Recall and the Serial Position Effect: The Role of Primacy and Recency on Accounting Students' Performance

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The serial position effect is the phenomenon in which faster learning and greater recall of items occur at the beginning (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) in comparison to items at the middle of a list. The majority of the research on the serial position effect has been conducted under laboratory conditions in which subjects had to learn and recall words, consonant trigrams, nonsense syllables or number sets (Ebbinghaus, 1885; Foucault, 1928; Glenberg, Bradley, Draus, & Renzaglia, 1983; Ladd & Woodworth, 1911). Outside of the laboratory setting, Kurbat, Shevell, & Rips (1998) found that college students tended to recall personal experiences that occurred at the beginning and end of the semester better than those experiences that occurred in the middle of the semester.

Some prior studies have examined the effects of the order by which test questions are arranged whether in the order of difficulty (Paretta & Chadwick, 1975; Howe & Baldwin, 1983) or in the order by which the concepts are taught (Baldwin & Howard, 1983)) on students' performance. Studies concerning order effect are relevant to accounting education because they address the influence of content delivery on student learning. For example, Rebele, Stout, & Hassell (1991) reviewed several articles on course delivery and teaching methods and suggested that evidence regarding the impact of alternative teaching methods is, for the most part, The current study investigates whether or not the serial position effect can be observed in a real-world classroom setting where students have to learn, comprehend, and recall a large amount of related information over an extended time frame. Specifically, we tested the recall of information as a function of the order in which the material was presented in an undergraduate accounting course. The content of the course studied was divided into modules of relatively equal levels of difficulty and presented to the students by the same instructor; the order in which the modules were presented was varied. We examined the serial position effect, the order of content delivery, and the order in which exam questions were presented as predictors of student performance in the course. The result of this study will provide insight into interdisciplinary strategies that can be used to teach and test students to enhance their performance in relevant accounting courses.


There is very little in the literature on the role of the order effect, recency effect or primacy effect on the performance of accounting students. Some prior studies have investigated the effect of alternative test question sequencing on students' performance. For example, some researchers have investigated the effects of question sequencing by the order of difficulty of the questions (Paretta & Chadwick, 1975; Howe & Baldwin, 1983). While Paretta and Chadwick (1975) found a significant order effect on the students' performance, Howe and Baldwin (1983) did not find a significant order effect. In view of these conflicting results, Baldwin and Howard (1983) re-examined the order effect. Rather than examining the effect of the order of difficulty of the questions on the performance of the students, they examined the effect of the order in which test items were presented. They presented the questions to a group of their subjects in the sequential order by which the concepts were taught to them (test sequential order group). They randomized the questions presented to the second group (test randomized group). They found an order effect showing that the test sequential order group significantly performed better than the test randomized group. However, none of the subsequent studies (i.e., Baldwin, Pattison, & Toolson, 1989; Stout & Wygal, 1989,1990; and Stout & Battista, 1991) found a significant order effect. None of these studies attributed the results to the recency effect. …


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