A Retrieved context account of spacing and repetition effects in free recall

Lynn L. Siegel, Michael J. Kahana

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Repeating an item in a list benefits recall performance, and this benefit increases when the repetitions are spaced apart (Madigan, 1969; Melton, 1970). Retrieved context theory incorporates 2 mechanisms that account for these effects: contextual variability and study-phase retrieval. Specifically, if an item presented at position i is repeated at position j, this leads to retrieval of its context from its initial presentation at i (study-phase retrieval), and this retrieved context will be used to update the current state of context (contextual variability). Here we consider predictions of a computational model that embodies retrieved context theory, the context maintenance and retrieval model (CMR; Polyn, Norman, & Kahana, 2009). CMR makes the novel prediction that subjects are more likely to successively recall items that follow a shared repeated item (e.g., i + 1, j + 1) because both items are associated with the context of the repeated item presented at i and j. CMR also predicts that the probability of recalling at least 1 of 2 studied items should increase with the items' spacing (Lohnas, Polyn, & Kahana, 2011). We tested these predictions in a new experiment, and CMR's predictions were upheld. These findings suggest that retrieved context theory offers an integrated explanation for repetition and spacing effects in free recall tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)755-764
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Context
  • Free recall
  • Lag effect
  • Repetition effect
  • Spacing effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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