Memory & Cognition

, Volume 42, Issue 8, pp 1373–1383 | Cite as

Why does guessing incorrectly enhance, rather than impair, retention?

  • Veronica X. Yan
  • Yue Yu
  • Michael A. Garcia
  • Robert A. Bjork


The finding that trying, and failing, to predict the upcoming to-be-remembered response to a given cue can enhance later recall of that response, relative to studying the intact cue–response pair, is surprising, especially given that the standard paradigm (e.g., Kornell, Hays, & Bjork, 2009) involves allocating what would otherwise be study time to generating an error. In three experiments, we sought to eliminate two potential heuristics that participants might use to aid recall of correct responses on the final test and to explore the effects of interference both at an immediate and at a delayed test. In Experiment 1, by intermixing strongly associated to-be-remembered pairs with weakly associated pairs, we eliminated a potential heuristic participants can use on the final test in the standard version of the paradigm—namely, that really strong associates are incorrect responses. In Experiment 2, by rigging half of the participants’ responses to be correct, we eliminated another potential heuristic—namely, that one’s initial guesses are virtually always wrong. In Experiment 3, we examined whether participants’ ability to remember—and discriminate between—their incorrect guesses and correct responses would be lost after a 48-h delay, when source memory should be reduced. Across all experiments, we continued to find a robust benefit of trying to guess to-be-learned responses, even when incorrect, versus studying intact cue–response pairs. The benefits of making incorrect guesses are not an artifact of the paradigm, nor are they limited to short retention intervals.


Testing Forgetting Generation Errors 


Author note

This research was supported by Grant No. 29192G from the McDonnell Foundation. We thank the members of Minifog and CogFog for their contributions to this article. Portions of this research were presented at the 53rd annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Minneapolis, MN.


  1. Briggs, G. E. (1954). Acquisition, extinction, and recovery functions in retroactive inhibition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47, 285–293.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Butler, A. C., Fazio, L. K., & Marsh, E. J. (2011). The hypercorrection effect persists over a week, but high-confidence errors return. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 1238–1244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Butler, A. C., Marsh, E. J., Goode, M. K., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2006). When additional multiple-choice lures aid versus hinder later memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 941–956.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carpenter, S. K. (2011). Semantic information activated during retrieval contributes to later retention: Support for the mediator effectiveness hypothesis of the testing effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37, 1547–1552.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Cunningham, D. J., & Anderson, R. C. (1968). Effect of practice time within prompting and confirmation presentation procedures on paired associate learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 7, 613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Elley, W. B. (1966-66). The role of errors in learning with feedback. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1966-66, 35–36, 296–300.Google Scholar
  7. Grimaldi, P. J., & Karpicke, J. D. (2012). When and why do retrieval attempts enhance subsequent encoding? Memory & Cognition, 40, 505–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hays, M. J., Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). When and why a failed test potentiates the effectiveness of subsequent study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 290–296. doi: 10.1037/a0028468 PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Huelser, B. J., & Metcalfe, J. (2012). Making related errors facilitates learning, but learners do not know it. Memory & Cognition, 40, 514–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kaess, W., & Zeaman, D. (1960). Positive and negative knowledge of results on a pressey-type punchboard. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1, 12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kapur, M., & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21, 45–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L., 3rd. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471–479.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Knight, J. B., Ball, B. H., Brewer, G. A., DeWitt, M. R., & Marsh, R. L. (2012). Testing unsuccessfully: A specification of the underlying mechanisms supporting its influence on retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 66, 731–746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Koriat, A., Fiedler, K., & Bjork, R. A. (2006). Inflation of conditional prediction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 429–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kornell, N. (2014). Attempting to answer a meaningful question enhances subsequent learning even when feedback is delayed. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 106–114.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 219–224.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 989–998.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Marsh, E. J., Roediger, H. L., III, Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 194–199. doi: 10.3758/bf03194051 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. McGillivray, S., & Castel, A. D. (2010). Memory for age-face associations: The role of generation and schematic support. Psychology and Aging, 25, 822–832.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2014). The benefit of generating errors during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 644–667. doi: 10.1037/a0033194 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2010). Why testing improves memory: Mediator effectiveness hypothesis. Science, 333, 335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15, 243–257.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Skinner, B. F. (1958). Teaching machines: From the experimental study of learning come devices which arrange optimal conditions for self-instruction. Science, 128, 969–977. doi: 10.1126/science.128.3330.969 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Slamecka, N. J., & Fevreiski, J. (1983). The generation effect when generation fails. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 153–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4, 592–604.Google Scholar
  27. Terrace, H. S. (1963). Discrimination learning with and without “errors”. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 1–27.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Vaughn, K., & Rawson, K. (2012). When is guessing incorrectly better than studying for enhancing memory? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 1–7. doi: 10.3758/s13423-012-0276-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Veronica X. Yan
    • 1
  • Yue Yu
    • 1
  • Michael A. Garcia
    • 1
  • Robert A. Bjork
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations