What Factors Affect Memory Recall?

What is memory recall?

Memory recall is defined as the retrieval or recall of information, events and memories from the past. Memory recall is one of the three main processes of memory, along with memory encoding and memory storage. Memory recall is generally defined into three different categories of recall: free memory recall, cued memory recall and serial memory recall.


Free recall refers to memory recall which is allowed to occur in a random order and is most often found in psychological and educational testing. For example, if an individual is given a list of information to remember and is then tested on those items by being required to recall them in no particular order, this is “free” recall because the individual’s recall is not bound to remember the information in a specific way. Free recall is also often used in educational settings, when students may be required to remember information but not in a specific listing order.

Cued memory recall refers to memory recall which is accompanied by certain cues; these cues are intended to help the individual remember information or recall information. Memory cues can range from auditory, such as music or certain sounds, to visual, such as certain colors or image; they can also be related to smell or even taste. For research purposes, cued recall is often tested by testing individuals on pairings–such as pairings of words–which are accompanied by a certain cue. The individual is then asked to recall these word pairings both with and without the cue–in general, research has shown that cues can help people recall information more readily and people undergoing cued recall testing generally remember the information with cues more easily. Cued recall can also occur naturally or without planning—for example, someone might witness a noticeable event while a certain song is playing or a certain smell might accompany the event. When someone is confronted with that same cue at a later point—even years later—they might suddenly recall that information without prompting. For example, someone who often baked vanilla cookies with their grandmother as a child might, as an adult, suddenly recall that memory when they smell a similar vanilla scent.

Serial memory recall refers to memory recall which occurs in the order that events or information occurred or were presented. Serial recall is important because it allows for people to remember things in the correct order. Language, for example, relies on serial recall because the brain must remember which order words or even syllables must go; without proper serial recall, for example, someone might say or hear “style” instead of the word “slight.” Serial recall is also essential to long term memory and short term memory; for example, someone would require serial recall to remember the proper order of events that occurred in their life (long term) or the order of a phone number given to them by a friend (short term).

Factors which can affect memory recall

Memory recall is an important aspect of everyday life but, like many other natural functions, memory recall can be affected by many different factors. When memory recall is affected, it can have consequences which range from inconsequential—such as misremembering the name of a store visited as a child—to the more extreme, such as a memory recall error or issue which could affect the quality of life, for example being unable to remember the correct order of words or syllables through serial memory recall.


The most prolific factors which can affect memory recall are attention and motivation. Attention can affect memory recall in a surprisingly significant way, although research has shown that attention has the most noticeable impact on memory recall during the encoding phase. When an individual’s attention is focused on another task or multiple tasks, it makes the encoding phase of memory much weaker; that is, if someone’s attention is not focused on specific information, that information may not be well encoded into the brain and will thus be much ‘weaker’ and harder to recall correctly. For example: A student is listening to a lecture about photosynthesis during class, but they are in fact focused on what they will be doing after the class has ended instead. Although they may in fact be listening to the lecture, because their attention is not focused solely on the lecture information which needs to be processed, that information is not encoded as strongly as it could have been—thus, when the student is recalling the information in order to complete homework or complete a test, the information will not be as easily recalled as it would have been if they had been giving the lecture their full attention. Research on attention’s effect on memory recall have generally concluded that although attention can have an effect on the memory recall process itself, it is not noticeably significant unless the information had already been affected by attention during the memory encoding process.

Motivation is another significant factor which can affect memory recall. Motivation or incentive to remember certain information can usually allow an individual to remember that information more quickly and more clearly than information for which there is no incentive. This motivation may range from monetary to personal. For example, a study was once done on the effect of motivation on memory recall n which college students were asked to remember certain words on a list which was given to them; they were separated into two groups and in one group, each word that the participants remembered correctly would result in a corresponding monetary reward. The college students who were offered the monetary reward remembered more correct words than the students who were not promised any sort of reward or given motivation for remembering the words. But motivation does not need to be directly compensatory, such as monetary or another material item, for it to positively affect memory recall. Motivation such as wanting to do well on a test, wanting to remember a phone number of a new acquaintance, and so on, can all increase the chances for correct memory recall.

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