If you smugly chose the alluring quadruple study option or took a gamble on the newfangled concept map, it’s likely that a week from now your memory would be letting you down. A recent paper in Science by Karpicke & Blunt at Purdue University reports an experiment along these lines. Testing oneself or engaging in retrieval practice had the greatest benefit for being able to remember facts from the passage and for drawing inferences that required putting these facts together. But it seems so counterintuitive that testing yourself on information could be better than thoroughly studying material or building elaborate diagrams. Surely students would all be on the honor roll if only they put in that much effort!
The experiment described earlier provides evidence for the limits of that view by demonstrating the role that tests can play in learning. Psychological research on human memory emphasizes processes involved in encoding information, but also the key role of the processes involved in retrieval. Although there isn’t a clear consensus, one reason testing knowledge helps learning may be that it helps people lay down pathways and cues to information that allow them to access it later. Simply reading a text may not do that automatically, but trying to retrieve elements of that text does.
A skeptic might point out that the key issue is that the experiment wasn’t a fair test – isn’t a recall test just more similar to the later questions than the concept map? Why not test learning through drawing a concept map? A second experiment addressed this issue, having people draw a concept map or do study-test-study-test retrieval practice, then draw a concept map a week later. Remarkably, retrieval practice resulted in a more accurate concept map, than having drawn a concept map a week earlier! Practice in retrieving the relevant information made it more accessible and available for later use.
While awaiting these answers, we can profit from the research that has been done so far. Are there times you’ve fallen prey to the “bucket model” in your own learning, or trying to teach others? What are situations where you could benefit from using retrieval practice? A friend mentioned to me that after years of taking notes during academic talks and never remembering them, he abandoned the practice and made a point of not making notes until later that night. While counterintuitive, it aligns with the principle of retrieval practice.
What I find most fascinating about retrieval practice is that it makes me rethink how information is structured in my mind. Knowing something isn’t just a matter of having encoded it and placed it in the bucket. Truly knowing requires storing information so that it will be retrieved and accessed later – understanding its purpose, knowing when and where it will be needed, and practicing the act of accessing it in the right situations. That theory of knowledge sounds much more like a brain than a bucket.
The article: Karpicke JD, & Blunt JR (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6018), 772-5 PMID: 21252317