January 23, 2011
Practice Memory Retrieval To Learn Faster

Instead of repeatedly rereading the same textbook or other material it is better to get repeatedly tested to enhance memory storage and recall.

Put down those science text books and work at recalling information from memory. That's the shorthand take away message of new research from Purdue University that says practicing memory retrieval boosts science learning far better than elaborate study methods.

"Our view is that learning is not about studying or getting knowledge 'in memory,'" said Purdue psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, the lead investigator for the study that appears today in the journal Science. "Learning is about retrieving. So it is important to make retrieval practice an integral part of the learning process."

Educators traditionally rely on learning activities that encourage elaborate study routines and techniques focused on improving the encoding of information into memory. But, when students practice retrieval, they set aside the material they are trying to learn and instead practice calling it to mind.

This is far from the first research report to find this effect. This report just serves as an occasion to promote the wider understanding of this avenue of research.

If you are curious to know more Henry Roediger's Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis has done a lot of pioneering work in this area. What amazes and disappoints me is just how slow academia has been to use these research results to change how teaching and learning is done. Every lecture or assignment of reading should be accompanied by immediate tests to enhance memory formation. You can read a couple of papers (PDF) from the Roediger lab to get a feel for this: Generalizing test-enhanced learning from the laboratory to the classroom and The Power of Testing Memory

In the latest study practicing retrieval was found to produce the best memory formation.

In two studies, reported by Karpicke and his colleague, Purdue University psychology student Janell Blunt, a total of 200 students studied texts on topics from different science disciplines. One group engaged in elaborative study using concept maps while a second group practiced retrieval; they read the texts, then put them away and practiced freely recalling concepts from the text.

After an initial study period, both groups recalled about the same amount of information. But when the students returned to the lab a week later to assess their long-term learning, the group that studied by practicing retrieval showed a 50 percent improvement in long-term retention above the group that studied by creating concept maps.

This, despite the students own predictions about how much they would actually remember. "Students do not always know what methods will produce the best learning," said Karpicke in discussing whether students are good at judging the success of their study habits.

I've read in previous reports the idea that there are ideal time intervals between times to get repeatedly tested for the same material. However, I did not try testing myself about the details of those time intervals and so now I can't recall the details for you.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 23 10:49 PM  Brain Memory

nh said at January 24, 2011 11:24 AM:

I read an article on a flashcard system called supermemo that tries to exploit a similar idea.

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