Debunking The Study, Study, Study Myth

Some people think that ramming information into their brain over and over again is the best way to learn it. That’s the equivalent of hitting your head with a hammer.

Studying the same information over and over again has its limits. Newer research shows that the missing ingredient to many study routines is practice with retrieval (Karpicke, 2012).

What is retrieval?

Retrieval is the process of recovering knowledge and information from long-term memory, where it was encoded for just such a purpose. Retrieval is instigated by a retrieval cue, which is a query, experience or event that activates associated knowledge.

Importance of the Retrieval Cue

Retrieval cues are important because they are the key that unlocks the information. Imagine a newly graduated class of emergency medical workers. They all passed the test, but how many of them will be able to recall the specific knowledge required to handle a unique emergency situation? Only those who have the appropriately fine-tuned retrieval cues available can recover the necessary information.

Is it really that simple?

Actually, no. Retrieval isn’t quite that simple. In his article, Retrieval-based Learning, associate professor Jeffrey Karpicke states, “People do not store static, exact copies of experiences that are reproduced verbatim at retrieval. Instead, knowledge is actively reconstructed on the basis of the present context and available retrieval cues.”

How Retrieval Enhances Learning and Retention

A memory is reconstructed in the moment, depending on interactions of context, retrieval cues, and memory processes themselves. This flexibility gives us the ability to apply our knowledge to a variety of situations.

It is this very act of reconstruction that makes retrieval so important. Retrieval appears to modify the memory in anticipation of how we might need it in the future. It seems to fine-tune the correspondence between cue and matching knowledge. Repeated retrieval may also limit the set of information that is sorted through to find an answer.

The Little Known Formula for Long-term Retention

Retrieval-based learning appears to be an underused strategy for long-term retention. It involves repeatedly recalling information across multiple study and recall sessions. Interestingly, this technique does not appear to take more time than re-studying material.

In one study of college students who were given a text to read, practicing retrieval one time doubled their long-term retention when compared to the group that simply read the text once with no recall. The group that practiced repeated retrieval increased retention to 80% (Karpicke, 2012; McDaniel, Howard, & Einstein, 2009).

Retrieval-based Learning in the Workplace

In the world of adult learning, there are many jobs that require remembering vast amounts of information. Retrieval-based learning could be an effective strategy.

Consider all the responsibilities that involve quick decision-making, when there isn’t time to seek external support. Consider all the people who have entered a new position prematurely, before they were fully prepared. Also consider all the workers who simply have no means of external support and must remember everything.

Here are some strategies that learning experience designers can use to facilitate retrieval-based learning.

  1. Enhance metacognition. Many people predict that if they simply re-study material it will increase retention. This is not the most effective approach. Help learners see that a more effective strategy for enhancing learning and long-term retention is to repeatedly practice recalling the information one has studied (Karpicke, 2012).
  2. Practice with real-world scenarios. Studies show the importance of context in retrieval. When participants repeatedly retrieve knowledge in a testing environment, they perform better on the test. It makes sense then that if recovering and reconstructing knowledge is tied to context, increasing retrieval during a wide range of simulations or real-world scenarios should have a similar effect.
  3. Provide multiple self-checks and exercises. Since repeated recall has been shown to increase long-term retention, provide multiple opportunities for learners to test themselves for critical information, even when they have proven they know the material. Of course, most learners would not bother with a second self-check activity unless they were informed about the effectiveness of retrieval-based learning.
  4. Provide opportunities for group discussions. After a learning event, take advantage of discussions (either online or in-person) that facilitate the recall of critical knowledge. Do this with focused questioning.

What has your experience been as a learner or designer with retrieval-based learning? Comment below.

References:

  1. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21: 157
  2. Karpicke, J. D. &  Roediger, H. L., Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 2007 57: 151-162.
  3. McDaniel, M. A., Howard, D. C., & Einstein, G. O., The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. Psychological Science, 2009: 20, 516–522.
  4. Roediger, H. L. (2000). Why retrieval is the key process in understanding human memory. In E. Tulving (Ed.), Memory, consciousness, and the brain: The Tallinn conference (pp. 52–75). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

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Comments

  1. Kapil Aggarwal says

    Most eLearning I have developed has the structure as follows –
    Intro – Topic 1 – Topic 2 – Interactivity – Game – Topics … Summary – Assessment

    From what you are saying … I am thinking it might be a good idea to do away with the assessment at the end .. i never figured that out? why is it always at the end … after every 1 – 2 topics covered one can have 4 – 5 assessment questions … will work as recall (if feedback is given) and also test attention …

    What could be the pros and cons?
    Has anyone developed such courses?

  2. Rahul says

    1. This seems a fancy term for q/a after a session.
    2. is the retrieval auto modified by the person’s brain depending on the context/situation? How can I test this?

