Recency Effect in Learning
When we talk about the Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect, we are talking about the theory and application of the following: “. . . the Primacy Effect . . . you remember some things at the beginning of a list because it occurred first. There is the beginning, a long middle that blurs together, and now it is the end.” (8) The Primacy Effect is the beginning. You remember it because that is where you started. The Recency Effect is the finish. You remember the end the best.
To understand Primacy and Recency, let’s look at an example from the business world. A new product or service is released to the market. The first step in the promotion process is to contact those who may be able to feature the product in a news story, interview, or other introductory venue. Next, the product is advertised. Adverts place the most important and attention getting information at the beginning. Followed by a brief explanation in the middle, and end with a memorable statement designed to persuade the potential customer to buy. The goal is to have you remember the end of the advertisement and thus buy their product.
The Recency effect has most effect in repeated persuasion messages when there is a delay between the messages. (10) Advertisers are aware of this when they schedule commercial messages.
Recency and Learning
One cannot define and discuss the Recency Effect in learning without understanding the Primacy Effect. Primacy Effect means that we remember best what we see or hear first – this becomes primary. In learning, this means that we remember best what we learn first.
The research that supports that we remember what was learnt at the beginning of a lesson – when the Primacy Effect is at work – also tells us that what we remember least that which occurs in the middle of a learning session.
Sometimes we miss the reasoning and facts behind and supporting our learning. We are susceptible to the information we get as a result of the Recency effect at the end of the lesson, whether such information is accurate or not. Promoters of new products, recognize this. The aim to persuade us to buy their product by using attention-getting and memorable closing comments. (11)
Let’s say you sit down to learn a new skill or new information applicable to your field. Using the Primacy/Recency effect, you decide to work for forty minutes. This will give you two “prime times” for learning and retaining information – the first twenty minutes and the last ten minutes. In between is a ten minute downtime. So, you gather your materials and place the terminology you need to know to master the information first. After learning these terms, you read through the new information. You use the next ten minutes – the down time – for review of the new information you have learned. The final ten minutes, you process the newly-learned information and assign meaning to it so you can store this in your long-term memory. (5)
“Review, warm-ups, and similar activities are all based on the principle that the more recent the exercise, the more effective the performance.” (2) Practicing a skill or new concept just before using it will ensure a more effective performance. Instructors recognize the law of Recency when they plan a lesson summary or a conclusion of the lecture.
In order for effective learning to take place, it is important to plan learning sessions to take advantage of both the Primacy and the Recency Effects. Use prime-time windows to teach new information and down-time for practice. The Primacy time – the beginning of the learning session – and the Recency time – the end of the learning session – are the two most effective times for learning. The goal is retention and storage in our long-term memory. Retention varies with length of intervention. (12)
“As the lesson time lengthens, the percentage of down-time [when retention’s at its lowest] increases faster than for the prime-times.” (12) When it comes to the length of the learning session, shorter (in general) is better. Varying the type of activity, the instructional method used for learning, or even the topic between peak periods is beneficial to learning.
Use the time at the beginning of learning to think about possible applications or “brainstorming”. Whatever ideas you come up with will be easier for you to remember. Whether they are applicable to what you need to learn or not. It is important to jump right into learning new material, mastering concepts and vocabulary, using the Primacy period effectively.
Sometimes we use the end of our learning session to relax and wind down. The Recency Effect means this is an effective time for application to retain what we have learned. So if the end of our study session we “waste” time, we will be less likely to store what we have learned in our long-term memory. Use prime time wisely.
Using Recency for Effective Learning
- When you approach learning, apply the principle of Recency by doing the following:
- Review frequently.
- Summarize to help fix the material you learned in your mind.
- Restate, repeat, and reemphasize. (2)
- The sequence of learning matters. We can maximize the retention of the information in a lesson by being aware and using the ideal times – the beginning and end of the lesson. “Use Primacy by doing research as soon as you discover an area where learning must take place. Then reinforce what you have learned by applying as soon as possible after the learning session.”(2)
1) Begin by diving directly into teaching important content.
2) After 20 minutes or so, take a brief break, stand up and stretch, and then review information or study the “why” behind what you have learned.
