Information Retrieval Practice
By Ulrich Boser of The Learning Agency Lab
When it comes to learning, people are often focused on memorizing facts. But experts argue that people should be more focused on getting information out of their heads via brain dumps, summaries, and quizzes.These types of active learning strategies are known as retrieval practice.
Retrieval practice is one of the most well-researched learning strategies. The approach works for a wide variety of people across contexts.
One such study explored how well people can remember lists of words. In the study, psychologists had one group read (or “study”) a word list for a period of time, so they could try to remember as much as they could. Another group practiced remembering the words through testing: they would cover the list up, try to remember all they could, see what they missed, and repeat again. Those who practiced retrieval (or self-testing) remembered more words than those who merely re-read or studied. “Spacing,” or pausing between retrieval exercises, allows for the brain to rest and forget some information. Self-testing after “spacing” increases information recall and promotes long-term learning.
Learning scientist Pooja Agarwal describes retrieval practice well. “It is a powerful strategy that boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads (e.g., quizzes, clickers, and flashcards), rather than cramming information into students’ heads (e.g., lectures). It’s a no-stakes learning opportunity that is flexible and quick, with a huge impact on long-term student achievement. If you think about your very first childhood friend, you probably weren’t thinking about them until right this moment. Going back and thinking of something and sort of bringing it up—that’s what scientists call retrieval,” she said.
While retrieval practice often can take the form of a quiz or short essay. It is not the same as an assessment but is simply a learning activity. The activity should have little or no grade impact. Also, retrieval practice is more effective when it occurs in short spurts versus one long study session. This allows learners to have time to forget some of the information and attempt to recall it, which helps the information stick.
Generally, people tend to believe that they are more knowledgeable about specific topics than they actually are. Most people believe they are better looking than average. They also tend to think they are smarter and know more information than the average person. Participating in retrieval practice combats this sort of overconfidence. It allows learners to see exactly what they can remember and gives educators a chance to provide tips and feedback along the way. For example, some learners suffer because they are overconfident in what they believe they have retained, often having notes as a crutch. When convinced that they have all of the required knowledge on a certain subject, learners tend to become, well, lazy. They study less and don’t try to assess or correct themselves while learning. Retrieval practice helps prevent this sense of false security, which in turn allows learners to study efficiently, targeting the information they cannot recall.
Similarly, learners have the tendency to believe that because they are familiar with a topic, they must know everything about the topic. Being repeatedly exposed to a particular subject does not equate to comprehension of that topic. Retrieval practice causes learners to measure what they are familiar with against what they actually have learned. In other words, retrieval practice forces learners to think critically about what they have learned instead of simply repeating the first piece of information that comes to mind.
The research on learning as a type of “mental doing” has altered the wisdom surrounding how people retain knowledge. After reviewing the research, Kent State’s John Dunlosky and some colleagues discovered that highlighting was an ineffective means of learning new information. This act does not push people enough mentally to influence any meaningful learning. Dunlosky added that simply re-reading text was not very beneficial either. The most effective techniques were the ones that required more effort, self-quizzing, or self-explaining, for example.
Students need to pinpoint what exactly they’re going to learn. Then they need to create some type of mental connection between their current knowledge and the new information they have yet to absorb. Encouraging students to overcome difficult obstacles or dissect complex issues helps the brain retain more information in the long run. This is because practicing your ability to solve problems teaches you to apply the knowledge already in your brain that is waiting to be put to use, thus aiding in its permanence. “This is a fundamental feature of how our minds work,” said Dunlosky. To learn, “we’re not just copying the information. We are making sense out of facts.” #
How to Encourage Retrieval
Brain Dumps: In this exercise, learners write down everything they can think of on a topic to test their knowledge.
Concept Maps: A learner may fill out a concept map to encourage retrieval. They are beneficial since they allow a person to see the bigger picture instead of just individual pieces of a puzzle. Concept maps also allow learners to group important information together and establish meaningful connections.
Flashcards: Students should keep cards in their deck until they have retrieved the information at least three times. They should also consciously and vocally recall the information before turning the card over to review the answer.
Repeat Backs: The next time a student gets a set of detailed instructions, they should repeat the instructions back out loud. When students repeat back everything in their own words, they’re taking steps to generate knowledge and will be far more likely to remember the information long-term.
Think-Pair-Share: In this approach, learners think about a topic, jot down what they have learned, and share it with a partner. Learners should be allowed to think independently before exchanging information. For example, one teacher had students play a “Jeopardy” game. This allowed students to jot down answers before the problem was solved. Adding to that, Andrea realized that giving learners the opportunity to solve different problems increased their ability to retrieve “old” learning.
Things to keep in mind: Retrieval practice requires more than a test at the end of teaching a concept. Retrieval should be used before the test for practice. Teachers should provide feedback. Learners can always review the right answer, but they will get better at identifying what they know and don’t know if given constructive feedback.