Why Use Retrieval Practice?

There are lots of ways to study. Some are effective for learning, and some aren’t. If we’re going to make the most of our study time (and thereby free up time and mental space to do other things) then there are six scientifically-proven methods that do work (see ‘Six strategies for effective learning’): 

  1. Active recall — bringing the information to mind, ‘retrieving’ it (here’s a 5 page overview, and see below)
  2. Spaced repetition — where studying is spread out over a period of time, rather than ‘massed’ 
  3. Interleaving — switching between topics during periods of learning (I wrote about this for Tile’s ‘The Student Voice’ series, here.)
  4. Dual Coding — combining words and visuals 
  5. Concrete examples — using specific examples to clarify abstract concepts 
  6. Elaboration and Generation — expanding on a topic and creating connections between different ideas

Methods like highlighting, summarising and massed practice (focusing only on one specific topic, rather than studying several areas in a single session) are largely a waste of time. 

The Benefits of retrieval practice

  1. The biggest reason to incorporate active recall into your learning is that it is the most powerful learning strategy. In lots of studies (in particular this one, and this one) it’s been shown to be both very effective, and also much more effective than other ways of studying.
  2. Active recall also identifies gaps in your knowledge; you know what you don’t know, so you can focus on making sure you do know it!
  3. Active recall is low stakes. If you’re doing flashcards there’s no particular downside to getting one wrong. You just come back to it later. It’s the least intimidating way to get yourself doing what you’ll actually be doing in an exam, viz a vis being tested.
  4. Regular retrieval leads to a better organisation and transfer of knowledge between topic areas. It’s not just about rote learning. It’s about being able to use facts and then combine them into higher level thinking. You need to have the basic building blocks in order to engage with concepts, and do so creatively, and active recall gives you this foundation. 
  5. Regular retrieval practice can lead to decreased anxiety and increased confidence. When you get into the exam hall you know that you know stuff, which is a great confidence booster. You’ll probably do better too; competence breeds confidence. Moreover, by using Anki you see stuff that you don’t know more often (due to the spaced repetition algorithm), and so you plug those gaps. 

To make this less abstract, I like to think: how does an actor learn their lines?

They don’t just highlight the script. They do test themselves on it, by repeating their lines from memory. They might start in different places within the play, or within the scene, until they know it from every angle. Establishing this knowledge base means they can then focus on putting the emotion into the words which they need to play their part.

Where can you go wrong with retrieval practice

First, active recall doesn’t ‘work’ when teachers, students and parents don’t understand the value and effectiveness of it, when they treat it as an add on, a bell or whistle. The key is that it’s not just about ticking a box, eg by tacking it onto the end of a session of highlighting (though this will of course help). It’s a core part of the learning process, and you should build your study sessions around it.  

Second, question design: If you’re doing flashcards, think about how you ask your questions — you shouldn’t be able to get the answer without one or two pieces of specific knowledge. If you can work it out just from the card then you need to edit it (eg put the extra info in a section that only shows up with the answer). Your questions should be very specific, particularly if the topic is difficult or the question is for a younger child. What you’re aiming for is desirable difficulty — as well as through question design, you can also do this by changing the settings on Anki (interval, ease etc, see my article here on the Anki settings to use) to give yourself a good balance between success/difficulty.

Finally (and this is as much a value-add as a mistake), sometimes we don’t provide enough time for review and reflection. We need to focus on what we got wrong so that we can plug gaps in our knowledge. I would suggest having a 5 minute block at the end of a study session to evaluate what we knew, and what we didn’t, will be really helpful to us. 

Note: If you’re not using Anki, here’s a checklist for what you want your retrieval practice technology to provide:

  1. low stakes testing
  2. workload friendly — low effort for you to set up and manage, high impact for you to study
  3. user friendly — easy for you to use, so you can focus on the learning (Note that Anki can be used very simply, or in more complex ways, but the key is to make sure that it is serving your purpose)

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