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Retrieval Practice: How to Use It to Get Better Grades?4 min read

How Not to Learn?

Re-reading a text, highlighting it, or repeating information over and over again (aka massed practice) in the hope of memorising it better are the most common learning techniques. But also the most damaging, as scientific studies reveal. Repetition makes us feel like we know, but unfortunately the technique is a waste of time because it doesn’t bring the desired results.

A 2009 study included a questionnaire on learning techniques for high school students. The results showed that 83% of students use re-reading material as a study method, and 54% of them consider it their main study method.

The main reason for this choice is that pupils and students do not know and trust other learning techniques.

Let’s see why this doesn’t work and what to do instead!

Memory and the Hippocampus

Memory is the brain’s ability to encode, store and recall stored data when we need it.

Some information is stored in very short-term memory. Some of this information becomes long-term memory data.

Short-term memory allows the brain to remember small pieces of information for a short time.

The shortest type of memory is working memory where information is retained for only a few seconds.

For example, the phone number we want to write down in our contacts we retain with working memory for a few seconds.

The hippocampus, neocortex and amygdala are involved in memory formation. The hippocampus is where memories are temporarily stored. From here they will be transferred to the neocortex and participate in general knowledge.

Researchers believe that this transfer of information from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex happens in sleep.

But apart from sleep, which is sometimes used as a study aid, memorisation and learning techniques are great ways to transfer data from short-term to long-term memory.

Check out the Queensland Brain Institute for more on this.

Our Conception of Intelligence also Influences How We Learn

A 2014 study showed that some students view intelligence as something that can be developed (incremental view), and others as a self-contained entity that cannot be influenced (entity view).

Those who believe that intelligence can be developed always aim to improve themselves and focus on acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Those who see intelligence as a fixed entity are more concerned with how to perform in exams and not with new accumulations. They are also the least tempted to use retrieval techniques, precisely because they seem less productive.

What is Retrieval Practice?

One of the most robust findings of learning research over the past hundred years is that learning is much more effective if the learner seeks to recall the information they know through retrieval learning techniques based on testing or self-testing of concepts. 

So the focus falls not on committing information to memory, but on getting it out, even if it is incomplete. 

The book The Psychology of Effective Studying by Paul Penn shows that repeated self-testing (aka retrieval technique) of memorized material produces superior recall when compared to an equivalent period spent rereading the material.

For example, a simple quiz in which you answer questions after reading or listening to something generates better recall and learning than re-reading the text or reviewing notes.

If you let a few hours go by and retake the quiz, the neural connections previously formed become even stronger and forgetting is less likely.

How to Put the Retrieval Method into Practice?

Retrieval practice consists of several techniques, all serving the same purpose: long-term memorisation of information or acquisition of skills.

Here are some techniques that you should use in order to study effectively:

  • Repeated self-testing: Read a section of text, set it aside, and try to explain the content in your own words (in your head, to someone else, or in writing). Then check that you have remembered it correctly. Repeat as many times as necessary. Pause between two attempts.
  • Try to recall the main ideas of a text without looking at your notes.
  • Explain key concepts to yourself or someone else
  • Create your own study material: flashcards, guides, summaries, anything that requires processing information and putting it into a new format.
  • Solve a problem before learning the solution. You’ll make more mistakes, but later you will remember it better because of the effort you put in.

Retrieval learning techniques require more effort and make you feel less productive. But the effort you put in produces lasting learning and allows you to apply the information in much more versatile ways. And this has been scientifically proven.

Watch the video here.