Free-Recall Learning

The presentation of material to the learner with the subsequent task of recalling as much as possible about the material without any cues.

In free-recall learning, a person tries to remember previously presented material. A typical experiment involving the use of words as stimuli may include unrelated or related words, single or multiple presentations of the words, and single or multiple tests involving memory. In a free-recall test, the learner organizes the information by memory, and the process of recall often reveals the mental processes that the learner uses. In this case, learners are typically tested with lists.


Contiguity effect—
Regarding memory, it refers to the ability to successively recall items that appear next to one another in a list.
Serial position effect—
Regarding memory, it refers to the ability to recall more successfully the items at the beginning and at the end of a list rather than those in the middle of a list.
Von Restorff effect—
Also known as the “isolation effect,” it is the increased ability to remember items in a list if they stand out (e.g., better recall of a list item that is a different color or a different font).

In addition, individuals have a greater chance of recalling any unusual stimuli. In other words, people are more likely to remember something that is out of the ordinary, such as the a differently colored word in a list. This phenomenon is known as the “von Restorff effect” or the “isolation effect.” Individuals also may successively recall items that appear next to one another on this list. For example, if a person recalls the third item on a list, he or she often next recalls the item just before or after that third item. This is known as the “contiguity effect.”

Learners tend to organize related material in ways that enhance recall. One process, known as clustering, involves placing words that are associated with one another in one “location” in memory. The advantage of clustering is that the person can search one mental “location,” find several stimuli, and therefore have better recall. The disadvantage of this strategy is that people may erroneously think that certain stimuli occurred because they are associated with the clustered items. For instance, with a list of relatives (a niece, an uncle, an aunt, a grandfather, a grandmother), a person may recall additional relatives, such as a nephew, on that list because the nephew is associated with the others. Such falsely remembered words are referred to as intrusions.

As a rule, an individual can remember an average of about seven stimuli in a typical free-recall task. Psychologists refer to the “magic number seven, plus or minus two,” as the amount that people can remember without engaging in rehearsal or other memory-enhancing tactics. The recalled items are not limited to words. If given a list of book titles, for example, a learner might be able to recall about seven titles, even though each title consists of multiple words. The critical element is the number of meaningful units, not simply the number of words. If the learners are asked to recall the stimuli in the same order in which they were presented, the results are less successful than if the learners can retrieve the stimuli in their own preferred order.



Alloway, Tracy Packiam, and Ross G. Alloway (eds). Working Memory: The Connected Intelligence. New York: Psychology Press, 2012.

Madigan, Robert. How Memory Works—and How to Make It Work for You. New York: The Guilford Press, 2015.


Changing Minds, “Von Restorff Effect,” (accessed July 17, 2015).

The Human Memory, “Memory Recall/Retrieval,” (accessed July 17, 2015)., “Serial Position Effect,” (accessed July 17, 2015).

(MLA 8th Edition)