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Retrieval Practice vs other learning strategies

Retrieval Practice vs Other learning strategies

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • The science of learning

Not all learning strategies are equal. One that has consistently been found to help a range of students is Retrieval Practice. Typically in most studies, Retrieval Practice is measured against re-reading. But what about other learning strategies. What does the research say about them?

Concept mapping vs Retrieval Practice

Concept mapping is an activity in which students create node-and-link diagrams that represent the key terms and relations among the terms within a set of materials. It’s thought to enhance learning by requiring learners to engage more deeply with the material and produce elaborative connections within concepts.

In a new study, students were asked to read an educational text for 5 minutes before being given 25 minutes to either practise retrieval (i.e., free recalling the text) or create a concept map. All participants were allowed to restudy the text between minutes 10-15 in the revision session. They were then asked to complete a recall test one week later, where students in the Retrieval Practice condition outperformed those in the concept mapping condition by 25%.

So, concept mapping is likely less effective because it primes students to process information relationally. This means that students will approach restudying from the standpoint of reading so they can look for important relationships. As re-reading is one of the least effective study techniques, it is no surprise that concept mapping cannot compare to Retrieval Practice in facilitating long-term retention.

Pre-testing vs Retrieval Practice

Pre-testing involves taking practice tests before actually learning new information as opposed to afterwards (i.e., Retrieval Practice). For example, a student might take a pre-test on a textbook chapter before reading it. This both helps you create curiosity surrounding the concept that will engage your students more and assess their current knowledge.

While evidence has shown that pre-testing followed by studying can effectively help with long-term learning, how does it compare to Retrieval Practice?

A recent study seems to provide us with an answer. Students were asked to study text passages and each group had either a pre-test, post-test or no test attached. They were then asked to complete a recall questionnaire based on the passages. It was found that while both pre-test and post-test enhanced memory relative to the no-test control, pre-testing yielded the highest overall recall scores.

These findings are likely due to the large impact pre-testing has on subsequent reading and studying behaviours. Indeed, previous research has demonstrated that pre-testing improves students’ focus and attention. Crucially, it helps students focus more on relevant content covered in the pre-questions, which can further boost learning and memory.

So, it may be worthwhile for you to consider implementing pre-testing in your class – as long as you select your pre-questions carefully.

Accelerate academic growth at your school with one of the most effective Teaching & Learning strategies.

Multiple-choice vs Short-answer questions in Retrieval Practice

Even though pre-testing has been found to be as potent (if not in some cases potentially more) as Retrieval Practice, it’s still one of the top learning strategies with a solid evidence base. However, much of retrieval research has failed to address a crucial question: how should you format your questions to maximise their effect (i.e., increase long-term retention)?

In a study which aimed to answer this question, students learned the content from a lecture they watched by either answering short-answer questions, multiple-choice questions or reading summaries. In a surprise recall test one week later, those in the short-answer condition performed best, especially for difficult practice questions. The multiple-choice condition showed no evidence of the Testing Effect.

These findings suggest that practising retrieval only through multiple-choice questionnaires promotes retention no more than re-reading. This is because it fails to encourage cognitive effort in retrieval, as these questions can be answered correctly by mere recognition or guessing.

So, it may be more beneficial to use short-answer questions in your classroom. However, multiple-choice tests may still be useful, especially for you to assess student knowledge and understanding, as long as you design them carefully – read this blog to find out how.

Final thoughts

Though decades of research have made it evident that Retrieval Practice surpasses many student-favourite learning strategies such as re-reading and highlighting, new findings show that pre-testing may be worth considering as well. This means that it may be a good idea to adopt both techniques in your teaching to help students consolidate their learning. However, you may want to prioritise short-answer questions over multiple-choice questions (although there is still a lot of value in these multiple choice questions).

For more information about evidence-based revision techniques, check out our handy guide.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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