3) Finally, transition back into important content for the last part of you study session. (7)
- We also need to understand retention as it is applicable to both the Primacy and Recency effects. Essentially, retention is the goal of a learning episode. We want to internalize the information so it can used after the learning episode is complete. We need to maximize our retention of information by being aware of the ideal timing of new information presented during a learning episode or lesson. (9)
- If we read a long list of words, we are more likely to remember words at the beginning and end of the list than those in the middle. Additionally, taking both the Primacy and Recency effect into consideration, we can predict the items most likely to be remembered in a learning session.
- Given a list of items to remember, we will tend to remember the last few things more than those things in the middle (serial position effect). (3) We also tend to assume that items at the end of the list are of greater importance or significance.
- Another thing to consider when discussing Recency is that the further removed you are form the learning session, the more difficult it is to remember what was learned. The sooner you use what is learned, the more likely you are to use it successfully. It is important to make application of what you have learned as quickly as possible. If this is not feasible, share what you have learned with someone else to add retention of new information.
Tips to get the most from recency and primacy:
- Teach and/or learn new material first.
- New information and closure are best presented during the prime-time periods.
- Practice (labs/activity) is appropriate for the down-time segment
- Lessons divided into 20 minute segments are more productive than one continuous lesson (6)
- Do not dwell on what you do not know, but dwell instead on what you have learned.
- Make sure you begin and end your study session with the most important information
The Primacy/Recency Effect is the observation that information presented at the beginning (Primacy) and end (Recency) of a learning episode tends to be retained better than information presented in the middle.
“The phenomenon is said to be due to the fact that the short term memory at the beginning of whatever sequence of events is being presented, is far less ‘crowded’ and that since there are far fewer items being processed in the brain at the time when presented than later, there is more time for rehearsal of the stimuli which can cause them to be ‘transferred’ to the long term memory for longer storage.” (3)
It is interesting that the information we remember least is what is in the middle. Many times, when we approach a subject, the first part of our learning is relatively short, as is the end. The major portion of our learning is scheduled for the middle of a session – the part where we remember the least.
For learning to be effective, we must plan our learning so that the majority of information is chunked. Broken into smaller pieces at the beginning and end of the learning session. Taking advantage of both the Primacy and the Recency Effects. The middle should be used for reviewing and restating.
Understanding the Primacy and Recency effects help us not only in learning, but in understanding why we respond to certain situations as we do. Some interesting applications of the Recency theory are:
- Advertisers use Recency to make sure the first and last portions of their promotions create a desire to purchase
- Lawyers will call their strongest witnesses either first or last. (3)
- Speakers at conferences are scheduled with the strongest first and last.
- Teachers use Recency to determine the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction. (2)
“If you want something to stand out in a person’s mind, use it at the end of a conversation, a written list, etc. Don’t let it get lost in the middle. Repeat the message after a while, still with the key items at the end.” (10)
Bibliography for Recency Effects
- “Laws of Learning,” The Drill Pad, Instruction Resource Library, http://www.drillpad.net/DP_IRL_Laws.htm
- “Principles of learning,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principles_of_learning
- “Primacy effect,” Psychology Wiki, http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Primacy_effect
- Sousa, David A. “Primacy/Recency Effect” How the Brain Learns https://brainbasedee.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/the-Primacy-Recency-effect/
- Berrizbeitia, Inés, Student Engagement Tip: Sequence Matters, Center for Teaching & Learning, UVM Blog http://blog.uvm.edu/ctl/tag/Recency/
- Kowalczyk, Devin, Recency Effect in Psychology: Definition, Example & Quiz, http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/Recency-effect-in-psychology-definition-example-quiz.html
- Lauber, Stephen, “Differentiation Strategies: Teaching Grade-Level Content to ALL Students, posted 10/21/14, http://dataworks-ed.com/author/stephen/
- Recency Effect, Changing Minds http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/Recency_effect.htm
- Hamm, Trent, The Primacy and Recency Effect and Your Next Purchase, The Simple Dollar, http://www.thesimpledollar.com/the-Primacy-and-Recency-effect-and-your-next-purchase/
- Ferguson, Dave, Dave’s White Board, Primacy/recency, or, first (and last) things last http://www.daveswhiteboard.com/archives/2589
How do you use the research around primacy effects and recency effects in your training design? How might this impact performance management?