The process of elaboration and implications for retrieval processes

Megan A Smith, Purdue University


Elaboration, or adding information or features to the to-be-learned information, is one of the most commonly discussed concepts in theories of memory, and elaborating during encoding is thought to be one of the best ways to improve memory. However, one cannot ask whether elaboration will improve memory unless one considers conditions at retrieval. During retrieval, the individual establishes a search set and then must discriminate between correct and incorrect items. Additional features will only be useful to the extent that they match the correct event and exclude the other events. Given that successful retrieval requires discrimination among items in a search set (Nairne, 2002), why would elaboration necessarily improve memory? There are findings in the literature that seem to be at odds with the idea that adding information improves the discrimination problem, specifically the fan effect (e.g., Anderson, 1974) and cue overload (see Surprenant & Neath, 2009). Across 4 experiments, I investigated whether elaboration via adding related associates to a target study item (Experiments 1, 2, and 3) and generating ways in which the target item relates to oneself (i.e., self reference; Experiment 4) during encoding would lead to better or worse discrimination at retrieval relative to study-only control conditions. Further, I used cumulative retrieval times to estimate the size of the search set during retrieval (see Rohrer & Wixted, 1994; Wixted & Rohrer, 1993; 1994). Estimating the size of the search set provided additional information about the dynamics of retrieval processes after elaboration. Results from 4 experiments indicated elaboration increases the size of the search set relative to simply studying the items. Still, when participants had only learned one list of words, elaboration generally led to better memory performance relative to study. As participants learned multiple lists of words, elaboration led to worse memory performance than study. This was thought to occur due to a greater buildup of proactive interference in the elaboration condition.




Karpicke, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Clinical psychology|Experimental psychology|Cognitive psychology

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