Go Test Yourself – Serial Position and Testing Effect

By Jeileen Belen and Veronica Rzepniewski

College is a difficult time for people; you’re adjusting to a new environment, taking difficult classes, and surrounding yourself with people that you don’t know yet. Though it may seem stressful, college is a great time as long as you find your balance.

If I could go back in time, I would have listened to older college students who told me that the techniques used for studying in high school is not an effective way to study in college. To all of the first-year college students, the best way to study for a test is to ACTUALLY STUDY; studying the day before or the day of is a sure way to fail a college test. There are expectations of college students to have a fun and active social life while maintaining a good academic standing, and these expectations can be overwhelming. It is important to enjoy your college years, but it is more important to understand your boundaries and find a good social and academic balance. Sources say that having good study skills improves academic self-efficacy and achievement motivation which are the two constructs that best influence GPA (1). College is a whole new ball park, so developing great study habits from the bat will help you succeed.

In an experiment conducted in 1962, researchers examined the distinction between short term memory and long term memory using the serial position curve. The experimenter read a stimulus list, and afterwards, the participants wrote down all the words they remembered. One of the results showed that memory was better for stimuli presented at the beginning of the list. This introduces the primacy effect. The words at the beginning of a list are remembered better because one has time for rehearsal and therefore the words are more likely to enter long term memory. The study also indicated that memory was better for words presented at the end of the list. This idea comes from the recency effect which states that words at the end of a list are remembered better because the stimuli is still in short term memory.

In a similar study conducted by Roediger & Crowder (1976), the serial position effect was put to the test. The serial position effect is the tendency for people to remember words at the beginning and end of a list well while having a hard time remembering words in the middle. Researchers examined college students and their ability to recall names of the presidents of the United States in their order of occurrence. Results supported the idea of the serial position effect and showed that students performed the best in recalling the first presidents and the most recent ones as well (2). By knowing this information, we can say that the serial position effect can be used as a study technique for college students.

It has been shown that study habits improve the prediction of academic performance (3). Picture yourself at the library with a study guide in hand. The study guide consists of the various chapters from one to ten, and your job to be able to review and recall of these chapters. Due to the serial position effect, chapters at the beginning and end of the study guide will be remembered more easily than the chapters embedded in between. We want to avoid this from happening. A good way to study is to make sure that you are not starting with the first chapter of a unit every time you study. If you start studying with chapter 1, let’s say, your memory of that chapter will be so much better than your memory of the chapters that follow. To avoid this, you should review each of the chapters in a different order every time you study. Often times people begin studying and have a lot of motivation to try their best; though this is a good thing, overtime it is common to lose focus and concentration therefore it is easy to forget content that is listed in the middle of a study guide. Eventually, you begin to notice that you’re losing concentration, and therefore, you try to re-focus and that’s why the chapters at the end of the study guide are more easily remembered. It is important to try to stay as motivated as possible, and you can do that being avoiding the serial position effect and studying in a strategic order.

Not only is it helpful to study materials in a strategic manner, but it is also beneficial to test yourself on the information you are learning. More specifically, it is even better to study and test yourself at least a week before a test in order to be able to recall the most information. A study done by Roediger and Karpicke (2006) examined participants and their recall performance. The participants were split into two groups, where one simply reread the passage (rereading group) while the other took a recall test (testing group). The results showed that after a five minute delay, there was no significant difference between the two groups. After two days, the testing group recalled better than the rereading group. Most importantly, after one week, the testing group performed significantly better than the rereading group in recalling the passage.

This study was replicated by by McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish, & Morrisette in 2007. Researchers examined how testing a subject on material leads to better learning and retention of that material for a final test. Simply testing, and no additional reading, enhanced the performed on tests (4). Testing yourself as a way of studying allows for the retrieval process to occur. During this process, elaborative information that is related to the target response is activated, this may also increase the chance to happen while you are taking the actual test. It is also shown that testing yourself enhanced retaining the information more than rereading the material. (5) When studying, it is important to actually make sure you know the information as opposed to just re-reading it and glancing over the chapters, assuming that you know it and will be able to recall the information while taking a test because chances are you probably won’t.

If you wish to combine these two ideas, you can think of it this way. If you took a recall test (as a study technique), you will be more likely to remember concepts better than if you simply looked at the chapters on a study guide but if you study these chapters in order, the beginnings and ending chapters will be remembered better than the chapters in between. To steer away from serial position effect, it would be beneficial to schedule out the days you will study and the days you will study each chapter. Every day you study, you should start with a different chapter and end with a different chapter; in other words, do not start with chapter one every time you study and do not end with chapter ten.

Go test yourself!


(1) Robbins, S.B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). 130(2). 261-288. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.2.261

(2) Roediger, H.L., & Crowder, R.G. Bull. (1976). A serial position effect in recall of United States presidents. Bulletin of Psychonomic Society. 8(4), 275-278. doi:10.3758/BF03335138

(3) Credé, M., & Kuncel, N.R. (2008). Study habits, skills, and attitudes: The third pillar supporting collegiate academic performance. Sage Journals. 3(6). doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00089.x

(4) McDaniel, M.A., Anderson, J.L., Derbish, M.H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology. 19(4-5), 494-513. doi:10.1080/09541440701326154

(5) Carpenter, S.K. (2009). Cue strength as a moderator of the testing effect: The benefits of elaborative retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 35(6), 1563-1569. doi:10.1037/a0017021

4 Replies to “Go Test Yourself – Serial Position and Testing Effect”

  1. Interesting post! The concepts covered regarding primacy and recency effect are extremely relevant to study habits that are easy to get into. Its important that incoming college students become knowledgable of how simply rereading study guides is not as effective as coming up with test questions of their own. I know I fall short of this frequently, for I assume I must be retaining information by going through a study guide 10+ times. Well done!

  2. Your article definitely hit all the right spots! It is extremely relatable, as I wish someone gave me this advice coming in as a freshman. All the talk about maintaining the right balance is definitely spot on. I was always too lazy to test myself because it just seemed like too much extra work but your detail on the efficiency of this method really convinced me otherwise and I’m sure it would be helpful to younger/newer college students. It’s also pretty great to hear that extra reading doesn’t really do anything for the studying process so I’ll definitely be applying this “testing yourself” approach a lot more in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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