Don’t Reread, Retrieve: The Benefits of Retrieval Practice

It’s a common scene in television and movies: a frantic student valiantly cramming before a big test, papers strewn around their desk or bed. Though tired, the next day they pull off a scholastic miracle and ace their test. Cramming works, right?

Despite the glorification of late-night cram sessions, science has shown this sort of studying to have its flaws. While the student may see their score on that one test go up, the information they crammed will slowly dissipate, like notes written in disappearing ink. For long-term learning, there are far more effective study methods.

Like the belief in “learning styles,” which has been disproven but still lingers as common folk wisdom, plenty of educational myths persist.

Rather than focusing on what doesn’t work, it can be useful to look at learning methods that have been studied and deemed useful to learners. These methods don’t have to be difficult to implement. One such method is “retrieval practice,” or deliberately trying to recall and articulate information, either verbally or through text or drawings.

How Memory Works

To understand the benefits of retrieval practice, it’s first helpful to understand how memory works. In the Learning Scientists’ book Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, writers Dr. Megan Sumeracki and Dr. Yana Weinstein delve into the basics of how memory works.

Memories, rather than being fixed objects, are malleable. They’re not read-only records stored in archives. Neurons, or brain cells, reach out to other neurons through connectors called synapses to form memories. When neurons fire off together, a pattern (sometimes called an “engram”) is formed. Recall of the memory will light up the pattern again.

Since memories aren’t crystallized, or even static, retrieval is necessary to give learned information — new memories — some permanence.

Practicing “retrieving” info, or pulling it up from memory, is a useful learning strategy. Memories that are retrieved are strengthened, and unclear information can be embellished with additional details, further increasing comprehension and connecting ideas to other concepts.

Retrieving Learning

Retrieval practice is the act of actively trying to recall information. For example, right now, try to describe the basic anatomical structure of memories. Do some words come to mind (like “neuron” or “engram”)? Do you understand the process well enough that you could explain it to someone else?

As mentioned, retrieval practice is helpful due to the way it strengthens neural patterns. By drawing out learned concepts, students are forced to augment the memories of what they’ve studied, giving the memories more permanence in their long-term memories.

Unlike rereading, which can lead to students having delusions of mastery, retrieval practice is an active, evidence-based learning method that ensures new ideas become old hat. As the Learning Scientists put it, while rereading “feels good,” retrieval practice proves its value through better student outcomes and a more solid learning foundation.

How to Use Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice can be done through quick assessments, such as Kahoot! quizzes or even warm-up questions written on a board at the front of the classroom. It doesn’t need to be graded — formative assessments are great for not only checking in on student progress, but also getting students to try remembering what they’ve learned.

Retrieval practice can be done as a silent, individual activity. Having students recall, then reflect, uses both retrieval practice and metacognition. For example, students may fill out a concept map on a previous lesson, then consider what parts of the map were easy or difficult to remember.

While retrieval practice can be done through worksheets, it can also be as simple as asking students to write down what they remember about a certain fact or process. This sort of prompt could also be included in a digital notebook file, particularly in a math or coding class.

Spacing Retrieval

One way to increase the efficacy of retrieval practice is to time it in such a way that retrieval sessions are spaced out. This “spaced retrieval” allows students time to forget what they’ve learned — something that sounds bad but is vital to creating long-lasting memories. Spaced retrieval is distinctly different from cramming.

“Spaced repetition” systems or software (SRS) are super-powered flashcards that assist in the timing of spaced retrieval. Many edtech companies use SRS as a foundation of their work. For example, Memrise features aspects of spaced retrieval.

One SRS that’s useful for learners is Anki. Particularly lauded by language learners, Anki can also be reworked to suit a variety of subjects. For example, a user known as masteranza on GitHub wrote code to make flashcards from Mathematica notebooks.

Anki has learners rate their recall as they go through retrieval practice, allowing the program to space their studies appropriately. In this sense, the learners’ self-assessment — their metacognition — adds to their agency in learning. For this reason, Anki is often mentioned in connection with learners engaging in self-study.

To Retrieve More Info…

Retrieval practice is one of many evidence-based teaching and learning methods gaining favor in the classroom. Although the concept itself isn’t new, the interest in such practices means that there are plenty of resources to check out both on- and offline.

The book referenced in this post, Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, is a good place to start learning more about not only retrieval practice, but also about spaced retrieval, interleaving, dual coding and more. The Learning Scientists also have an informative website and an engaging podcast.

A number of educators have shared ideas on using retrieval practice (among other methods) via their blogs or Twitter pages. For example, the Effortful Educator is a blogger who develops lessons using evidence-based practices. His blog’s “retrieval practice” tag links to several relevant posts. There is even a website devoted solely to retrieval practice information and strategies.

Beyond that, searching for “evidence-based” or “brain-based” learning, in addition to “retrieval practice,” will lead you to further resources, such as posts on blogs like Edutopia.

About the blogger:

Jesika Brooks

Jesika Brooks is an editor and bookworm with a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She works in the field of higher education as an educational technology librarian, assisting with everything from setting up Learning Management Systems to teaching students how to use edtech tools. A lifelong learner herself, she has always been fascinated by the intersection of education and technology. She edits the Tech-Based Teaching blog (and always wants to hear from new voices!).

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