Retrieving information just as beneficial as elaborately encoding it!

It’s commonly thought that how information is encoded in our mind is the key to “learning it” and that retrieval of that information is just a way to “show” that we learned it.  But a report shows that the act of practicing retrieving information is, in itself, an important (and maybe more important) key to learning the information.

A Sciencexpress report on January 20, 2011 presented this finding that has the potential to have great impact on how we can efficiently and effectively learn material!

How did they do their study?
Karpicke and Blunt from the Dept of Psychological Studies at Purdue University did the study.

There were two parts to the study – the second was an expansion of the first.  The results are the same for both, so I’ll just describe the larger study.

120 undergraduate students studied two passages of science material.  One was texts with enumerated structures (for example a list of the properties of different muscle tissues) and the other was a text describing sequence structures (such as describing the sequence of events in the digestive process).

The students studied one passage by using an elaboration study technique (while being able to view the texts, they created concept maps of the information to more elaborately encode the information) and the other using retrieval practice techniques (recalling as much of the information as they could in a “free recall test” WITHOUT being able to view the text).  The learning time was the same for both types of learning activities.

(Note that concept mapping can be considered a retrieval practice technique if it’s done WITHOUT access to the learning materials.  But in this study it was done WITH access to the learning materials so it is an elaborative study technique for this discussion.)

Half the students studied the enumerated science text with elaborations study technique and half with the retrieval practice and then they used the other learning technique on the other text.

The students were then tested on the material a week later.  Half of the students were given short-response tests over the two topics and the other half of the students were asked to create concept maps of the two topics.  They were not allowed to view the texts for either test format.

What did they find?
Retrieval practice produced higher scores for BOTH types of science texts on BOTH types of testing format (short-response and concept mapping) a week after the learning period.

So free-recall retrieval practice produces better concepts maps one week later than initially creating a concept map in the presence of the texts.  This, to me, is very telling–you’d think that initially creating a concept map of the material would result in better concepts maps a week later, but, nope, it didn’t!

And these findings are LARGE.  (For those that are familiar with statistics, they have effect sizes of 1 or larger…that means that retrieval practice resulted in scores that were on average one entire standard deviation better than elaborative study…that’s really big in education studies!)

Overall, 101 of the 120 students (84%) did better on the tests (either short-response or concept map creation) after they’d used retrieval practice than they did after they used elaborative study techniques.

However, when asked, 75% of the students thought the results would be the other way.  The key here…people think that elaborative study is better than retrieval practice when really it’s not…so people aren’t likely studying in the most effective way possible!

What might be an explanation?
The authors present discussion that “Rather than multiplying or increasing the number of encoded features, which occurs during elaboration,” retrieval practice may improve how well a specific piece of information is called up when cued.  In other words, the retrieval practice demands the learner to place their own organizational structure on the information as it’s recalled which then enables them to more accurately recall the related information when presented with a cue in a different setting…so we’re better at picking out the important/applicable piece of information when we need it later on.

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