Examining the episodic context account: does retrieval practice enhance memory for context?
Hong, Min Kyung
Polyn, Sean M.
Fazio, Lisa K.
Retrieval practice, such as filling in blanks or taking quizzes, is firmly established as an effective study strategy. However, the underlying mechanism of how retrieval practice benefits memory is still unclear. One current theory, the episodic context account, proposes that retrieval enhances memory by reinstating a prior learning context. This retrieved context is then strengthened and updated to include context at the time of recall, which later serves as an effective retrieval cue. However, few studies have directly tested this hypothesis. We did so by examining participants' memory for the initial study context. Across three experiments, participants encoded cue-target pairs presented in different colors and either restudied or practiced retrieving the targets. If retrieval practice benefits memory by reinstating the prior episodic context, participants who successfully retrieved the items during practice should have enhanced memory for context details (i.e. font color) compared to participants who restudied the pairs. Contrary to this prediction, memory for font colors did not differ between the restudy condition and the retrieval practice condition. Even when font color was actively attended to and integrated with the to-be-remembered items, retrieval practice did not increase memory for this aspect of context. Our results suggest that the context reinstated during retrieval practice is limited in nature. Aspects of the context that are not essential to retrieval of the item are not strengthened by retrieval practice.