Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Retrieval Practice and Spacing Effects in Young and Older Adults: An Examination of the Benefits of Desirable Difficulty

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Retrieval Practice and Spacing Effects in Young and Older Adults: An Examination of the Benefits of Desirable Difficulty

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 January 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract In the present study, we examined how the function relating continued retrieval practice (e.g., one, three, or five tests) and long-term memory retention is modulated by desirable difficulty (R. A. Bjork, 1994). Of particular interest was how retrieval difficulty differed across young and older adults and across manipulations of lag (Exp. 1) and spacing (Exp. 2). To extend on previous studies, the acquisition phase response latency was used as a proxy for retrieval difficulty, and our analysis of final-test performance was conditionalized on acquisition phase retrieval success, to more directly examine the influence of desirable difficulty on retention. The results from Experiment 1 revealed that continued testing in the short-lag condition led to consistent increases in retention, whereas continued testing in the long-lag condition led to increasingly smaller benefits in retention for both age groups. The results from Experiment 2 revealed that repeated spaced testing enhanced retention relative to taking one spaced test, for both age groups; however, repeated massed testing only enhanced retention over taking one test for young adults. Across both experiments, the response latency results were overall consistent with an influence of desirable difficulty on retention. The discussion focuses on the role of desirable difficulty during encoding in producing the benefits of lag, spacing, and testing.

Keywords Testing effect . Spacing effect . Retrieval practice aging . Refreshing

Healthy aging is marked by broad declines in episodic memory (Arking, 1998; Balota, Dolan, & Duchek, 2000; Salthouse, 1996). Given the substantial increase in our aging population, there is a clear need to identify ways of improving memory that are effective across diverse populations and variable aging trajectories (e.g., Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2009). One technique that is effective across varying contexts and populations, spaced retrieval practice, combines the mnemonic benefits of spacing and testing (see Balota, Duchek, & Logan, 2007, and Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, & Rohrer, 2006, for reviews). Indeed, spaced retrieval practice has been shown to enhance performance in healthy older adults (e.g., Balota, Duchek, & Paullin, 1989), individuals with Alzheimer's disease (e.g., Balota, Duchek, SergentMarshall, & Roediger, 2006; Camp, Foss, Stevens, & O'Hanlon, 1996), and individuals suffering from amnesia (Schacter, Rich, & Stamp, 1985).

Given the effectiveness of spaced retrieval, it is important to better understand why this technique improves memory and how it can be used most effectively. Multiple mechanisms have been developed to account for spaced retrieval, including the combined study-phase retrieval and encoding variability account (e.g., Greene, 1989;Raaijmakers,2003; see Cepeda et al., 2006, for a review). Here, we focus on one account of the benefits of spaced retrieval, desirable difficulty (R. A. Bjork, 1994), which suggests that more effortful retrieval will lead to greater strengthening in the underlying memory trace than less effortful retrieval assuming that successful retrieval occurs in both situations. Specifically, spaced practice produces better performance than massed practice because the second retrieval event in the spaced condition is relatively more difficult thereby producing better retention. The present study extends on previous examinations of desirable difficulty in two ways. First, we operationally define desirable difficulty in a way that utilizes response latencies on retrieval trials during the acquisition phase. Second, we examine the influence of desirable difficulty on retention by accounting for differences across conditions in acquisition performance that may later influence final-test performance.

With these methodological extensions in hand, we can more carefully address the following two questions: First, how does the efficiency of retrieval practice differ across healthy young and older adults given past research indicating age differences in optimal spacing schedules (e. …

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