How to help people remember what they learn

· Peer Instruction

My worst nightmare? Realizing Turn to Your Neighbor has been on hiatus for 365 days!?

No, but that sure is a close second.

Students, of course, are my worst nightmare. But not for the reasons you might think.

As a faculty member working with graduate students and director of a program serving over 3000 high schoolers, a specific set of students keeps me up at night: Learners who work hard, try hard, study hard, and do everything we ask them to do but still don’t succeed.

My colleagues and friends often encounter this subset of students.  After an exam or project, we meet–both student and teacher crestfallen–during office hours. How, they ask, after they invested hours upon hours of diligent studying and effort did they perform so poorly?

My worst fear of all is that these students will come to believe they are not cut out for particular subject matter, or worse, give up all together and never embrace the transformative opportunity that is higher education.

Why do students who try hard, fail to achieve?

In design thinking, the theory goes: “if you have tried something and it hasn’t worked, you are working on the wrong problem.” As an educational designer, I have thus been wondering: What is the real issue that prevents a student who puts in the time from performing well on an assessment?

In a quest to help myself sleep better at night, over the past year I have been pursuing answers to this question.   One interesting possibility is that the way most people, including you and I, try to learn is flawed. The more depressing part? Most students don’t know how ineffective their approaches to learning are and even more depressing, neither do their parents, friends, or the majority of educators.

A Better Way: Retrieval Practice

Labrador_Retriever_swims_back_while_retrieving_a_stickRetrieval-based learning could be be a game changer for you and your students. 

There is a better, evidence-based way to improve learning, and it is called retrieval practice.  Despite the lack of widespread adoption in education, retrieval-based learning  is not new. It has been around for centuries and has 70+ years of research behind it.   Far too few people know about the approach and its power to help students learn and then some. When implemented effectively, retrieval practice can help students retain what they learn, be more engaged with content, and reach the holy grail–transfer their learning to new contexts. 

What is retrieval practice?

It is pretty simple actually. According to cognitive scientists Henry Roediger, III and Andrew Butler, retrieval practice is a learning strategy that involves “The act of calling information to mind rather than rereading it or hearing it” (p.20). This is qualitatively different from the way most humans study or learn.

Critical role

For Example

Consider this favorite passage of mine from the Basenji Club of America:

 The Basenji, known as the African Barkless Dog, is considered by its devotees as unique to the species. One of the oldest of breeds, Basenji type dogs are depicted on the tombs of the Pharaohs and date back to as early as 3600 B.C. Small and short haired, with a foxy face, worried-looking wrinkled brow, upright ears and tail curled like a doughnut, the Basenji’s most unusual characteristic is that it does not bark. He is, however, not mute and, although usually quiet, has a repertoire of sounds that range from a pleased throaty crow to a keening wail when he is lonely or unhappy.

If you were going to learn this passage for a test, what would your gut preparation strategy be?  The large majority of people report with confidence that they would highlight key words, read and re-read over and over again, try to visualize the dog, and hone in on what is special about him–that he doesn’t bark.

A robust body of retrieval practice research says you would be better served to test yourself on the passage by recalling information several times (in intervals) before the test instead of highlighting or reading it over and over again.

Karpicke and Blunt demonstrate in an article in Science Magazine that a retrieval practice approach may have even more powerful effects than the popular learning strategy of concept mapping  (a process that involves making connections and drawing relationships between concepts).

Concept Mapping

Karpicke and Blunt (2011)

Retrieval-based learning means authentically testing yourself. Not making flash cards and flipping them over to see the answer, that’s not how this works.  Rather, make flashcards, but also enact effort to actually recall from your memory what is on the other side of the card. See other recommendations at and in future posts at Turn to Your Neighbor.

The bottom line? If you want to remember something don’t repeat it over and over to yourself ad nauseam. You are tackling the wrong problem. Give yourself a test. Better yet, make it a hard one.

Note: During Fall 2015, I taught Technology and Innovation in Higher Education at The University of Texas at Austin. As a learning community, my students and I spent the semester studying, designing, and evaluating the potential of retrieval practice to transform student approaches to learning. I plan to reawaken Turn to Your Neighbor with a variety of posts about what we learned together, including best practices for implementing retrieval-based learning and of course, how Peer Instruction deftly incorporates the method to enhance student success.

I would like to thank Dr. Pooja Agarwal for introducing me to retrieval-based learning.

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