Introducing the Serial Position Effect
Have you heard about the Serial Position Effect?
Of course you have. When you are positioned at the beginning of a list, you feel as chirpy as a bird, and when you are at the end, your nose scrubs the floor. When you are in the middle, you are just there – nothing feels great or lousy, and it’s just another day! So that’s the Serial Position Effect! The Cognitive Psychologists explain in greater detail and their explanations help us formulate some quick tips for making our content interesting. But let’s begin by putting on our experiential shoes.
Serial Position Effect – An Activity
Here’s a list. Read it and then hide it. (Scroll down, click alt-tab to bring up the Beyonce Knowles or George Clooney screensaver, or do whatever you usually do to hide the content on your screen.) Next, jot down on a piece of paper, all the words that you remember.
Which are the words that you remembered. According to the Serial Position effect, you must definitely have remembered the terms Poodle and Lamp (the first and the last terms.) The other terms that you remember too would have a greater chance to be found either in the first or the last few terms in the list.
The Serial Position effect (Ebbinghaus) combines two effects:
- The Primacy Effect (We remember what is at the beginning of a list.)
- The Recency Effect (We also remember what is at the end of a list.)
The Primacy Effect:
The primacy effect is the outcome of our conscious effort to retain the learning. Recall your experience. Did you repeat the first few terms, trying to “commit” them to memory? You were trying to shift your learning from Short Term Memory to Long Term Memory. This effect wasn’t possible if I had asked you to read the list in 10 seconds, instead of allowing you to stretch the time according to your convenience.
The Recency Effect:
The Recency Effect is the result of “recency.” Recall that I didn’t ask you to wait for an hour before jotting down the terms, instead, I asked you to do it (immediately) after reading the list. Chances are few that you waited before listing the terms you remembered. This effect, thus, is lost when there’s a time-gap between reading the list and recalling the terms. Note that Recency Effect doesn’t require you to shift your learning from the Long Term Memory to the Short Term Memory!
Some other examples that illustrate the Recency Effect are:
- Forgetting the names of the family members of a person introduced to you in the last party you attended. (You remembered them for the duration of your conversation with the person in question.)
- Forgetting single-use phone numbers immediately after use.
In both these cases, you didn’t think that the “learning” (names/phone numbers) was important enough to be sent to the Long Term Memory.
Using The Serial Position Effect in Course/Training Design:
Let us put a stop to the theoretical discussion on the Serial Position Effect and review its impact on course/training design.
- When you want your audience to remember something, put it either at the beginning or the end of your session/lecture/series of activities.
Sloth: Now you know why the beginnings and the ends are so much more fun than the body of the session. The trainer is trying to obtain a happy “reaction” from the audience. The trainer is also aiming at leaving the audience with happy memories!
Don’t worry about Sloth. He’s got this uncanny ability to turn the concepts upside-down (not inside-out.)
- If you can structure your content in form of expandable lists, do it – but make sure that its got a chiseled midriff – put all the groovy stuff either at the top or at the bottom. (You know that the metaphor is unintentional – it just happened:-) But even if you think otherwise, please yourself!)
- Break your longer lists into two or more columns. The learner’s mind will then perceive each list as a separate one and the Primacy Effect will help him/her remember more.
Sloth: You should train yourself to begin your content with “What the learner would gain” and end with “What the learner has gained!” Then you’ll have a successful training program, without having to design and deliver anything else!
Froth: Sloth’s right. Having patented his technique of designing “Beginning-to-End in 60 seconds” training programs, he’ll shortly make his first million!