In some research on memory for words, the learner is exposed to stimuli to be remembered and later recalls those stimuli in the same order in which they initially appeared. This procedure is called serial learning. In general, when people must recall stimuli in a particular order, they remember less material than when allowed to engage in free recall, which imposes no constraints on the order or recall.
Hermann Ebbinghaus is credited with conducting the first studies of verbal memory involving serial learning. Most serial learning studies use a procedure called serial anticipation, where one stimulus is presented at a time and the learner uses that word as a cue for the next word.
The second word then serves as a cue for the third, and so on. One of the most consistent findings in research involving single words or nonsense syllables involves the serial position function or effect: learners show greatest recall for stimuli at the beginning of the list, and good but somewhat less recall for items appearing at the end of the list. Stimuli in the middle of the list fare least well.
When learners must remember single words or nonsense syllables in free recall, the greatest recall usually occurs at the end of the list, with good but lower recall at the beginning. If the words to be learned are meaningfully related, such as those in a sentence, people tend to remember them by using serial anticipation, even when they are allowed to use free recall.
The first seven items in a list are often the easiest to learn. This fact is consistent with the research that indicates that, regardless of the type of learning, humans can remember “the magic number seven” items without relying on rehearsal or other mnemonic strategies.
Serial learning occurs when students attempt to learn school-related material. For example, when trying to remember the names of the American presidents, students typically begin with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and continue with their serial anticipation, using each president as a cue for the next one.
Somewhere in the middle of the list, though, students fail to remember names, then, toward the end of the presidents, performance improves as the students retrieve the names of more recent presidents.
Quite often, people show similar patterns when attempting to memorize poems, prayers, or a short text such as the Declaration of Independence. These behaviors conform with the serial position effect that is typical for most serial learning studies.