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How to Use Serial Position to Eliminate the Need for Cramming

How to Use Serial Position to Eliminate the Need for Cramming

Many people make the mistake of setting aside a whole day or weekend or taking a couple of weeks’ holiday to cram before the exam. But there’s a better way, that doesn’t cost you your leisure time, and actually works tonnes more efficiently…

Written by Lysette Offley

Primacy and Recency Effects

You need to know about the Primacy and Recency Effects. We human beings tend to remember more easily what we learn at the beginnings and also the ends of revision sessions. It’s usually the bit in the middle that’s a blur!

Back in the later part of the 19th century, German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus drew some useful conclusions after studying his own ability to remember a list of facts. He reckoned that his ability to remember information usually related to where in a series of facts that information appeared, i.e. the Serial Position Effect.

The ability to remember info usually relates to where in a series of facts that info appears. Click To Tweet


When he asked other people to also recall (in whatever order it came to them) the same information, they, like he, easily remembered the last thing they were told, i.e. the most recent, hence calling it the Recency Effect. It’s thought that it’s easier to remember because it’s still in the ‘working memory’.

Next easiest to recall, he discovered, is the information presented at the beginning, i.e. The Primacy Effect. We probably benefit from the fact that all our attention is available to focus on the first snippet of info. When the second snippet comes along, we’ve now got two lots to attend to; the third lot means we’ve got another thing to cope with, and so on.

Speed Makes a Difference

He found that the Primacy Effect was stronger when the information was presented slowly. (Not surprisingly to us. Remember the Key to Learning #1: Spend enough time with the information for your brain to make a pattern of it and send it to your long-term memory.)

Length of Material Affects Primacy Effect

He also found that the Primacy Effect was weaker when being presented with longer lists of information. Short lists are easier than longer ones.

Since we know that our brains already work well under those circumstances – it makes sense to revise in short bursts of say, 20 mins or 30 mins. That way, you’ll automatically remember more, without making any more effort.

A Bonus for Busy People

Also – and here’s a real bonus for busy people – you can fit several of these short bursts into your ordinary working day, rather than lose weekend or holiday time.

Go along with the way your brain already, naturally and automatically processes, stores and retrieves information. Let it do what it does best, and see how much easier passing exams can be.