Memory Processes

Suppose you were interested in looking at the effects of learning processes on subsequent long-term memory. One method is to present several groups of participants with the same list of nouns, and to ask each group to perform a different activity or orienting task with the list. The tasks used range from counting the number of letters in each word to thinking of a suitable adjective for each word.

If participants were told their memory was going to be tested, they would presumably realise that a task such as simply counting the number of letters in each word would not enable them to remember much, and so they might process the words more thoroughly. As a result, the experimenter does not tell them about the memory test (incidental learning). Finally, all the participants are unexpectedly asked for recall. As the various groups are presented with the same words, any differences in recall reflect the influence of the processing tasks.

Hyde and Jenkins (1973) used the approach just described. Words were either associatively related or unrelated in meaning, and different groups of participants performed each of the following five orienting tasks:

1. Rating the words for pleasantness.

2. Estimating the frequency with which each word is used in the English language.

3. Detecting the occurrence of the letters "e" and "g" in the list words.

4. Deciding on the part of speech appropriate to each word.

5. Deciding whether the list words fitted sentence frames.

Half the participants in each condition were told to try to learn the words (intentional learning), whereas the other half were not (incidental learning). There was a test of free recall shortly after the orienting task finished.

The findings are shown in Figure 6.9. Rating pleasantness and rating frequency of usage presumably both involve semantic processing (processing of meaning), whereas the other three orienting tasks do not. Retention was 51% higher after the semantic tasks than the non-semantic tasks on the list of associatively unrelated words, and it was 83% higher with associatively related words. Surprisingly, incidental learners recalled the same number of words as intentional learners. Thus, it is the nature of the processing activity that determines recall.

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