The aim of the present study was to establish the nature of memory deficits of depressive subjects in word learning tests. A word learning test consisting of 1, 3 or 5 learning trials was used. We found that patients were characterized by inferior memory recall compared to controls when 5 learning trials were given. Patients performed significantly slower than controls on a recognition test but both patients and controls recognized the same number of words. This suggests that the memory deficits that are present in many depressive subjects may be restricted to impaired active retrieval from memory. A second experiment revealed that recognition memory and delayed recall as well as immediate recall were impaired in depressive patients after 1 learning trial. These short-comings vanished after 3 trials, except for immediate recall. These data suggest that not only retrieval but also encoding of information into memory may be impaired in depression, especially in the beginning of a task when demands on cognitive effort are high. The results are discussed in terms of resource allocation and demands on effort that may change in the course of a task.