Retrieval Practice: A simple strategy to improve learning inside and outside the classroom

Retrieval practice is a well-known learning strategy which involves calling information to mind that has been previously stored in long-term memory. It is a straightforward and easily implemented tactic with an undeniable impact on learning, and relies on three arguments.

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First, trying to recall a memory can modify, reorganise, and consolidate it better in our long-term memory. Second, that action often creates additional retrieval pathways to that memory, making it easier to retrieve later on. Third, by searching for a memory, we tend to activate information connected to that memory and link it in a more networked and structured context for easier future access. All the cognitive processing that accompanies retrieval practice, which can be a struggle, strengthens memories and makes them more likely to be retrieved in the future.

How does retrieval practice work? By “calling information to mind”, we bring that information into our working memory. Therefore, in order to understand retrieval practice, we have to understand how memories are made, which was the topic of a previous article.

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We create long-lasting memories through the dialogue between working memory and long-term memory. Importantly, and perhaps not immediately apparent, an active memory retrieval can actually improve memory and boost learning. For example, students tend to highlight passages or take notes, before reviewing those or going over the entire text again.
However, cognitive scientists have found a far more effective way to improve memory and learning through retrieval practice, which involves the following: after reading new material for the first time and taking notes, students try to recall the most important information it contained without looking at either the text or their notes. Once they have completed the retrieval, they consult their material to see how accurate and complete their it was. Trying to simply recall information is a lot harder than re-reading a text or looking at notes, but it is precisely this struggle to recall that improves our memory. Retrieval practice works in at least four different ways.

First, the act of retrieving a memory modifies it. We do not store memories like video and audio files. Instead, when we retrieve a memory of any complexity, we actually re-construct it from the memory traces that constituted it when it was first made. Therefore, by struggling to retrieve a memory, we usually strengthen it, since it is being reassembled.
Second, when we go searching for a memory without the external trigger — or retrieval cues — of our notes or the text, we are creating a new retrieval pathway to find that memory, which means that next time, we can rely on our own trigger to find it, rather than some outside source.
Third, by searching for a memory, we are also likely to retrieve related information, and this can help organise memories and link them in ways that might make it easier to retrieve the needed information next time.
Lastly, when a student fails to retrieve the intended information, this failure can prove useful. It points out missing or inaccessible information that requires additional studying, thereby further strengthening the memory and making it more likely to be retrieved in the future. Retrieval of memories is a learning event and considerably more powerful than re-reading notes or highlighted passages, mainly because when re-reading our notes, the retrieval cues come from outside sources, meaning less effort is required to find the information. This ease of recognition makes us feel like we are learning more, when we are actually learning less, especially in the long-term.

Here are some suggestions and words of caution concerning retrieval practice.
First, it is important for students to receive feedback about the accuracy and completeness of their retrieval practice, be it from the teacher, their classmates, or their notes.
Another important aspect of retrieval practice is that it should not be graded, in order to encourage students to use this learning method whenever they can, rather than linking it to stress and performance anxiety. Retrieval practice can actually reduce these symptoms, because students become used to and confident in retrieving what they know from their memory.
Third, it is important that students have something in memory to retrieve in the first place. If they don’t know how to create long-lasting memories while studying, making sense of new information by using their prior knowledge and clues from their material, they may find themselves in class having remembered very little.
Finally, effective retrieval practice is difficult and involves struggle. Students need to know that this struggle is beneficial, because it means learning is taking place.

Content drawn from “_The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know_”, EdX: https://www.edx.org

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Gauthier Lebbe

Gauthier Lebbe

Inbound Marketing Manager @ Wooclap, interested in and excited about applying EdTech to the educational needs of today’s students