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The Science of Review: Just Think About It

Part Five of our Series: Studying for Success

By Michael Shirey, 6–12 Mathematics Product Manager at McGraw Hill

One of the most powerful practice methodologies is much simpler than you realize. That method is “thinking about it.” To describe it that way is probably a bit of an over-simplification, but it is at the center of nearly every type of practice we engage in. Regardless of the subject, sport, or job, we improve what we do by actively thinking about the information we need to be able to retrieve efficiently.

If you’ve ever watched a gymnast preparing for a competition, you’ll often see them standing with their eyes closed while moving their hands through the air as they mentally practice their routines. They are not physically practicing. They are mentally going through every step, turn, and jump. They are retrieving the information needed for their routine. This process is called retrieval practice.

Retrieval Practice is Never One and Done

If this doesn’t sound groundbreaking or new, that’s because it’s not. This is why flashcards exist as a study tool. But we should make sure we use them in the most effective manner. Students often think that creating the flashcards is enough to cement the information into their minds. Once the flashcards have been created, they are often cast aside. However, they are meant to be used over and over again. Between the time that the flashcards were created, and the time that information needs to be retrieved for a quiz, much of that information gets lost.

Spaced Practice is Key

It is the time between the creation of the flashcards and the quiz that is most crucial. Those flashcards need to be reviewed multiple times in between. And not just a review of the front and the back, but a focused and deliberate effort of reviewing one side, and then mentally retrieving “the answer” without looking at it first. To really solidify that information into the brain, you should also shuffle the card to ensure that you are not accidentally remembering based on the pattern.

Based on the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve model, we forget nearly half of all new information we are exposed to within 20 minutes of being exposed to it. After just a day, it’s much more. If we review that information the following day, we follow a similar curve of forgetting.

But at the end of that second day, we retain just a bit more than the previous day, and with each consecutive day of retrieving that information, our collection of memory increases. Multiple studies tell us that retrieving that information on a continual basis will increase our ability to remember it.

Watch this fun, animated video on Spaced Practice!

Retrieval Practice Can Be Easy and Maybe Even Fun

When my children were young, I would take advantage of short drives to help them retrieve and retain information. We didn’t even need the flashcards. Knowing what they were working on in school was enough to prompt them with questions. While driving my son to his friend’s house, I would quiz him on multiplication facts. To give one straightforward example, I would say, “Hey Chris! What’s 9 x 6?” If he knew it, I’d give him five more. If he didn’t know it, I would help him figure it out, and then I’d give him five more. Over the next few days, I would re-ask him the ones he didn’t know. And then again. And then again at least one more time until he remembered them with ease — often with a sigh of annoyance.

Practice does not have to be lengthy, intense sessions of painful repetition. If it’s not retrieval for a test, it’s better when it’s low-stakes and casual. It can be done alone, with a friend, or on a road trip with the family. It can be done while standing in line, sitting on a bus or a subway, or walking to the store. We know that we forget over time. Sometimes all our brain needs is a nudge to remember.

For more engaging studying tips that will boost achievement no matter where learning happens, download our guide!

Michael Shirey has been with McGraw Hill since 1996 when he joined the Software Support department. Prior to McGraw Hill, he worked with under-privileged, under-performing, and at-risk students in both classroom and one-on-one tutoring settings. His focus currently centers around secondary Mathematics, but his passion has always been around helping students understand the concepts that they deem impossible to comprehend. This passion drives his never-ending quest to learn more about the science behind engagement and learning and how that knowledge can be used to help make McGraw Hill more successful. With his children all now off on their own, when Mike’s not at work he likes to work on his photography skills and try new photo-challenges, whether it is a tiny insects and spiders or photos of the moon.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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