Using Retrieval Practice for Transfer in an Online Class
By Cindy Nebel
Retrieval practice produces benefits to learning in many different situations, but trying to get students to transfer their knowledge to a new situation is tricky business. There is some evidence that retrieval practice can be used to get students to think more deeply about material, but much of that research has been conducted in the laboratory (1,2). In a new study, Thomas and colleagues (3) used online review quizzes in a class to boost factual knowledge and application.
In a series of two experiments, students in an introductory neuroscience course took weekly chapter quizzes and then three carefully designed review quizzes and corresponding unit exams. The review quizzes were short answer and completed online using the university’s learning management system. Students had unlimited time to complete the quizzes and were given correct answer feedback either after submission (Experiment 1) or after each item (Experiment 2). The review quiz was available 1-7 days before the unit exam. On the review quiz, there were some factual and some application questions that targeted specific concepts within the chapter. Each unit exam was proctored and consisted of 72 multiple choice items: 36 factual and 36 application. Of the 36 factual concepts covered on the exam, 12 were quizzed with factual quiz items, 12 with application quiz items, and 12 concepts were not covered on the review quiz. The same was true for the application questions. Here is an example of the questions:
The results of both experiments (below) showed that students performed best when the type of question matched between the review quiz and unit exam (i.e. factual quiz item – factual exam item; application quiz item – application exam item), even though the questions themselves were different. The more exciting result was that answering a factual quiz item produced a benefit on application exam items (compared to concepts that were not on the review quiz). The same was true for application quiz items and factual exam items – demonstrating transfer using retrieval practice!
In a previous post , we talked about times when transfer “works” and times when it doesn’t. One of the main reasons why the researchers found transfer in this study was likely due to the careful construction of the quiz and exam questions. You’ll notice in the picture above that the questions are very closely related, demonstrating an example of near transfer. As the relationship between the question and answer becomes more disparate, the likelihood of finding transfer decreases. But this study is very encouraging in that retrieval practice might help with transfer to different content areas, even helping them to understand how a lasagna is similar to a brain!
This is great news for educators. In some studies (4), instructors have spent a great deal of time discussing quizzes in class in order to find transfer effects, which takes considerable time (a valuable resource). Here, not only did the researchers find transfer, they did so with online quizzes that were never discussed in class! Efficient and effective strategies are the best kind, don’t you think?
(1) Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W. & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 544-553.
(2) Butler, A. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 36, 1118-1133.
(3) Thomas, R.C., Weywadt, C.R., Anderson, J.L., Martinez-Papponi, B., & McDaniel, M.A. (2018). Testing encourages transfer between factual and application questions in an online learning environment. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7, 252-260.
(4) Mayer ,R.E., Stull, A., DeLeeuw, K., Almeroth, K., Bimber, B., Chun, D., &Zhang, H. (2009). Clickers in college classrooms: Fostering learning with questioning methods in large lecture classes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34 (1), 51-57.