Mapping the Memory Structure of High-Knowledge Students: A Longitudinal Semantic Network Analysis

Simone A. Luchini, Shuyao Wang, Yoed N. Kenett, Roger E. Beaty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Standard learning assessments like multiple-choice questions measure what students know but not how their knowledge is organized. Recent advances in cognitive network science provide quantitative tools for modeling the structure of semantic memory, revealing key learning mechanisms. In two studies, we examined the semantic memory networks of undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory psychology course. In Study 1, we administered a cumulative multiple-choice test of psychology knowledge, the Intro Psych Test, at the end of the course. To estimate semantic memory networks, we administered two verbal fluency tasks: domain-specific fluency (naming psychology concepts) and domain-general fluency (naming animals). Based on their performance on the Intro Psych Test, we categorized students into a high-knowledge or low-knowledge group, and compared their semantic memory networks. Study 1 (N = 213) found that the high-knowledge group had semantic memory networks that were more clustered, with shorter distances between concepts—across both the domain-specific (psychology) and domain-general (animal) categories—compared to the low-knowledge group. In Study 2 (N = 145), we replicated and extended these findings in a longitudinal study, collecting data near the start and end of the semester. In addition to replicating Study 1, we found the semantic memory networks of high-knowledge students became more interconnected over time, across both domain-general and domain-specific categories. These findings suggest that successful learners show a distinct semantic memory organization—characterized by high connectivity and short path distances between concepts—highlighting the utility of cognitive network science for studying variation in student learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number56
JournalJournal of Intelligence
Issue number6
StatePublished - 31 May 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 by the authors.


  • cognitive network science
  • educational assessment
  • expertise
  • knowledge
  • semantic memory
  • undergraduate education


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