Research has shown that the most effective learning strategies are not the most popular or the most used inside and outside the classroom. (1, 2, 3, 4) To increase learning power, one of the most effective strategies is Retrieval Practice.
Rereading or reciting? Summarise or test? Recapitulate or ask? What if the evaluation does not only help to classify but above all to learn? Science has long demonstrated that self-evaluation of knowledge is one of the most effective means of learning. The success of this strategy lies in the strengthening of long-term memory, using the process that best consolidates it: retrieval of information. Generally speaking, the memory of a learning process is strengthened by the act and effort of remembering it, and self-evaluation of knowledge is the most effective way of exercising that memory. Scientifically called Retrieval Practice, its effectiveness extends to all levels of education and types of content (from conceptual to motor). Strangely enough, science consistently demonstrates this: if you want to reinforce what you have learned, do not start by rereading. Start by putting yourself to the test.
We have all heard the expression "rack your brains", and many of us have had the experience of better remembering information that has forced us to make an effort to remember. Cognitive Psychology calls it a testing effect (1). This effect results from the experimental evidence that the simple retrieval of information produces the consolidation of the mnesic trait in long-term memory, i.e., the act of remembering information reinforces learning. In applied research, the testing effect is translated into the strategy of retrieval practice, which consists in exercising the recollection of the contents learned through the individual and frequent evaluation of them. This strategy enables, on the one hand, the consolidation of knowledge and, on the other hand, its monitoring in order to determine the quality of learning and identify possible weaknesses.
The practice of retrieval is applicable in the classroom and as a method of autonomous study (10, 20), and may take the form of self-evaluation exercises or intermediate formative assessments. These assessments do not require any quantitative (or other) classification, even if they can be associated with scores calculated by the students for feedback and self-monitoring, or assign to the formative assessments small percentages of the final classification, as an incentive to regular study. (2, 3, 17)
Who's afraid of evaluation? Cognitive and emotional benefits of the Retrieval Practice
Successive research reviews confirm the educational effectiveness of retrieval practice across a wide range of contents and at all levels of schooling. (2, 3, 5, 9, 10, 17a) Similarly, meta-analysis studies comparing the effectiveness of a wide range of strategies systematically point to the superiority of this practice over most available learning strategies. As an example, a meta-analysis of 228 meta-analyses (!) (6), covering more than 400 learning strategies, highlights the scientific validity of retrieval practice for the purposes of applicability, generalisation and effectiveness in consolidating knowledge. However, the use of this strategy is not proportional to the demonstration of its evidence. Some research of the study methods most used by the students points to the preference for strategies with much more modest effectiveness, such as re-reading or highlighting contents. (4, 19) Compared to the practice of retrieval, which contributes to a lasting learning, these strategies produce an illusion of knowledge by the effect of immediate retention of information, but prove ineffective for medium and long term retention. (2, 7, 10)
In addition to the temporal benefits, self-monitoring of the learning process favours the development of metacognitive skills such as self-evaluation, self-regulation or metamorphosis. (10, 14) Research also shows that students' anticipation of (self) knowledge evaluation increases the focus on learning and the adoption of more frequent and regular study practices. (1, 2, 3) Finally, given the controversy surrounding the risks of evaluation (17), research results point to a decrease in anxiety in summative evaluation situations when students regularly practice intermediate formative evaluations. (1, 7)
How to Apply the Retrieval Practice
As mentioned above, the application of retrieval practice aims at strengthening and consolidating learning through the repeated testing (2) of knowledge. To this end, research proposes the use of tasks such as
- (Mini) formative tests or questionnaires with questions in different formats (e.g., open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, or completion of ideas). A relevant aspect concerns the use of multiple-choice questions. This format calls for retrieval processes essentially based on the recognition of information, as opposed to open-ended (and similar) questions that make use of free evocation processes. The latter involve greater cognitive effort and tend to produce better learning outcomes because they promote the consolidation of the memory trait more effectively. However, research evidence shows that the disadvantage of multiple choice questions can be minimised by adopting strategies that include: a) asking students to justify their choice of answer (which may include the reasons for one option and also the reasons for the exclusion of the remaining options), b) adopting the multiple choice format for essentially factual information, and c) contemplating related facts or concepts in the same question (this is because the joint presentation of information relating to different subjects increases the risk of retrieving plausible but wrong information - i.e., of retrieving correct information in the context of a given topic, but incorrect in the context of the issue in question). (15, 16)
