What is Retrieval Practice?
I first came across the idea during my first year of teaching, when I read the book ‘Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning’ by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger and Mark A. Mcdaniel. I then saw the concept reinforced in the excellent materials produced by The Learning Scientists (https://www.learningscientists.org/downloadable-materials). I’ve had their posters (like the one below) up on my classroom walls ever since!
Think of your brain as a three-step memory pathway: sensory store, short-term (working) memory, and long-term memory. Whenever you learn something new, it first enters your sensory store - a sort of holding area for incoming information. But hold on, there's a catch! If you don't pay attention or engage with this information, it'll quickly vanish like a puff of smoke.
This is where retrieval practice (also known as active recall) becomes important. When you actively recall information from your brain, you're reinforcing the connection between your short-term memory and long-term memory. It's like giving your brain a gentle nudge, reminding it that this information is essential and worth storing for the long haul. And guess what? The more you recall that information, the stronger the memory becomes, and it's less likely to fade away over time (as we saw with the forgetting curve in my previous blog post).
How Does It Work?
The magic of retrieval practice lies in the testing effect. When you actively recall information, you signal to your brain that this knowledge is essential, and it needs to be retained. Each successful recall strengthens the neural pathways associated with that memory, making it easier to remember in the future.
You see, the brain is like a muscle; the more you use it (in the right way), the stronger it gets. So, when you recall information repeatedly over spaced intervals (a.k.a. spaced repetition), you're telling your brain that this stuff is worth remembering.
It might seem counterintuitive that in order to remember information, we need to practice getting that information out of our brain by testing ourselves, rather than trying to cram more information in. This is why, as a student, attempting past exam questions is one of the best ways to prepare for a test or an exam, as it forces you to pull information out of your brain.
Sensory Store to Short-Term Memory
When you learn something new, let's say a historical date or a scientific formula, it enters your sensory store. To ensure it doesn't disappear, try to pay attention and focus on the material. Engage with it actively, like taking notes, discussing it with a friend, or teaching it to someone else. This will help transfer the information to your short-term memory. Usually, this process will occur in the classroom when you are being taught new material by your teacher.
Short-Term (Working) Memory
Your short-term memory is like a temporary workspace. It can hold only a limited amount of information for a short period, like a mental sticky note. Now, to prevent the information from slipping away, use retrieval practice! This means you need to actively recall the material from your short-term memory without looking at your notes or textbook. This can be done through flashcards, quizzes, or simply trying to remember and explain the concepts aloud. Although more and more teachers are learning about the importance of retrieval practice and starting to incorporate it into their lessons, it’s important that you take responsibility for doing active recall strategies yourself at home so that information can be passed from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
Here comes the jackpot - long-term memory! The more you practice retrieving the information, the more your brain strengthens the neural connections associated with that knowledge. Over time, this repetition moves the information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Voila! You've got yourself a solid memory that will stick around for a long time. When exam time comes around, you want to have as much information stored here as possible.
Practical Tips for Effective Retrieval Practice
Flashcards: Create flashcards with questions on one side and answers on the other. Regularly quiz yourself using these flashcards to recall information.
Practice ‘Blurting’: This involves starting with a blank sheet of paper and jotting down anything that comes to mind about a specific topic or concept. After the session, notes are reviewed to fill in any gaps and add structure. This technique enhances memory retention and helps capture overlooked information for comprehensive exam preparation.
Teach and Test: Teach the material to a friend, family member, or even your pet! Explaining concepts to others helps reinforce your own understanding. As Joseph Joubert said, “To teach is to learn twice."
Space it Out: Instead of cramming all at once, space out your retrieval practice over time. This spaced repetition helps cement the information in your long-term memory.
Mix it Up: Interleave different topics or subjects during retrieval practice. This challenges your brain to switch between concepts, enhancing your overall understanding.
Remember, the key to effective retrieval practice is to actively engage your brain and challenge yourself to recall information without relying on external aids. Embrace this technique, and you'll be amazed at how much smarter and more confident you become in your studies. It’s important to note that studying using retrieval practice will feel more difficult than simply just rereading, highlighting, or rewriting notes, but that means it’s working!
Source: Ali Abdaal (YouTube)