Retrieval practice may well be our best bet for helping students learn and retain information. As well as playing a key role within the classroom, retrieval practice is arguably one of the most effective ways to revise.
Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that has been very well studied, with research consistently demonstrating its effectiveness. But exactly makes it so effective? What are the underlying mechanisms of retrieval practice that helps students learn at a faster rate? Let’s take a closer look to find out…
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice is essentially the process of generating an answer to a question. Not only does it allow students to test how much they have retained of a certain piece of information, it exercises their retrieval of it.
Research has shown that not only is retrieval practice a highly effective learning strategy, but also that its effects can be seen across many different disciplines, including vocabulary, maths and science.
There are many ways to apply retrieval practice practically, with strategies including:
- Using past papers
- Doing multiple-choice tests
- Using flashcards
- Answering questions out loud
- Writing down everything you remember
- Sketching your answer out
Why is retrieval practice effective?
Real and deep learning happens when we transfer information from our short-term memory stores into our long-term memory stores. Retrieval practice supports this process because it requires students to recall previously-learned information. This creates stronger memory traces and increases the chance that the information is retained.
What are the benefits of retrieval practice?
We have established how retrieval practice works and that it is highly effective for learning, but what specific benefits are there to using retrieval practice?
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1. Identifies gaps in knowledge
Using retrieval practice techniques can make gaps in students’ knowledge of a certain topic or concept a lot more obvious. For example, if a student is asked to explain a certain concept out loud in detail and isn’t able to, they may realise that this is an area of knowledge that needs more revision.
Identifying these gaps in knowledge is important, and students should make sure that they go over these gaps again to retain the relevant information. Continuously re-evaluating which areas of knowledge need more attention than others is vital to top performance in the classroom.
2. Makes connections
Research has shown that expending more cognitive effort on a task may result in better performance.
Retrieval practice is an active process, requiring lots of cognitive effort. Students who engage with retrieval practice strategies are therefore thinking harder about the information that they have to remember, and make inferences and connections with previously-learned information. This may help consolidate and bring together a wide range of academic information, resulting in improved academic performance.
3. Checks for misunderstandings
Similarly to identifying gaps in knowledge, retrieval practice is able to clearly point out to students if they have misunderstood a certain concept. For example, if a student uses retrieval practice strategies in order to study a specific topic and answers a question incorrectly, they may notice that they have misunderstood an entire concept or key idea.
Identifying misunderstandings is vital to making sure that students understand the whole concept and are able to explain it. Students should make sure to keep evaluating their knowledge, going over areas that may be confusing. This is where areas such as metacognition become important.
4. Strengthening connections
It is not enough for students to have previously made connections within their schema. Unfortunately, we all forget far more than we would like, with this rate of forgetting being quite steep. Therefore, one round of retrieval practice isn’t enough. We have to repeat this process regularly, in order to imbed and cement it.
Using different strategies to revise the same content over and over strengthens the connections made between new information and previously-learned information even further.
5. Makes connections robust under pressure and stress
Stress is like kryptonite to memory. Our focus of attention becomes very narrow, meaning it is hard to search for a range of alternative explanations. This is one of the reasons students may find exams stressful.
And yet, research has demonstrated that students who revised using retrieval practice actually feel less anxious and are also more likely to recall key information when under increased pressure (i.e. in their final exams).
6. Makes it easier to learn new things
This one is a bonus benefit of retrieval practice. We have previously blogged about the Matthew Effect, which describes how the rich get richer – the same is true for knowledge and memory. The more you know, the easier it is to learn new information, as you have more existing anchor points to hook this new information on to.
As retrieval practice is one of the most effective and efficient ways to learn things, it therefore it provides a firm foundation for future learning as well.
Retrieval practice is clearly a highly researched and highly effective strategy to help students learn information. Overall, retrieval practice makes learning more efficient. It helps students in a range of ways; from identifying gaps in knowledge, to making and strengthening connections, to helping perform in pressurised situations.
As with anything, it is of course possible to do retrieval practice badly. Careful consideration around implementation is always needed. But done right, may well prove to be the most beneficial strategy for student learning.