- Application exercises, such as writing essays or problem solving. The application of knowledge requires the articulation between recent learning and previous knowledge, to produce new conceptual formulations or to solve problems. This process, experimentally known as generation effect (3), reinforces the memory of the learning undertaken (by retrieving information) and the development of metacognitive skills such as generalisation and knowledge transfer. (17, 20)
- Written reminder of all the information remembered about a specific topic. (3, 20) This strategy, known as PUREMEM (Pure Memory or Practicing Unassisted Retrieval to Enhance Memory for Essential Material) designates the free retrieval practice procedure, which reveals effective results not only for theoretical contents but also for inferential and procedural learning (as revealed in an interesting study applied to the teaching of statistics, whose results showed that the same group of students performed significantly better in the summative evaluation of contents subject to a brief test at the end of each class, compared to contents that did not benefit from this procedure). (21)
- Use of flashcards (cards with questions the student tries to answer before consulting the answer on the back). (1, 3, 5, 17)
- Use of the "read-recite-review" method (4, 8) for the study of theoretical contents in written form (for example, in manuals). It implies: reading the study material, evoking aloud (or writing) everything that can be remembered, and finally comparing the evocation with the original material. This strategy promotes the consolidation of learning and demonstrates greater effectiveness than taking notes or repeating the reading. (10) In the application of this method and similar ones, it is fundamental to ensure that the materials are consulted only at the end of the evocation, to ensure the retrieval effort and minimise the risk of self-assessment bias. (17) Neither is the evocation out loud a negligible aspect, since it is associated (in experimental jargon) with the production effect. As an example, the application of this effect to educational research shows that reading texts out loud produces a more accurate recollection of the contents read as compared to reading them out loud, and that this advantage is lasting and transversal to different types of texts. (18)
- Raise your arms... but slowly! – The simple strategy of questioning the class group can be a useful tool to collectively promote the practice of retrieval, instead of benefiting only those students who have the information more consolidated or present in the short-term memory. All you need to do is take a short break between asking the question and asking for an answer. This simple procedure allows all students time for a recovery effort which, together with the comparison with the correct answer, promotes the consolidation of learning (even if the evoked answer is incorrect). (17)
The effectiveness of retrieval depends not only on the type of tasks used, but also on the quality of the execution, and in particular on the observation of requirements such as: a) the evaluation tasks must involve a minimally moderate and individual retrieval effort. Typically, the greater the effort to retrieve (the acquired information), the greater the probability of rebuilding learning, and the lower is the risk of forgetting; b) the degree and quality of the retrieved information should be (self) monitored in order to identify possible errors or flaws; in this sense, c) the teacher's feedback is indispensable and should be explanatory, not only indicating the accuracy of the response, but justifying it (and the same applies to self-correction in self-study); d) the practice of retrieval should occur during the learning process, and not only in its final phase. (1, 2, 6, 10, 14, 20)
To keep in mind: it is used to learn, not to evaluate
- The practice of retrieval is a learning strategy, not an evaluation strategy. Its high effectiveness is due to the information retrieval exercise and the consequent consolidation of learning in long-term memory.
- The tasks used for information retrieval must be diversified and involve some degree of cognitive and individual effort.
- The consistency and accuracy of the application determine the results of this strategy, and include: the monitoring of the quality of learning, the elaborative feedback and the systematic practice (to the detriment of the occasional practice).
- Retrieval practice can be combined with other classroom strategies and should extend to self-study tasks. The means of responding to tasks can also be diversified and include the use of digital platforms and tools that allow joint viewing of tasks and obtaining immediate feedback.
- The usefulness of retrieval practice is transversal to the generality of school learning processes, levels of education, and age groups, and brings proven cognitive and metacognitive benefits to students. In this sense, the accumulated evidence and knowledge have a vast potential for pedagogical application, both for the design of teaching practices and tools, and for the conceptualisation of broader educational decisions.
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