The Free Recall Method

Different from serial learning and paired-associates learning is free recall. In some ways, this is the simplest form of memory test. A person inspects a list of items then (after the desired retention interval) tries to recall the items in any order. The items can be letters, words, trigrams, sentences, or longer passages such as stories.

What is free recall?

In free recall studies, subjects are free to use any strategies they want. However, memory researchers found it was easy to bias subjects toward particular organizing schemes by manipulating the context. For example, suppose a subject has to memorize this list, which contains two obvious categories of items:

GREEN,      NIXON,      CARTER,      RED,      BUSH,      ORANGE

After a retention interval of 15 minutes, the subject might recall the items as follows.

NIXON,      BUSH,      CARTER,      RED,      GREEN,      BLUE

What is clustering? Does it require conscious intention?

Because this is a free recall experiment, the subject is allowed to recall the items in any order. Psychologists discovered in the 1940s that related items tend to be clustered together by categories during recall. This is called clustering and it seems to occur automatically, whether or not subjects are aware they are doing it. In this case, the subject created one cluster of president names, one cluster of color names. The subject probably encoded BUSH as a president's name rather than a shrub. The encoding was biased by the presence of other president's names.

Errors in free recall can also be revealing. Notice, in the above example, the substitution of blue for orange. This is a typical error in recall. Again, the error reveals how the subject encodes or interprets items in the list. In this case the error confirms that the subject was using color names as one organizing theme.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey