Episode 14 - How Students Can Use Spacing and Retrieval Practice

This episode was funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Show Notes:

Today's episode is specifically for students. Our goal was to take what we know about the science of learning and focus on how it can be used by you - students - to increase how much you're learning and improve your performance on tests, exams, and other types of assessments. We hope that this episode will be applicable to a range of students, regardless of age and specific subject(s) being studied.

The two most important study strategies are spaced practice and retrieval practice. They have the most evidence for their effectiveness, and are the most broadly applicable across a huge variety of different skills and subjects.

Spaced practice is the opposite of cramming. We tend to find that students often end up cramming for their tests. However, if you space out your study episodes over time instead, you will be learning more for the long-term, rather than just forgetting most of the information soon after the test. If you think you don't need that information again, you are probably mistaken! Most of what we learn would be useful to remember in the future - for example, the next class might build on the previous class, and if you've forgotten everything from that previous class, you will have to re-learn a lot of information.

You can't decide to space out your studying at the last minute. You have to plan ahead and schedule spaced study sessions. But, it's important to be realistic! Don't plan to study for an unrealistic amount of time, or you will be frustrated by your inability to reach your goals. It's also important to adjust your study schedule if it doesn't work for you.

What should you actually do during these study sessions? That's where retrieval practice comes in. The idea behind this strategy is to bring information to mind from memory. You can do this in many ways - writing or sketching what you know from memory, teaching someone else the material, or even just telling someone a story about what you are learning. This act of bringing the information to mind from memory - producing the information without the notes or textbook in front of you - will actually improve your memory for the material.

You should try to take as many practice tests as you can get your hands on, or if you don't have any of those, just write out everything you can remember about the topic from memory. Afterwards, go back to your notes or textbooks to verify that the information you produced is correct, and check for any errors.

Unfortunately, we find that students do not frequently use this study strategy. Some students do take practice tests, but they say they do it to check how much they learn - not to actually increase learning through retrieval practice. The strategy students tend to use more often is reading and re-reading. This can feel easier than retrieval practice, because the information on the page gets more and more familiar. Retrieval practice, on the other hand, can feel difficult because of the effort involved in bringing the information to mind from memory. This difficulty and struggle, however, are crucial to learning.

Spaced practice and retrieval practice work really well together, so do try out these two important study strategies. In the next episode, we'll talk about another 4 effective learning strategies.

Here is a blog post we wrote to demonstrate how students can make the most of the Learning Scientists website.

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Episode 15 - How Students Can Use Interleaving, Elaboration, Dual Coding, and Concrete Examples

Episode 13 - Bite-Size Research on Dual Coding vs Learning Styles