Using Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

Source: NYTimes, Sep 2011

A second learning technique, known as “retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool — the test — in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it. We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.

According to one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80 percent of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them. Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways, reported researchers from Purdue University earlier this year.

Students — and parents — may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety. It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).

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