    Thanks

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Rahul,
    Yes, it can be a self-check after study. Or it can be practice in the real world, discussion, interactions. The point is anything that facilitates retrieval should work. I don’t understand your second question. As far as testing it out, you’ll have to come up with your own experiment for that.
    Connie

  4. Rahul says

    I was refering to (‘ memory is reconstructed in the moment, depending on interactions of context, retrieval cues, and memory processes themselves. This flexibility gives us the ability to apply our knowledge to a variety of situations’) for my second question

  5. Rahul says

    Kapil, In here, we factor the duration of a course when deciding where the assessment should come. If a segment runs for 30min, we would have assessment / summary after 15min and one in the end to wrap things up.

    Cons?: some of our technical topics runs long and finding a logical break becomes difficult to insert assessment.

  6. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Rahul,
    It sounds like you’re really thinking things through. It’s good to also remember that retrieval can occur in other ways than through assessments (in case you want to mix it up). Interactive exercises, learning games, online and face-to-face discussions and real world practice should promote retrieval too. Thanks for your comment.
    Best,
    Connie

  7. Mindy says

    My experience with learners has been that they are able to best retrieve information when they have been able to use verbal and visual clues to assist in the retrieval. Traditional classrooms offer easy access to presenting new content in multiple ways and in personal experiences with online learning, instructors have forgotten the importance of presenting information in a variety of ways. Online discussions have greatly increased my ability to recall and retain the information that has been presented through readings. While reading course materials, I have often found that I can visualize and relate what I am reading to a proper experience or moment in time; however, I can easily forget the pictures and content that were going through my head. Discussions have been a great benefits because they allow me to make those connections multiple times and to think about and answer questions based upon course content. The questions that are then posed by my classmates assist in elaborating upon the experience and I have found that I am able to better remember and recall the course content that has been presented. While creating courses, developers should remember the benefits that discussion boards can create; however, they must ensure that instructors are willing to put the time into facilitating and monitoring discussion board posts.

    Thank you for sharing the information you have presented in your blog!

  8. Connie Malamed says

    You have lots of great points here, Mindy. It’s good to hear how well discussions (and thus elaboration) helps you with retrieval. I have had the same experience. Thanks for adding your insights. Please comment again.
    Best,
    Connie

  9. N. Pomeroy says

    I’m new to reading this blog, so please forgive me if this has been covered elsewhere.

    I’ve read this post and the related ones, and I’m wondering if there could be a real benefit to making explicit the organization the content to aid in the retrieval of the content.

    I agree with Karpicke (2012, p.158) when he notes, “instructional practices have placed a premium on identifying the best ways to encode knowledge and experiences…There seems to be a tacit assumption that successful encoding or construction of knowledge, in itself, is sufficient to ensure learning.” However, I think adding the additional retrieval cue of explicit organization or chunking may be able to aid learners for each additional retrieval.

    I’ll give a simple example: if I’ve been told that I need to memorize a procedure that requires 3 sequential steps, and the three steps are “alphabetical” in that the main action of each step is in order alphabetically, I have one more cure for remembering the procedure, and a place to start reconstructing the list if I get lost. I think certain mnemonic devices do this implicitly (like acronyms, for example, give an explicit predetermined order to keywords), but I can’t remember a time that I’ve seen the content organization explicitly called out in the instruction.

    That aside, I find it fascinating that Karpicke’s article takes to task the idea of “meaningful” learning as a description of the artificiality (or lack thereof) of retrieval methods.


    Karpicke, Jeffrey D., (2012) Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3) 157–163

  10. Emma Tameside says

    I’m a distance learning tutor, however I don’t feel that there is a replacement for good old fashioned studying. In my experience, when students can work and study at their own pace, they generate far better results on average.

  11. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Emma,
    Actually, this article isn’t saying that study is a bad thing to do, rather that it should be alternated with retrieval practice. Thanks for your comment.
    Connie

  12. Connie Malamed says

    Great comment here. I agree that this type of mnemonic device could be quite useful, and it’s also based on organization of content, which is another important aspect of encoding. Thanks for pulling all of this together, N.
    Connie

