Retrieval Practice as Optimal Study Method

by Mr. Sheehy

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been comparing retrieval practice with other methods of studying material—things like giving review lectures, study guides, and re-reading texts. And what they’re finding is that nothing is as powerful for cementing long-term learning as retrieval practice.

One of those studies was conducted in 2006 by my guest, Dr. Pooja Agarwal, and her colleagues. They looked at students in a middle school social studies course. Over a year and a half, while the teacher continued teaching as normal, students were regularly given no-stakes quizzes (meaning they wouldn’t count against their grades) on the material. These quizzes only covered about one-third of what was being taught at any given time. The teacher left the room for every quiz, so she had no idea what material was included in the quizzes. Here were the results: On exams given at the end of every unit, students scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been included in the quizzes than on any of the other material. The other concepts had been taught and reviewed by the teacher as they normally would; the only difference is that some things also appeared on the no-stakes quizzes, and those were the things that students retained more fully when tested on the end-of-unit exam. The very act of being quizzed actually helped students learn better.

Here’s what this means for teachers: When we teach something once, then want to do something else to help students learn it better, instead of just reviewing the content, we’re much better off giving students something like a quiz instead. In other words, if we do more asking students to pull concepts out of their brains, rather than continually trying to put concepts in, students will actually learn those concepts better.

From Jennifer Gonzalez

This rings true with my own experience. “Practice quizzes” are something I’ve employed for years when teaching literary terminology, as the quiz element, even when it’s practice, makes students take it more seriously than any other method of review. The quizzes also force all students to attempt to retrieve the information, whereas a group review (e.g., playing Jeopardy or reading over a study guide) allows many students to tune out.