Learning: It's not about memory, it's all about retrieval

How do you go about learning new information? Are you a person who sits and rereads the content over and over taking copious notes? Or are you a concept mapper? A person with brightly coloured pens, creating interlinked diagrams and bubbles, identifying key concepts and relationships?

Students have adopted many different methods to help them learn. Some educators have coached their students to adopt certain styles of learning, believing they are best practice. So is there one method that works best?

A recent study published in the journal Science suggests that we need to have a major relook at how we learn most effectively.

The publishers suggest that learning is not about studying or getting the knowledge into our memory banks.

Learning is our ability to retrieve that information.

I must have spent countless hours at school and university studying (and studying and then studying some more) spending hours reviewing notes, rewriting essays, and burning the midnight oil before exams. It's a little humbling to realise I could have spent a lot less time on the books than I did, had I approached learning differently. Sigh.

What was the purpose of this new study?

The researchers set out to compare three different methods of studying commonly used, to see if one was more effective than another. The three methods compared were;

a) Elaborative studying i.e. studying a text by reading b) Concept mapping using diagrams to show relationships between ideas c) Retrieval practice where the students attempt to recall the information without reference to the material just looked at

The students were also asked which method they expected to be the most effective way of learning. They chose the first two methods, as being the ones they predicted would work the best.

The researchers undertook two experiments with 200 college graduates as participants.

In the first experiment the students were divided into four groups.

• Group one: read a passage of text for 5 minutes

• Group two: studied the text over four consecutive 5 minute sessions

• Group three: using the material in front of them devised concept maps for the material

• Group four: read the passage and then, without the material in front of them, were asked to write down what they remembered as a free form essay for 10 minutes.

One week later all four groups undertook a short answer test to assess their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions form those facts.

In the second experiment, two methods of concept mapping and retrieval practice were used. Here it was noted that those students who drew diagrams while reading the test passage included more detail then the practice retrieval group.

However on testing a week later, the retrieval group performed much better in the follow up, not only in a short evaluation test but also when asked to draw a concept map from memory.

The overall findings from the study were that those in the group practising retrieval performed up to 50% better in recall a week later than the groups using the other two methods.

Why should this be so?

When we undertake the effort of retrieving information, we have to have organised it in such a way that our brains will be able to recognise it later using cues and connections. Retrieval practice may seem a clumsy or difficult way for us to remember information, but it is that very struggle for our brain which may be the reinforcing factor.

How we test for retrieval involves a number of complex issues outside the scope of this paper. The current school system with multiple tests and exams is seen by many, as a huge stress and burden on our kids. In retrieval processing the testing is different because the focus in not on the score obtained. It is about enabling an individual to see where they may have information gaps, which then allows them to then revisit or revise the material.

So next time you have something you need to remember, whether it be for work, school or college, why not give retrieval practice a go? Put away all those notepads and lap tops. Just go through the material and then put it to one side and then write down as much as you can remember. Chances are, you’ll still have that information then available to you for when you next need it.

Ref: J. D. Karpicke, J. R. Blunt. Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science, 2011; DOI: 10.1126/science.1199327