GUEST POST: A Student's Perspective on the Use and Helpfulness of Retrieval Practice
By: Maia Miller
Maia Miller recently graduated from Goucher College earning a B.A. in Business Management and Psychology. She is currently pursuing a career in Human Resource Management or in Higher Education Admissions.
Like many students, I have highlighted and underlined, reread my notes, and summarized the material; but, what I have found to be most helpful is retrieval practice (also known as the testing effect). Retrieval practice as a form of studying and learning is defined as the practice of recalling information from memory, which research has shown increases long-term retention (1). Whether you know it or not, you have probably used retrieval practice as a form of studying at some point through the use of flashcards or completing a practice quiz or test. I didn’t even realize I was practicing retrieval as a way to promote my own learning until I took cognitive psychology classes.
How I use retrieval practice to study on my own:
When I study any subject, if there is a practice test to take, then I take it. In fact, I take the test numerous times, each time changing the order in which I answer the questions until I can get each one right! However, even when I incorrectly answer a question I know that this helps my learning because now I know that I need to restudy this information.
Thankfully, I’ve had several professors, spanning various subject areas such as business, economics, and Spanish hand out practice tests to the students. However, if a professor does not provide a practice test, I still make sure to practice retrieval by making flashcards for the material.
When I make flashcards, I’m tempted to just flip over the card right away instead of working to retrieve the answer. For some reason, when I take a practice test I am not so easily tempted to just look at the answer sheet. You need to realize that flashcards are only effective for improving learning when you actually retrieve the information! In other words, you should work to retrieve the answer on your own if you want to benefit from retrieval practice. Retrieving information can be difficult, but this is a desirable difficulty that promotes learning. (To read more about desirable difficulties, click here.)
How my professors have implemented retrieval practice to promote classroom learning:
Retrieval practice is not just a strategy for students studying on their own time, but also a strategy that teachers can use in the classroom. A few of my professors have integrated brief quizzes at the start of class to have us retrieve information that we learned during the last lecture or information we should have learned from the homework assignment. I’ve enjoyed retrieval practice being integrated into the classroom this way, as it is low-stakes (i.e., does not have a huge impact on the final grade), and forces me to practice retrieval in the actual context of classroom learning.
Overall, I think that educators should teach students about how retrieval practice works, which study strategies incorporate retrieval practice as a desirable difficulty, and how to implement these strategies into study plans. These lessons about how to study effectively have greatly benefitted my learning.
But even if your professor does not explicitly instruct you to practice retrieval, I encourage you to incorporate retrieval practice into your own studying. Consider spending the time to take a practice test the next time your professor hands one out. If you don’t have access to a professor-made practice test, make a practice test for yourself! You can even trade tests with a friend to get extra practice. You can make some flashcards to study with and benefit from retrieval practice as well. Regardless of the exact retrieval strategy you choose, just be sure you are challenging yourself to engage in effortful retrieval – even if this feels more difficult and slower. It will pay off, I promise!
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(1) Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.