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Studying for finals? Best study tip: RETRIEVAL

With finals week fast approaching, are you starting to think about how you are going to study for your exams?

Well, Karpicke and Grimaldi (2012) argues, in their article, “Retrieval-Based Learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning”, that retrieval is the best way to learn, and hence prepare for exams.

What is retrieval? Retrieval is the concept of active recalling of existing memory. Therefore, a retrieval-based learning/studying would require one to actively recall information repeatedly after going through the material once, as opposed to just reading through the material multiple times.

Learning is usually thought to be information that is inquired, understood, and stored in our memory, and sometimes the idea of applying this knowledge with pre-existing knowledge. Retrieval is very rarely known to be the key process in understanding and promoting learning. Retrieval is known to be a tool for assessing knowledge and a medium to test how much learning has taken place.

Karpicke and Grimaldi use several studies to demonstrate that retrieval of knowledge is actually a better way to learn and retain information. Below are two of the many studies to demonstrate this hypothesis, explained in a way that might be similar to how many of us study.

If you are one to use flashcards to study: this will be interesting for you. Do you discard the cards you get right? Do you just look at the back of the card over and over again? If you answered yes to either of these questions, it might be time to see how you can do this better. Participants were put into four groups and asked to study a number of words and their translations; one group was asked to discard the flashcards when they got them right; one group that just was just asked to keep going through the material over and over again; one that was asked to recall the translations after going through all of the material and not discard the flashcard even if they recalled it correctly; and one that was asked to do a mixture of both, recalling and looking through the words, repeatedly.

A week later, the participants were asked to recall as many of these words as possible. Results showed that those who dropped the flashcards when they got them right, recalled the least number of words, followed by the ones that one that kept looking through the material over and over again. The best performance was shared by the other two groups (one that just recalled the words after studying them once through and the other group that did both studying and recalling repeatedly) suggesting that studying repeatedly did not facilitate in doing much better.

So, the next time you are using flashcards, as much as it is tempting to leave out the ones you get right, and to just keep looking through the material, remember it is more useful if you just keep testing yourself repeatedly!

Fewer flashcards, and more notes-based studying for you? In that case, this study will be more relatable. Participants were given a meaningful test to study and eventually recall. They were put in three groups, each differing in the manner they were asked to learn. One that read through this material four times, which would be equivalent to reading through your class notes four times. One that was asked to read through three times, and then recall as much as they could the fourth time. And, one that only read through once, and asked to recall three times. Participants were not given feedback after recalling in terms of how much they remembered right. Recalling, could be equivalent to just writing out as much as you remember in a piece of paper or teaching someone else the same material.

At the end of this learning phase, they were asked to predict how well they remembered this material. The group that was asked to read through the material all four times had the highest confidence, followed by the group that read three times, and recalled once and lastly, the group that read it once and recalled three times had the lowest confidence level.

However, after a week when they were asked to come in and recall as much as they could from the material they were asked to study, the results were the complete opposite of their confidence level – the group that was asked to recall three times after just studying it once did the best, followed by the one that was asked to recall once after studying three times, and lastly, the group that was asked to read through the material four times. This showed that even though the group that was asked to recall the most did not think they remembered too much, they encoded the most. Hence, also, supporting the retrieval-based learning.

So the next time you are pressed on time to study for an exam, don’t turn down a friend asking you some questions or for some clarification, that might be the best way to study for you!

Goodluck studying for your exam, remember, retrieval is the key!

Karpicke, J. D., & Grimaldi, P. J. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning.Educational Psychology Review, 24, 401-418.

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  1. December 1st, 2013 at 04:07 | #1

    I also wrote my blogpost about retrieval-based learning, and the article that I wrote about yielded very similar results. Both studies found that in comparison to repeated studying, retrieval practice led to greater retention of the material at hand. Even though these findings might be suprising at first, when you think about them in the context of personal experience they actually make sense; it is very easy to read something over and over again and still have no idea what it actually said, whereas retrieval-based practice forces you to pay attention to the content of what you’re studying because it expects you to produce an answer to a question about it. However, many studies are still under the misconception that the best way to study is simply to restudy material as much as possible. I think that is very important that we study this topic in cognitive psychology because it is extremely applicable to our everyday lives as students- we are ultimately here to perform well in our classes, and studies such as this one provide us with a method for improving our studying.

