Memory & Cognition

, Volume 42, Issue 6, pp 898–911 | Cite as

Errorful and errorless learning: The impact of cue–target constraint in learning from errors

  • Emma K. BridgerEmail author
  • Axel Mecklinger


The benefits of testing on learning are well described, and attention has recently turned to what happens when errors are elicited during learning: Is testing nonetheless beneficial, or can errors hinder learning? Whilst recent findings have indicated that tests boost learning even if errors are made on every trial, other reports, emphasizing the benefits of errorless learning, have indicated that errors lead to poorer later memory performance. The possibility that this discrepancy is a function of the materials that must be learned—in particular, the relationship between the cues and targets—was addressed here. Cued recall after either a study-only errorless condition or an errorful learning condition was contrasted across cue–target associations, for which the extent to which the target was constrained by the cue was either high or low. Experiment 1 showed that whereas errorful learning led to greater recall for low-constraint stimuli, it led to a significant decrease in recall for high-constraint stimuli. This interaction is thought to reflect the extent to which retrieval is constrained by the cue–target association, as well as by the presence of preexisting semantic associations. The advantage of errorful retrieval for low-constraint stimuli was replicated in Experiment 2, and the interaction with stimulus type was replicated in Experiment 3, even when guesses were randomly designated as being either correct or incorrect. This pattern provides support for inferences derived from reports in which participants made errors on all learning trials, whilst highlighting the impact of material characteristics on the benefits and disadvantages that accrue from errorful learning in episodic memory.


Testing effect Cued recall Errorless learning Errorful learning 


Author note

This research was supported by the German Research Foundation under Grant No. DFG-IRTG-1457, and was conducted in the International Research Training Group “Adaptive Minds,” hosted by Saarland University, Saarbrücken (Germany). We thank Hubert Zimmer for valuable discussion on this topic, as well as Marie Schwartz, Leon Markelis, Katharina Jung, and Stefanie Kolb for assistance with stimulus preparation and data collection.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Experimental Neuropsychology UnitSaarland UniversitySaarbrückenGermany
  2. 2.Department of PsychologySaarland UniversitySaarbrückenGermany

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