A Simple DIY Short-Term Memory Experiment

yellow notes saying "Don't forget!" affixed to line with clothespins

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This quick short-term memory test is a simple psychology experiment that you can try at home. You can do this experiment on your own or with a small group of volunteers. By seeing how many words you can memorize in a brief period of time, you can learn more about both the capacity and duration of short-term memory.

Look at the list of words below for two minutes. Memorize as many words as you can in this amount of time. Next, get out a sheet of paper. Without looking at the list, give yourself two minutes to write down as many words from the list as you can.

Nine Swap Cell Ring Lust
Plugs Lamp Apple Table Sway
Army Bank Fire Hold Worm
Clock Horse Color Baby Sword
Desk Grab Find Bird Rock

How many words did you get correct? Despite having two minutes to memorize the words, you may have found it surprisingly difficult to recall even a handful of words.

This experiment demonstrates some of the limitations of short-term memory. According to researcher George A. Miller, the typical storage capacity for short-term memory is seven, plus or minus two items. However, memory rehearsal strategies, such as chunking, can significantly increase memorization and recall.

Horse Cat Dog Fish Bird
Orange Yellow Blue Green Black
Table Chair Desk Bookcase Bed
Teacher School Student Homework Class
Apple Banana Kiwi Grape Mango

Because these items can be easily grouped based on category, you can probably remember far more of these words. Clustering can be a useful memorization strategy that can improve the retention and recall of information.

Perform Your Own Word Memorization Experiment

There are a number of different approaches you could take in conducting your own word memorization experiment.

  • Compare random words versus related words. Create two lists of words: One that is completely random and another that has groups of related words. Ask participants to first complete one trial with the random words, and then complete another trial with the related words. Compare the results of the two trials.
  • Compare results between male and female participants. Have a group of participants perform the memorization activity, and then compare how many words the male participants remembered on average to how many the female participants remembered.
  • Try the experiment with gender-associated terms versus gender-neutral terms. Create a list of terms related to objects or concepts commonly associated with women or men. Then create a list of neutral terms. Administer both tests to a group and compare the results between the men and women. Did women or men find it easier to remember the gender-associated terms? Or were the results insignificant?
  • Compare results among different age groups. For example, create a group of school-age children, a group of college students, a group of middle-aged adults, and a group of older adults. Give the same test to each participant and then compare the results of each group. Which group performed the best? Which one performed the worst? What do these results have to say about memory and age?

Key Questions for Background Research

  • On average, how many words can a person remember?
  • Can other factors such as gender and age have an impact on memory?
  • Do people tend to remember certain words more than others?
  • What strategies might improve memorization?

When you are exploring psychology experiment ideas, be sure to understand how to conduct a psychology experiment to get accurate results and to perform experiments ethically.

1 Source
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  1. Von Bastian CC, Oberauer K. Effects and mechanisms of working memory training: A review. Psychol Res. 2013;78(6):803-820. doi:10.1007/s00426-013-0524-6

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."