Julia C. Phelan, Ph.D.
My husband Jay, who teaches biology, advises his students to practice writing short-answer essays when preparing for his course exams. His students know that there will be short-answer essay questions on the test, so why not practice and try to write some prior to the examination? The process of testing yourself and actively retrieving information helps increase your long-term retention of the concepts you have retrieved. Doing that which you will be required to do in a summative-testing situation not only can help enhance your retention of relevant ideas, but also help you identify areas in which you may need to spend more time studying. As cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork (2011) stated, “When we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access to that information. What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”
Even though self-testing has been shown to have tremendous value, many students ignore it when they are preparing for exams—perhaps because they are unaware of the benefits. Students tend to study in a very passive way, mostly by re-reading and highlighting class notes and textbooks. In one study, conducted by Henry Roediger of Washington University, students were asked to list their study strategies, and by far the most frequent strategy was repeated reading of notes and/or textbooks. When Roediger asked students how they study, he found that “they think they know it because they have read it so many times, but they haven’t practiced the skill they’ll need on the test, and that is retrieval.”
Students read their notes, re-read, outline, highlight, and then read some more. And in many cases, they don’t realize that they don’t actually know the material until it’s too late—when they take the exam.
Many studies (see Pyc & Rawson, 2010; Karpicke & Blunt, 2011; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006; Smith & Karpicke, 2014) point to the significant benefits of taking no-stakes practice quizzes to increase retention, memory, and even transfer of knowledge. This is called retrieval practice: you read about or learn something, and then later, you try and retrieve that information from your memory. This may take the form of trying to explain the idea to a classmate, or answering a practice question on a particular topic. What retrieval practice—which is a learning strategy—does is help us practice getting information from our memory and actively using it.
The key is that you have studied something and then some time has passed whereby you have forgotten the information—even just a little bit. To answer the practice question, you actively dig into your brain to retrieve it, and, lo and behold, you are strengthening your knowledge of those concepts. If you try and do this exercise right after you have read something or learned it, then you are likely just accessing something from your short-term memory. This has the unwanted side effect of making you think you know something a little better than you actually do. We’ve all had that experience where we look at a practice question in a textbook, think about it a little, and then flip to the answer in the back of the book. When we see the answer, we think, “Yes, that’s what I thought it was!” But how do we know? We didn’t write anything down, or select a response option, so we may be making an incorrect judgement of our own knowledge, which is not helpful in the long term.
The more you practice retrieving information, the more likely you are to be able to access it later and apply it to new situations. Practicing information retrieval by answering practice questions not only reinforces what you know, but also helps you identify things you don’t know as well. This allows you to focus more effectively and efficiently on areas of weakness. As Henry Roediger said, “Being tested on information a certain number of times is much better than simply studying the information an equivalent number of times, so long as a person gets feedback [the right answer] if she or he does not know the answer.”
Just as self-testing and retrieval are beneficial for learning, so is the practice of retrieval even when you think you already know something. If you study the capitals of the world’s countries using flashcards, and you think that you have mastered the fact that the capital of Turkey is Ankara, should you ditch that card? No, you should leave it in your stack and keep practicing retrieval. To have really good long-term learning, you need to keep coming back and retrieving information, even if you think you know it. Students often think that if they’ve answered something correctly, they have learned that topic and are now “done” with it. But only by using repeated retrieval practice will students’ long-term learning benefit.
Implementing Retrieval Practice Learning
To get the most out of retrieval practice students need to be aware of it and encouraged to implement it. Left to their own devices, students are likely to not engage in retrieval practice as part of the learning process. There are many ways to implement retrieval-based learning, including answering in-class questions, clicker questions, and taking no-stakes practice quizzes. But the idea is really incredibly simple—you have information you want to learn, you set it aside, and then you spend time trying to actively retrieve that information from your brain.
Tips for Incorporating Retrieval Practice Learning
Remember, retrieval practice is a learning strategy—not an assessment. It is important that students see taking practice quizzes as a learning opportunity rather than an evaluative measure.
Belluck, P. (2011). To really learn, quit studying and take a test. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html.
Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772–775.
Ornes, S. (2010). The memory test: Quizzing yourself while studying beats using the highlighter. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/memory-test.
Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2007). Examining the efficiency of schedules of distributed retrieval practice. Memory & Cognition, 35, 1917–1927.
Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.
Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple choice, and hybrid test formats. Memory, 22, 784–802.