Retrieval practice is best tool for learning

February, 2011

A large study has found studying scientific text by practicing retrieval produced greater long-term recall than studying by elaborating the information in concept maps.

I’ve talked about the importance of retrieval practice at length, so I’m pleased to report on the latest study to confirm its value. Indeed, this study demonstrates that practicing retrieval is a more effective strategy than elaborative studying.

In two studies, a total of 200 students studied texts on topics from different science disciplines. One group engaged in elaborative studying by creating concept maps. The second group read the texts, then put the material away and practiced recalling the concepts from the text. Both groups performed at about the same level on a test at the end of the study period. However, when the students were tested again a week later, the group that studied by practicing retrieval performed 50% better than the group that studied by creating concept maps.

The test involved understanding as well as memory, with some of the questions asking them to draw connections between things that weren't explicitly stated in the material.

The study also confirms that most students are poor at judging the success of their study habits. Asked to predict which technique would produce better results, most thought that concept mapping would be superior.

The findings should certainly not be taken as a slur on concept mapping, which is a study strategy of proven effectiveness. Moreover, while concept mapping can be used solely as an elaborative study method (as it was in these experiments), it can also be used as a retrieval practice technique.


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In the first study, undergraduates studied English-Lithuanian word pairs, which were displayed on a screen one by one for 10 seconds.

What governs whether or not you’ll retrieve a memory? I’ve talked about the importance of retrieval cues, of the match between the cue and the memory code you’re trying to retrieve, of the strength of the connections leading to the code. But these all have to do with the memory code.

In an experiment to investigate why testing might improve learning, 118 students were given 48 English-Swahili translation pairs. An initial study trialwas followed by three blocks of practice trials. For one group, the practice trial involved a cued recall test followed by restudy.

Context is important for memory. Therefore it’s not surprising that shifting your mind’s focus to another context can impair recall — or help you forget.


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