Retrieval based learning, the best study method?

Jeffrey Karpicke is a cognitive psychologist from Purdue University. His area of research looks at strategies for long-term learning and comprehension. He published several interesting studies [1,2] in which he questioned college students on how they would study for an exam. After they had read their notes or textbook one time, they had three options to choose how they were likely to prepare.

  1. Go back and study all or parts of the material
  2. Try to recall the material without restudying after
  3. Do something else

Only 18 percent of students would choose to recall information after reading it. 57 percent said they would reread their notes or textbook.

Learning experiment

After asking the questions, Jeffrey wanted to find out which study method would actually yield the superior results. He ran an experiment in which the students used different study techniques.

The students were split into three groups to study educational texts over 4 separate study periods.

  • The first group simply read through the text each time.
  • A second group read the text 3 times and tried to recall the information in the final session.
  • The last group read the text once, then used the remaining 3 sessions to recall the information.

Here comes the interesting part, the students were then asked how well they thought they would be able to remember the information in a future test.

Interestingly enough, the students who read the text 4 times were the most confident they’d be able to remember the material. The participants who read it once and used retrieval 3 times were the least confident.

After a week-long break, the students were invited back to be tested on how well they remembered the material.

  • The students who read the material once and practiced recall 3 times performed the best.
  • The students who simply read the text 4 times did the worst. This was despite all students putting in the same amount of time studying.

To sum it up, the students who were most confident did the worst, while the people who were least confident did the best. It also highlighted how powerful practicing recall really is for long term learning.

Study strategy comparisons

A recent review of 10 different study techniques was published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2013.

It was an extensive review looking at the scientific literature of effective learning methods. This included techniques like highlighting, summarization, keyword mnemonics, and rereading. They researchers then labeled each method with a rank of low, moderate, or high for overall effectiveness.

Out of the ten techniques, only two got a top rating of “high” for effectiveness. Those two being distributed practice and, of course, practice testing.

What is a good way to Practice Test?

One old school, yet extremely effective method are Flashcards. It doesn’t have to be on paper. You can use Anki which lets you create your own flashcards on your PC/Mac and synchronize them between all of your devices.

Personally, I am a big fan of digital flashcards. Whenever learning something new I use to create some flashcards in parallel, that way I’m able to practice recall later and thus, impregnate the knowledge to my long term memory.

Key Takeaway

There seems to be almost an inverse relationship between perception of learning and actual learning.

Retrieval turns out to be one of the most efficient uses of your study time, use it.

Karl Niebuhr

Karl Niebuhr

I'm Karl! I like to read, learn and share knowledge
Karl Niebuhr

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Also published on Medium.