  13. Shyamala Mourouvapin says

    Hello N. Pomeroy,

    I am an IDT student and this is my first time responding to a blog. This blog on cognition is of particular interest to me both as a learner and a teacher. My reading assignments for this week covered this topic in great detail and this blog actually gives me an opportunity to share what I have learned. In a way, your response to “Debunking The Study, Study, Study Myth” has kick-started my retrieval process into action! I also read the related blogs in this site and the one you have of Jeffrey Karpicke. I would like to break down your post so that I can respond to each of them separately. You wrote:
    1. I’m wondering if there could be a real benefit to making explicit the organization the content to aid in the retrieval of the content.
    I don’t know if this is a rhetorical question, a statement or a real question that you are seeking to answer. But, my understanding of organization as a learning principle does not come from learning theories per se but from my knowledge of structuralism. Though, a bit out-dated for our times, for me, it still holds the rudimentary tenets of language and thought. A French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure posited that human beings understand the world in binary oppositions. Our brain tends to retain knowledge when it organizes everything as polar opposites. The Gestalt theory states that the information is retained better if the material is well organized. At the same time, memory research has shown that “even when items to be learned are not organized, people often impose organization on the material, which facilitates recall” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 70). I suppose automatic organizational capacity in the human brain is how we make sense of this world.
    2. However, I think adding the additional retrieval cue of explicit organization or chunking may be able to aid learners for each additional retrieval.
    You have given a very good example of acronyms as mnemonic device. In my opinion, retrieval of any information is possible only if it is meaningful. According to the encoding specificity hypothesis, “the manner in which knowledge is encoded determines which retrieval cues will effectively activate knowledge” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 83). Most information gets lost in the countless matrices of our brain because they do not relate to the existing knowledge. The information a learner receives must thus activate the schemata. A schema organizes large chunks of information into meaningful system (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.72). This also can function as a retrieval cue. Let me illustrate this by giving an example. Say in a Fairy Tale study group, the instructor asks the students to write a piece with a contemporary touch. The schema that the students have acquired either in their childhood by listening to fairy tales or through literature courses they have taken, would be activated at the time of writing. Even without an explicit prompt of how the fairy tale is organized, the students will immediately retrieve a mental picture of the fairy tale beginning and ending as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after”. In this case, the cue would be “Fairy Tale” and does not need an explicit organization.
    That said, even though I agree with your argument that making explicit the organization of the content will aid in the retrieval of the content, I think the lack thereof would actually instigate the learners to use metacognitive strategies. This is important when learners need to retrieve and use the knowledge in a situation different than when they acquired it. This is called as “Far transfer” (Lang, 2013). James Lang uses Susan Ambrose’s book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, to illustrate his point. I have given the reference for this very interesting article, which really made me rethink course design from the cognitive and metacognitive perspective. Hopefully, it helps the future readers of this blog.

    References:

    Lang, J. M. (2013). Why don’t they apply what they have learned Part I. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Dont-They-Apply-What/136753/

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

    Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916) Cours de linguistique générale. Ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot; trans. W. Baskin, Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.

  14. Shyamala Mourouvapin says

    Hello N. Pomeroy,

    I am an IDT student and this is my first time responding to a blog. This blog on cognition is of particular interest to me both as a learner and a teacher. My reading assignments for this week covered this topic in great detail and this blog actually gives me an opportunity to share what I have learned. In a way, your response to “Debunking The Study, Study, Study Myth” has kick-started my retrieval process into action! I also read the related blogs in this site and the one you have of Jeffrey Karpicke. I would like to break down your post so that I can respond to each of them separately. You wrote:
    1. I’m wondering if there could be a real benefit to making explicit the organization the content to aid in the retrieval of the content.
    I don’t know if this is a rhetorical question, a statement or a real question that you are seeking to answer. But, my understanding of organization as a learning principle does not come from learning theories per se but from my knowledge of structuralism. Though, a bit out-dated for our times, for me, it still holds the rudimentary tenets of language and thought. A French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure posited that human beings understand the world in binary oppositions. Our brain tends to retain knowledge when it organizes everything as polar opposites. The Gestalt theory states that the information is retained better if the material is well organized. At the same time, memory research has shown that “even when items to be learned are not organized, people often impose organization on the material, which facilitates recall” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 70). I suppose automatic organizational capacity in the human brain is how we make sense of this world.
    2. However, I think adding the additional retrieval cue of explicit organization or chunking may be able to aid learners for each additional retrieval.
    You have given a very good example of acronyms as mnemonic device. In my opinion, retrieval of any information is possible only if it is meaningful. According to the encoding specificity hypothesis, “the manner in which knowledge is encoded determines which retrieval cues will effectively activate knowledge” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 83). Most information gets lost in the countless matrices of our brain because they do not relate to the existing knowledge. The information a learner receives must thus activate the schemata. A schema organizes large chunks of information into meaningful system (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.72). This also can function as a retrieval cue. Let me illustrate this by giving an example. Say in a Fairy Tale study group, the instructor asks the students to write a piece with a contemporary touch. The schema that the students have acquired either in their childhood by listening to fairy tales or through literature courses they have taken, would be activated at the time of writing. Even without an explicit prompt of how the fairy tale is organized, the students will immediately retrieve a mental picture of the fairy tale beginning and ending as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after”. In this case, the cue would be “Fairy Tale” and does not need an explicit organization.
    That said, even though I agree with your argument that making explicit the organization of the content will aid in the retrieval of the content, I think the lack thereof would actually instigate the learners to use metacognitive strategies. This is important when learners need to retrieve and use the knowledge in a situation different than when they acquired it. This is called as “Far transfer” (Lang, 2013). James Lang uses Susan Ambrose’s book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, to illustrate his point. I have given the reference for this very interesting article, which really made me rethink course design from the cognitive and metacognitive perspective. Hopefully, it helps the future readers of this blog.

