Variations in the ability to retrieve information are also seen in the serial position curve. When we give people a list of words one at a time (e.g., on flashcards) and then ask them to recall them, the results look something like those in Figure 14 “The Serial Position Curve”. People are able to retrieve more words that were presented to them at the beginning and the end of the list than they are words that were presented in the middle of the list. This pattern, known as the serial position curve, is caused by two retrieval phenomenon: The primacy effect refers to a tendency to better remember stimuli that are presented early in a list. The recency effect refers to the tendency to better remember stimuli that are presented later in a list.
There are a number of explanations for primacy and recency effects, but one of them is in terms of the effects of rehearsal on short-term and long-term memory (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson, 2009). Because we can keep the last words that we learned in the presented list in short-term memory by rehearsing them before the memory test begins, they are relatively easily remembered. So the recency effect can be explained in terms of maintenance rehearsal in short-term memory. And the primacy effect may also be due to rehearsal—when we hear the first word in the list we start to rehearse it, making it more likely that it will be moved from short-term to long-term memory. And the same is true for the other words that come early in the list. But for the words in the middle of the list, this rehearsal becomes much harder, making them less likely to be moved to LTM.