In a culture that requires shortcuts to improving performance—microlearning, performance support, and getting quick answers from colleagues—we may forget that there is still a need to build long-term capabilities. From healthcare workers dealing with an emergency to front-line sales staff speaking with customers, there are many reasons why adult learners need to develop long-term retention of knowledge. And to reach competence as efficiently as possible.
Best Strategy for Long-term Retention
The traditional approach to long-term learning, which requires a person to recall and use knowledge, is repeated study. But studying the same information over and over again (known as massed study) has its limits. Fortunately, there is a more efficient approach.
Consistent research demonstrates that the missing ingredient to many study routines is practice with retrieval, also known as the testing effect (Karpicke, 2012). Repeated practice of recalling information is a more effective learning strategy for long-term retention than repeated study. This does not mean that studying is unimportant; it means that repeated study is less effective than repeated retrieval practice. (Listen to my interview with an educational researcher who discusses this or download the transcript.)
Encoding versus Retrieval
A little background first. Cognitive theory differentiates between two processes of human memory: encoding and retrieval. Encoding is the process of storing information in long-term memory, and retrieval is the process of accessing learned information. Retrieval starts with 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 firefighters. They all passed the test, but how many of them will be able to recall the specific knowledge required to handle a unique 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 one sorts 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).
Information is More Resilient This Way
Information that people acquire through repeated retrieval practice has different attributes when compared with that of repeated study. A summary of the research concludes:
- information is more resistant to interference
- shows a lower forgetting rate; and
- remains accessible in situations where a person must multitask when attentional processes are heavily loaded
(Racsmány, Szollosi, & Bencze, 2018).
Retrieval Practice 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. For example, consider all the job roles that involve quick decision-making, when there isn’t time to seek external support. Also, consider all the roles where there is simply no means of external support so that the person 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. If the context of learning affects how we reconstruct knowledge, then practicing retrieval in a wide range of simulations will probably have a similar effect.
3. Provide multiple self-checks and exercises.
Since repeated recall increases long-term retention, provide multiple opportunities for learners to test themselves for critical information. You may need to inform learners about the effectiveness of retrieval-based learning to motivate them to complete a second self-check.
4. Spaced retrieval practice.
Spacing the retrieval practice over time is more effective than massed retrieval practice.
5. 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.
For more on retrieval practice for long-term retention, see The Cognitive Science and Implementation of Retrieval Practice.
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.
- Racsmány, M., Szollosi, A., & Bencze, D. Retrieval Practice Makes Procedure from Remembering: An Automatization Account of the Testing Effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2018, v44 n1 p157-166.
- Roediger, H. L. 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, 2000.