Immediate list recall as a measure of short-term episodic memory: insights from the serial position effect and item response theory

Brandon E Gavett, Julie E Horwitz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

17 Citations (Scopus)


The serial position effect shows that two interrelated cognitive processes underlie immediate recall of a supraspan word list. The current study used item response theory (IRT) methods to determine whether the serial position effect poses a threat to the construct validity of immediate list recall as a measure of verbal episodic memory. Archival data were obtained from a national sample of 4,212 volunteers aged 28-84 in the Midlife Development in the United States study. Telephone assessment yielded item-level data for a single immediate recall trial of the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT). Two parameter logistic IRT procedures were used to estimate item parameters and the Q(1) statistic was used to evaluate item fit. A two-dimensional model better fit the data than a unidimensional model, supporting the notion that list recall is influenced by two underlying cognitive processes. IRT analyses revealed that 4 of the 15 RAVLT items (1, 12, 14, and 15) were misfit (p < .05). Item characteristic curves for items 14 and 15 decreased monotonically, implying an inverse relationship between the ability level and the probability of recall. Elimination of the four misfit items provided better fit to the data and met necessary IRT assumptions. Performance on a supraspan list learning test is influenced by multiple cognitive abilities; failure to account for the serial position of words decreases the construct validity of the test as a measure of episodic memory and may provide misleading results. IRT methods can ameliorate these problems and improve construct validity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)125-35
Number of pages11
JournalArchives of Clinical Neuropsychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


Cite this