Predicting or retrieving: which helps students learn better?

As educators, we’re always looking for ways to improve learning and retention. While Retrieval Practice is well established as a core strategy for helping students to remember and recall new information, research suggests that students can also achieve this by generating predictions about new learning material.

So, let’s take a closer look at each strategy and attempt to answer the questions: is it more effective to think about material before or after learning it? Or is it best to combine both?

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The difference between predicting and retrieving

Predicting requires students to take an educated guess about what will happen next. Some examples include predicting the outcome of a science experiment or which word will come next in within a text in a different language.

This approach is a Generative Learning strategy, as predicting activates students’ prior knowledge, which helps them make connections between what they know and what they are learning. It’s important to note that predicting is different from guessing – this does not appeal to students’ prior knowledge and is merely a stab in the dark.

On the other hand, Retrieval Practice involves recalling information from memory that they have already encountered before, for example by using flashcards, quizzes and past papers. The idea here is that consistently engaging in practice testing enhances retention and recall. This strategy has been proven time and time again to be one of the best bets for long-term learning.

So although predicting will involve an element of retrieval, it also has some additional factors that can help it lead to being a viable learning strategy:

Why Predicting Helps Learning

Research has shown that when students generate a prediction before knowing the correct answer, they have a better memory of the correct response. But how?

Predicting stimulates curiosity

One study gave participants a trivia test, and they either had to predict what they thought the answer was or generate an example related to the question. The researchers found that predicting led to higher curiosity ratings compared to simply generating an example.

Curiosity motivates students to bridge the gap between knowing and not knowing something, which means they put in the effort to find out the answer to a problem. Research has shown that curious students learn at a faster rate. Therefore, generating predictions can help students have the desire to find out why their initial prediction is right or not and be more engaged in the learning process.

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Predicting boosts surprise

When predicting, students are likely to make mistakes in their responses. So, when students think their prediction is right, they are surprised when they realise that their answer is wrong – and this process of making errors is crucial for learning to happen.

Specifically, one recent study found that participants’ pupils dilated when they received the correct answer to predictions, which demonstrates surprise and enhanced attention. The researchers found that pupil dilation was associated with more successful retrieval in the future.

Here, we see that the sense of surprise that students experience during corrective feedback makes them pay more attention to learning material and, as a result, remember it better in the long run.

The drawbacks of predicting

Although predicting enhances student recall and retention, it can also be a risky strategy. If students make incorrect predictions, they may become disengaged with the material or feel confused if they struggle to find links with what they already know. However, creating a psychologically safe environment can make students more willing to engage and ask questions about their learning.

Predicting vs retrieving: evaluating the pros and cons

Considering the research, we can see that predicting is great at capturing students’ attention in the initial stages of learning, and it supports future learning by cultivating curiosity. On the flip side, if students are just given the answers from the start and told to practice them with Retrieval Practice techniques, they may be less motivated to engage with it.

However, it’s easy for students to forget the information that they may pick up when they generate predictions, therefore constantly retrieving information helps to imbed memory connections. Then, students will find it easier to remember new knowledge from the links they have made to what they already know.

So, what’s the verdict?

While generating predictions helps students to secure new knowledge at the beginning stages, retrieval supports long-term retention of that knowledge. So, it’s hard to say that one strategy is better than the other overall. Therefore, you can make the most out of the benefits of retrieving and predicting by incorporating both techniques into your teaching.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, both strategies enhance learning. Tasking your students to make predictions about what they’ll learn next when you are teaching a new concept and then encouraging them to use retrieval to cement this knowledge reaps the benefits of both techniques. As a result, your students can improve their comprehension, memory, recall and overall learning success.

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