    References:

    Lang, J. M. (2013). Why don’t they apply what they have learned Part I. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Dont-They-Apply-What/136753/

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

    Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916) Cours de linguistique générale. Ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot; trans. W. Baskin, Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.

  15. Shyamala Mourouvapin says

    This is in response to Mr/Ms. N. Pomeroy.

    Hello N. Pomeroy,

    I am an IDT student and this is my first time responding to a blog. This blog on cognition is of particular interest to me both as a learner and a teacher. My reading assignments for this week covered this topic in great detail and this blog actually gives me an opportunity to share what I have learned. In a way, your response to “Debunking The Study, Study, Study Myth” has kick-started my retrieval process into action! I also read the related blogs in this site and the one you have of Jeffrey Karpicke. I would like to break down your post so that I can respond to each of them separately. You wrote:
    1. I’m wondering if there could be a real benefit to making explicit the organization the content to aid in the retrieval of the content.
    I don’t know if this is a rhetorical question, a statement or a real question that you are seeking to answer. But, my understanding of organization as a learning principle does not come from learning theories per se but from my knowledge of structuralism. Though, a bit out-dated for our times, for me, it still holds the rudimentary tenets of language and thought. A French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure posited that human beings understand the world in binary oppositions. Our brain tends to retain knowledge when it organizes everything as polar opposites. The Gestalt theory states that the information is retained better if the material is well organized. At the same time, memory research has shown that “even when items to be learned are not organized, people often impose organization on the material, which facilitates recall” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 70). I suppose automatic organizational capacity in the human brain is how we make sense of this world.
    2. However, I think adding the additional retrieval cue of explicit organization or chunking may be able to aid learners for each additional retrieval.
    You have given a very good example of acronyms as mnemonic device. In my opinion, retrieval of any information is possible only if it is meaningful. According to the encoding specificity hypothesis, “the manner in which knowledge is encoded determines which retrieval cues will effectively activate knowledge” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 83). Most information gets lost in the countless matrices of our brain because they do not relate to the existing knowledge. The information a learner receives must thus activate the schemata. A schema organizes large chunks of information into meaningful system (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.72). This also can function as a retrieval cue. Let me illustrate this by giving an example. Say in a Fairy Tale study group, the instructor asks the students to write a piece with a contemporary touch. The schema that the students have acquired either in their childhood by listening to fairy tales or through literature courses they have taken, would be activated at the time of writing. Even without an explicit prompt of how the fairy tale is organized, the students will immediately retrieve a mental picture of the fairy tale beginning and ending as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after”. In this case, the cue would be “Fairy Tale” and does not need an explicit organization.
    That said, even though I agree with your argument that making explicit the organization of the content will aid in the retrieval of the content, I think the lack thereof would actually instigate the learners to use metacognitive strategies. This is important when learners need to retrieve and use the knowledge in a situation different than when they acquired it. This is called as “Far transfer” (Lang, 2013). James Lang uses Susan Ambrose’s book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, to illustrate his point. I have given the reference for this very interesting article, which really made me rethink course design from the cognitive and metacognitive perspective. Hopefully, it helps the future readers of this blog.

    References:

    Lang, J. M. (2013). Why don’t they apply what they have learned Part I. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Dont-They-Apply-What/136753/

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

    Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916) Cours de linguistique générale. Ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot; trans. W. Baskin, Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.

  16. Richard Larson says

    I read somewhere that understanding the material before you, rather than just blind memorization helps in better retrieval of concepts. Another great post by you, Connie!

  17. Taffy Davis says

    In the nursing world, we can break retrieval and retention down to it’s simplest form: see one, do one, teach one. With well placed questions/assessment, one can determine how high up Bloom’s pyramid the person has risen. It is challenging to move from face 2 face to elearning.

    P.S. As a nurse starting to move into the instructional design realm, this site has great content! Thank you.

  18. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Taffy,
    I am fascinated by the “teach one” concept coming after “do one.” I think it’s a brilliant way to increase retention, as long as the new teacher has straightened out any misconceptions. Thanks for your comment and kind words.
    Best,
    Connie

  19. Nicola Bamford says

    Hi Connie,

    What your thoughts are on how the type of device (e.g. smartphone, tablet) the learner was using could impact encoding and retrieval?

  20. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Nicola,
    That’s a really good question and it would be best to rely on research evidence for the answer. Unfortunately, I don’t know of studies, but there might be some. I do know that how content is presented, in terms of media, can affect the way it is encoded, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the device affects encoding too. Let us know if you find anything.
    Connie

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