Sequential Processing Theory


SERIAL-POSITION EFFECT. = serial position curve = edge effect = end effect. The serial-position effect is the generalization that in a free-recall experiment the chance of an individual item from a list being recalled is a function of the location of that item in the serial presentation of the list during learning. The items that are toward the beginning of the list and those toward the end are more likely to be correctly recalled than those in the middle of the list. When the results of a serial-position learning task are graphed, with correct recall of items plotted against the serial position of the item during presentation, the curve characteristically is bow-shaped with high probabilities of recall for the first few (called the primacy effect/law) and for the last few (called the recency effect/law) items. The serial-position curve is the same in form for meaningful material as well as for nonsense syllables [the German psychologist Hermann von Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) devised over 2,000 consonant-vowel-consonant combinations, called nonsense syllables, in order to control for meaning and associations in verbal-test materials; cf., Hunter-McCrary law; McCrary & Hunter, 1953). An early theory of the serial-position effect/curve was given by W. Lepley, and C. L. Hull, and made great use of the doctrine of remote associations (developed initially by H. von Ebbinghaus) and the notion of the acquisition of inhibitory connections to suppress the observed remote errors: such inhibitory factors were assumed to "pile up" most in suppressing responses in the middle of the list and, as a result, most errors should occur at the middle positions. The major premises of the Lepley-Hull hypothesis concerning remote associations, however, have been discredited largely, along with the theory that was constructed on that basis. Another theory of the serial-position effect/curve was proposed independently by A. Jensen, and by E. Feigenbaum and H. Simon. In Jensen's view, the items on a list that are learned first, or best, are the ones to which the learner first attends (i.e., the first item or two in the list), and these first-learned items then serve as an "anchor point" for learning the rest of the list. Jensen's theory, however, has been criticized because of its vagueness concerning the basic learning mechanism and the implausibility of the argument concerning the attachment of the items to "expanding" anchor points. Feigenbaum and Simon point out that there are ways of distorting the characteristic shape of the serial-position curve. For instance, if one item is made clearly distinct from other items (the von Restorff effect), it will be learned much faster, or if half the list is colored red and the other half black the curve shows a large decrease in errors on the last item of the red half of the list and the first item of the black half. Feigenbaum and Simon developed an information-processing theory of serial learning where "anchor points" and a "macro-processing system" describe the serial-position results. Feigenbaum and Simon's theory - in addition to other response-learning and guessing factors - gives a good account of most facts known about the serial-learning curve. See also FORGETTING/MEMORY, THEORIES OF; INFORMA-


dacht-nis. Leipzig:; Duncker. Lepley, W. (1934). Serial reactions considered as conditioned reactions. Psychological Monographs, 46, No. 205. Hull, C. L. (1935). The conflicting psychologies of learning - a way out. Psychological Review, 42, 491-516. McCrary, J., & Hunter, W. (1953). Serial position curves in verbal learning. Science, 117, 131-134. Feigenbaum, E., & Simon, H. (1962). A theory of the serial position effect. Brit ish Journal of Psychology, 53, 307320.

Jensen, A. (1962). An empirical theory of the serial-position effect. Journal of Psychology, 53, 127-142. Slamecka, N. (1964). An inquiry into the doctrine of remote associations. Psychological Review, 71, 61-76. Jensen, A., & Rohwer, W. (1965). What is learned in serial learning? Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 4, 62-72.

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