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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21: 157
- 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.
- McDaniel, M. A., Howard, D. C., & Einstein, G. O., The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. Psychological Science, 2009: 20, 516–522.
- 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.