  2. December 3rd, 2013 at 23:36 | #2

    I found this to be a very fascinating article. Before taking Cognitive Psychology, I had always heard about how spacing out ones studying can improve performance on an exam (the spacing effect). However, I did not know of all the benefits retrieval based learning also provides. This post reminded me of an article we read in class about how retrieval based learning promotes deeper, more meaningful learning (Karpicke 2012) due to a phenomenon known as the “potentiating” effect of retrieval wherein attempting to retrieve information leads to improved encoding when restudying the material. I found that this post complimented that article nicely in that it provided an accessible example of the benefits of retrieval–thus showing how powerful this “potentiating” effect can really be. I’d like to see how my own performance would change if I made the conscious effort to practice this type of learning!

    Reading this post also reminded me the idea of processing fluency that we recently learned about in class. If re-reading or restudying a piece of material increases our familiarity with the information, and in turn we read through the information faster, perceiving the information we are reading as feeling easier and in turn causing us to have an increase in our estimated comprehension of the material is it possible that a similar phenomenon is taking place here? I know that this phenomenon has to do with our processing of language, but is it possible that perhaps in the SSSS and the SSSR their level of confidence is higher merely because they have had more exposure to the information, and therefore they overestimate how well they actually understand it?

  3. December 9th, 2013 at 15:07 | #3

    Talia, I think processing fluency is likely to be involved in the poor metacognitive judgments of the repeated study groups – excellent observation!

  4. March 17th, 2014 at 09:37 | #4

    This was a very relatable blog-post, especially because its hook is about final exams and was posted right around the looming exam period. It was interesting to read the part about flashcard use, as I am someone who goes through many flashcards a semester. Personally, I study by discarding a flashcard once I feel comfortable with it. This involves more than just getting it right — I have to be confident that I will get it right again. Now I realize that this may not be the most effective way of studying. Based on your post, maybe I will just keep going through every card, regardless of whether or not I got it right the previous time.

    It would be interesting to investigate the short term impacts of this study. You discuss how various study strategies impact retention over a period of time; however, as unfortunate as it may be, we cannot deny the fact that many college students cram for their exams. It would be interesting to see if retrieval practice is equally beneficial over a shorter period of time. I predict that it would be, based upon my own experience. When I forget about a quiz, the first thing I do is to make flashcards. Both the process of writing the flashcards and the process of testing myself helps me remember the material — if I just re-read my notes, nothing would be absorbed. Similarly, because writing flashcards is personally beneficial, I wonder what the results of a study in which people had to use either pre-made or personally made flashcards would show.

  5. March 20th, 2014 at 11:10 | #5

    I found this post to be extremely knowledgeable and helpful, as I have always been a big component of flash cards when it comes time to study for an exam. And I have to admit, I am certainly guilty of discarding the flash cards that I get right in order to focus on the cards I don’t feel comfortable with yet. Before having read this post, it seemed to me that if I didn’t discard then I would be wasting my study time studying information that I already knew, and that I would be much better off if I dwindled my stack of flash cards to the few that I would struggle to recall. Before studying for my next exam, I will certainly rethink about this method and keep all of the flash cards in the deck–now that I know studying them all will not be wasted time.

    I also found the second study to be extremely interesting and perhaps the most compelling evidence for retrieval-based learning. I would have predicted that the group that read the notes the most amount of times with one recall would have demonstrated the best retention; instead, the opposite showed to be true. Based on what we’ve recently been learning about memory, I would predict that these results could be attributed to interference. While just re-reading notes, one is more susceptible to interference than one who is actively recalling information. Thus, the person that only re-read material with little or no recall is more likely to forget the information.

  6. March 20th, 2014 at 14:06 | #6

    If only I had read this post before all of my midterms…. This article was extremely helpful in learning new approaches to studying. I am not a huge note-card person, however I do sometimes use them for language classes, but I use “Quizlet” which is a website that creates online notecards for you. This website does put down the cards you get right into a separate pile while it makes you keep going over the ones you don’t know. I wonder if there is a difference between using online notecards and actually hand written ones and to see which one you learn better with! I wonder if this would have a difference on how you store memory. I wonder if the serial position curve takes place in studying with notecards. Because you are constantly seeing the ones at the beginning of the deck, and so are seeing those the most, so you have constant rehearsal with it. I also wondering with notecards if interference takes place, specifically proactive interference, because if you are learning on notecards, I wonder if the information you already know or know better (the old information) blocks the new information making it harder to remember the note cards you don’t know.

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