nonsense syllables. We will briefly review each in turn.

Serial learning

What is serial learning? What are examples of situations that require serial learning?

Serial learning occurs when you learn something in a fixed sequence or rigid serial order, literally in a series. Serial learning is needed in many natural situations. A child learning the alphabet must remember the letters in exact order. A person learning a route through a complex environment must remember a series of turns in order. Many procedures, such as checking a book out of a library or baking a cake or finding a web page, involve actions performed in a certain order.

In a typical serial learning study from the nonsense syllable era, you might be asked to memorize this list:

BOF      XAJ      MIB      ZYQ

Later, you would be asked to recall the items in the same exact serial order. This is a test of serial learning.

How did early psychologists explain serial learning?

In the old days of verbal learning research, from the 1880s to the 1950s, most psychologists thought serial learning was a process of forming little links (associative bonds) between items in a series. After the first item in the list, each subsequent item served first as a response, then as a stimulus for the next item. Psychologists diagrammed the process like this:


For example, John B. Watson—the "father of behaviorism" described in Chapter 1—believed a rat learned to navigate a maze by connecting stimuli such as the sight of a certain wall with responses such as making a right turn. Each response exposed the rat to a new stimulus, provoking a new response. When the whole chain of S's and R's was linked, the rat could run the maze without errors.

However, serial learning does not really work like this, either for rats or humans. Human subjects typically use very complex information processing to remember even a simple list of nonsense syllables. Miller, Galanter and Pribram (1960) pointed this out:

If you ask a man who has just memorized his first list of nonsense syllables to tell you what he did in order to master the list, he will have quite a lot to say....Now that first nonsense syllable, BOF, was just plain remembered the way it came, but the second one reminded him of "XAJerate," the third one turned into "MIBery," and the fourth turned from ZYQ to "not sick." So he had a kind of sentence, "BOF exaggerates his misery because he is not sick," instead of the cryptic BOF, XAJ, MIB, ZYQ, and he could imagine a hypochondriac named BOF who continually complained about his health. (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960, p.126)

Ebbinghaus would not approve of this! Ebbinghaus tried very hard to eliminate all meaningful interpretations by the subject (himself). However, as Miller, Galanter, and Pribram pointed out, a subject naturally tries to make such associations and uses them to support memory. Note the date on the Miller, Galanter and Pribram example: 1960. That is about the time computers began to appear. Computers made it obvious that any information going into a system had to be encoded or transformed in some way so the system could take it in. Miller, Galanter and Pribram were among the early researchers in the late 1950s who realized this insight would apply to human memory.

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