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Study Strategy: Retrieval Practice

Having worked with 250,000 students over a 10-year period we are well versed in their needs and demands when preparing for exams.

We are particularly aware of the fundamental mistakes that can be made when it comes to learning and revision. As an interested parent, it will probably not come as a surprise to you to learn that two of the most common study strategies claimed by students to be effective for them, are in fact, according to evidence, the most ineffective. Those strategies are of course the comfort blankets of: re-reading notes and highlighting.

When students simply read and re-read their notes they are quite often fooling themselves: believing they know the material when in fact they often just recognise it. In the science of memory recognition is a fundamentally different concept to recall.

When students recognise material, it often gives them a false sense of security ... "I've seen this information before, I get it, therefore I know it". Recognition might work for the odd multiple-choice test but we should never rely on it! The acid test of whether a student really knows and understands material lies in their ability to be able to recall (or retrieve) the information from memory, essentially what cognitive scientists call retrieval practice.

The Evidence Base

There is now conclusive evidence from the world of the science of learning that retrieval practice (bringing information to mind) is extremely beneficial as a study strategy and, luckily, it is a very simple and equally powerful technique.

Fortunately, much of this plethora of research is also very accessible to lay people (non-academics)!  For example, in his research, Roediger,  (one of the authors of the excellent book – ‘Make it Stick’) found that retrieval practice helps with future retention; it enables students to identify gaps in knowledge quite quickly and produces better organization of knowledge.

Among others, Cranney et al (2009) and McDermott et al (2014) have also written on the benefits and effectiveness of retrieval practice as a strategy for learning and retention.

Practical Application

Retrieval practice can take a number of forms:

1. Quizzing (Individual or Peer)
Students should try self-generating questions on flashcards and, without looking at material, quiz themselves on it. Or better still – they could get together with a classmate or family member and do this. It’s imperative that they try to explain their thinking and elaborate on answers where possible.

2. Past Paper Questions
They should take as many practice tests as possible. Past papers are easily found on exam body websites (one example: CCEA Past Papers ). It’s best if they set themselves up at home as if in an actual exam to become familiar with test conditions. Make sure they review their answers to find out what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know and need to re-learn or review again.

3. Recall on a Blank Sheet
They should put away all class materials, textbooks etc and recall from memory (e.g write or sketch) everything they know about a selected topic. It works best to do this as a pre-test (at the beginning of a study session) or after a break.

Retrieval practice is best used with spaced practice (spacing out study over time). In other words, test and retest to ensure key information is being remembered. We shall return to spaced practice in more detail in next week’s blog. If you’re interested in our Study System, it is based on the principles of spaced and retrieval practice. We will also be reviewing the evidence around the use of highlighters in a later blog! Stay tuned.