Retrieving information just as beneficial as elaborately encoding it! 1

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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One thought on “Retrieving information just as beneficial as elaborately encoding it!

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    Hi Kelly
    We had a small discussion here at the school I teach in regarding this article. I also followed a discussion thread on the NSTA forum, regarding this article.
    A member of that forum probably said it best when he wrote…

    “I had a chance to read this article thoroughly now. Despite the hype, it does not seem (to me) to be about whether old-fashioned test-taking is better than concept mapping at solidifying learning. It is about something called “retrieval practices” — in a nutshell, activities that require students to go back into the material and retrieve information, either because they could not answer a test question or because their answers to problems were wrong or incomplete.

    In one sense, it picks up on a couple of older threads in educational research — (a) just having activity does not necessarily reinforce the learning that we want; (b) that students who construct their own knowledge need some factual material to work with and need to know that factual material well; and (c) students will need to pass examinations in school (and elsewhere), so they will need to be able to apply this learning in these situations (at least for academic success, but also in some careers).

    However, these seems (to me) to be more of an indictment of how we use concept mapping, than of the practice itself. In a nutshell, if students draw their own concept maps, but never have to test them against any standard, then various errors can be maintained and perpetuated (think of some of the research that Craig Nelson sent a long a few weeks ago). So, one thing that gives ME pause about the study is that in one study condition (the so-called “retrieval practices” option), students read the passage, took a test, then had to go back into the study material to “retrieve” the material they did not know well before taking another test. In the concept-mapping condition, there was no retrieval (the authors decided to use a measure equivalent to “time on task” — how much time students spent in reading the material and then demonstrating their levels of mastery). So, in reality, IMHO, this was a test of using retrieval practices vs NOT using retrieval practices, and not a test of whether one way of exhibiting one's understanding is better than another for helping students learn material. Indeed, one of the conditions of the experiment was the RO-TO-NO (read once, test once, next one) approach we often see used with scholastic material, which, as expected, performed pretty badly.

    Now, the result showing the greater added effect of “retrieval practices” IS groundbreaking, because so often we simply accept a student's concept map if there are no egregious errors without requiring that student to go back into the material and test that map against available information or some real-world condition***. It seems to me that THIS is the big idea here: the map must be verified by the student and somehow tested for inconsistencies or inaccuracies, etc.

    In the end, of course, the assessment was made on students' test-taking abilities. There are questions about whether using, say authentic assessments or other types of evaluations might produce a different result. However, in theory (and what I have always argued), if students are successful in learning the material they are supposed to, THEN they ought to be successful in ANY legitimate assessment of their mastery of the material.

    I am going to look into ALL my course materials this spring to see to what extent it entrains retireval practices.”
    Andrew Petto


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