Spaced Retrieval Practice
The countdown has begun and the finish line is in sight; summer is almost here, but not before every ounce of hope and effort is put forth for the sake of final exams. Given the weight that these cumulative assessments hold, it is no wonder that parents and students alike are mesmerized by the latest new tricks and methods that help students achieve their personal best. However, the question of effectiveness is most reliably answered with scientific proof and practicality; students must feel capable of incorporating a new study method and follow through with it. Change is difficult, but even the most optimistic learners will admit that rote memorization and cramming will only yield minor benefits.
Now is the time to consider what is known and proven to be effective: a brain-based learning technique called spaced retrieval practice. It is not a new concept--it has been the subject of research for the past 100 years. Simply put, retrieval practice relies on the act of recalling information, rather than re-reading or relistening to data. To put this action into motion, the student should perform an information transfer (often called a ‘brain dump’) as described:
- After reading or listening to material concepts. write each main idea on a sheet of paper as a heading.
- Underneath the heading and without the use of a textbook or notes, flex that brain muscle! That is: write as much information on the page as can be recalled.
- If possible, use drawings or mind maps to show connections and relationships between concepts.
- Finally, check the information against the original source and fill in any missing pieces or facts.
- Repeat this process consistently, and expect to see an improvement of 10-20% in performance.
The Research Behind Retrieval Practice
To better understand the effects of both cramming and retrieval practice on long-term retention of information, a study was conducted on Washington University undergraduate students. The students were divided into two groups with both groups reading short comprehension passages.
- Group 1 was instructed to study the passages over the course of two study sessions in the same day (massed practice).
- Group 2 was instructed to read the passages in one sitting, then to immediately recapture what they just read (retrieval practice).
- Both groups were given three tests over time (5 minutes, 2 days, 1 week).
- Group 1 had better recall for the 5-minute test, an expected outcome that supports the temporary benefit of “cramming”. Group 1 recalled 81% versus 75% score for Group 2.
- But the longer-term test scores were remarkably higher for Group 2, and much longer lasting. Even after a week, Group 2 recalled 56% of the concepts while Group 1 dropped to 42%.
In effect, Group 2 retained information in their long-term memories. This “brain strength training” can yield up to 8 years of retention, a period of time unmatched by any other known techniques.
“It’s like Crossfit™for the Brain.”
Spaced retrieval practice relies on one key point: to allow time to pass between review sessions so the brain has to work harder to recall the information. Think of the brain as a muscle that responds well to steady strength-training. Unlike cramming or re-reading material, spaced retrieval is fueled by the act of forgetting information. Just as a muscle must be allowed to rest between workouts - to “forget” the challenge of being worked - the brain must be allowed to forget information in order to experience the deeper processing that cements concepts. The strength is in the struggle, and only through this slightly uncomfortable process can true improvement in recall take place.
In contrast, cramming, or massed practice, gives students a false sense of confidence: material will seem familiar, but the accuracy of concepts is weak and stored in the short-term memory, which is why we often hear or say “But I thought I did really well on the test; I recognized most of the information!”.
“This feels ...wrong.”
Students may feel as if little or no progress is being made when practicing spaced retrieval because each time the student feels uncomfortable not fully recalling the material. This feeling is completely normal! Remember: Information that goes into the brain “easily” is also quickly forgotten. Familiarity should not be confused with true mastery. The increased effort involved with recall helps your brain create stronger connections between neurons in the form of dendritic spines which transmit electrical signals between the neurons. In addition, the information in the short term memory is the most apt to be forgotten during stressful periods, such as during an exam.
According to many research studies, spaced retrieval practice is one of the most effective study techniques available to students. The time-passage is key with spaced retrieval, as it creates a need to struggle to recall the information. This struggle creates what is referred to as a “desirable difficulty”, forcing the brain to engage in deep, meaningful thinking that helps process information into the long-term memory. In order to finish the semester strongly, it is important to consider just how effective current study tools are to achieve optimal results, and to embrace the changes that can yield significant success.