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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Briggs, G. E. (1954). Acquisition, extinction, and recovery functions in retroactive inhibition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47, 285–293.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Elley, W. B. (1966-66). The role of errors in learning with feedback. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1966-66, 35–36, 296–300.
Grimaldi, P. J., & Karpicke, J. D. (2012). When and why do retrieval attempts enhance subsequent encoding? Memory & Cognition, 40, 505–513.
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
Huelser, B. J., & Metcalfe, J. (2012). Making related errors facilitates learning, but learners do not know it. Memory & Cognition, 40, 514–527.
Kaess, W., & Zeaman, D. (1960). Positive and negative knowledge of results on a pressey-type punchboard. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1, 12.
Kapur, M., & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21, 45–83.
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.
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.
Koriat, A., Fiedler, K., & Bjork, R. A. (2006). Inflation of conditional prediction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 429–447.
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.
Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 219–224.
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.
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
McGillivray, S., & Castel, A. D. (2010). Memory for age-face associations: The role of generation and schematic support. Psychology and Aging, 25, 822–832.
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
Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2010). Why testing improves memory: Mediator effectiveness hypothesis. Science, 333, 335.
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.
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.
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
Slamecka, N. J., & Fevreiski, J. (1983). The generation effect when generation fails. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 153–163.
Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4, 592–604.
Terrace, H. S. (1963). Discrimination learning with and without “errors”. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 1–27.
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
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Yan, V.X., Yu, Y., Garcia, M.A. et al. Why does guessing incorrectly enhance, rather than impair, retention?. Mem Cogn 42, 1373–1383 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-014-0454-6