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Retrieval practice builds testing into the learning process

Chapter 6 Strategies for enhancing retention and recall


Because of the many negative associations with formal testing, learning scientists often use the term retrieval practice to describe the use of testing as a strategy during the learning process to improve retention. Retrieval practice is the deliberate attempt to recall information from memory without looking up the answer or relying on memory cues like notes. In contrast to formal testing, retrieval practice is low-stakes and is not used to assess performance formally. Retrieval practice can take many forms, which can be freely combined to improve learning performance. Retrieval practice is effective both in formal classroom settings and during self-directed learning.

  • Self-questioning involves frequently pausing to ask yourself questions during learning such as:
    • What are the key concepts?
    • Have I understood everything?
    • How do the ideas relate to what I already know?
  • Practice testing usually takes place after a learning session and involves answering questions without referring to recall cues.
    • Answer questions provided by a teacher, coach, mentor or peer.
    • Some learning material includes practice questions (e.g. textbooks, case studies).
    • Develop own questions while working through the material the first time.
    • Create flashcards with a question on one side and the answer on the other.
  • Other methods include:
    • Attempt to write down as much as possible about the topic (brain dump).
    • Organize the topic into key concepts from memory.
    • Create a sketch or mind map that visualizes the key concepts and how they fit together.

Retrieval practice is most effective when it is challenging, so learners should avoid looking up the answer too early. Recall cues can promote an illusion of competence . Once learners have done their best to remember as much as they can without hints or looking up answers, it’s crucial to expose areas for improvement and to correct any mistakes . Effective learners build retrieval practice into their learning process. They recognize that multiple test sessions are generally better than just one and that spacing out testing improves learning performance.

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