What Is Free Recall?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2019
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Free recall is the repetition of a list of things, in any order, relying on short term memory storage to remember the individual entries on the list. Psychologists, neurologists, and other researchers with an interest in human memory use the free recall test as part of their research. It can also be used as part of a diagnostic screening for a patient with suspected cognitive impairments or memory loss. Numerous examples of tests are available online.

In a free recall test, the researcher presents the subject with a list of items. They may be shown on flash cards, displayed on a screen, read out loud, or presented in other ways. The subject does not need to remember the list in order and can use any organizing technique he likes to remember the items on the list. After the presentation, the researcher waits, and then asks the participant to repeat the items on the list.

Research on free recall can help scientists understand how memory works, and what kinds of memories the brain stores best. It can also provide insight into various strategies for memorizing. Individual subjects may chunk the data in different ways to make it memorable. They can also exhibit phenomena like the primacy or recency effect, where they tend to remember items at the beginning and the end of the list better.


In a medical evaluation, a free recall list can be a useful cognitive assessment. For patients with ongoing degenerative neurological diseases, it can also provide a baseline frame of reference. If a patient can successfully repeat a list of 12 items on one appointment, but only five on the next, for example, it can indicate declines in short term memory. The free recall test may be used as part of a basic intake assessment for a patient with a suspected memory-related issue, like Alzheimer's disease.

Research with free recall allows researchers to come up with recommendations for members of the general public who want help memorizing things. They can study different memorizing strategies to determine which are most effective. Research has also uncovered information like the fact that that humans generally remember five to nine items with relative ease and may be able to chunk data in sets of five to nine in order to remember it. A long string of numerals, for example, may be more memorable when broken up, as in 612 841 274 019 12 versus 61284127401912.


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