How do you learn something or prepare for a test? Read your notes and books once? Reread them? Create mind maps? Recall the material after reading? Or something else? Research has found that the most common learning strategy is reading or studying something repeatedly because we assume it results in better learning. Unfortunately, that is the least effective and efficient method. It is repeated retrieval or active recall that produces more learning than any of the other strategies mentioned above.
We often associate learning with constructing and storing knowledge, and testing (yes, those dreaded exams!) with retrieval and recall. Testing is crucial because the ability to retrieve knowledge from our minds is an extremely reliable indicator of how much we have learnt and this is why schools still rely so much on exams despite all the criticisms. However, recent research has shown that active retrieval not only assesses learning, but also facilitates learning if incorporated into study or learning sessions.
Students in a study were asked to study and prepare for a test using one of the following strategies: (a) repeatedly read a text in four study periods; (b) read a text in three study periods and recall it in a final retrieval period; (c) read a text during one study period and recall it during three consecutive retrieval periods.
Students in each of the conditions were also asked to judge how well they thought they had learnt. Students in condition A (4 reading sessions + no retrieval) were much more confident of their ability to recall the material in the future than those in conditions B (3 reading sessions + 1 retrieval session) and C (1 reading session + 3 retrieval sessions).
However, when tested a week later, in contrast to the students’ own predictions of how well they would recall the material, those who practised active retrieval (conditions B and C) recalled significantly more than those who only repeatedly read the text (condition A).
Several other studies have also shown that one can reap the largest benefits (retain most material a week later) when one learns by alternating read/retrieve periods. As shown in the graph below, students in the ‘Study’ condition (read a text once in a single study period) only recalled 15% of the ideas, while those in the ‘Retrieve Once’ condition (read/retrieve/read again briefly) recalled 34% of the ideas. More impressively, those in the ‘Repeated Retrieval’ condition (8 alternating read/retrieve sessions) recalled up to 80% of the ideas.
Crucially, the relatively simple strategy of retrieval practice also seems to be better than many elaborate learning strategies (e.g., concept or mind-mapping) which are advocated by many educationalists.
These studies on retrieval practice does not suggest that the assumption that learning is determined by how well knowledge is encoded or constructed (mainly through reading and rereading material) is entirely wrong. Most importantly, we should pay more attention to the role of retrieval in learning. It appears that the very act of retrieving knowledge can improve learning and facilitate subsequent retrieval.
Indeed, there are many limitations of these laboratory studies. These studies may have oversimplified the complex processes of learning and retrieval in our daily lives, but there is certainly no harm in trying to practise retrieval the next time you try to learn something! So find some flash cards and get going!
Are you already relying on retrieval strategies? Or are you using better learning strategies? Feel free to leave your comments.
Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163. doi:10.1177/0963721412443552