By Henry Schimmel and Brennan McGuire
Deep-rooted high school study habits tend to die hard in college if they are not swiftly corrected. One of the greatest challenges new college students face is abandoning their traditional methods of rereading and memorizing class material when preparing for an exam. While these study techniques may have yielded positive results in the high school classroom, they simply won’t suffice in the rigorous domain of higher education. However, it is never too late to change your study habits. You might be pleasantly surprised by the extent to which changing your study routine can improve your academic performance and overall retention of information. While it can be a daunting and arduous task to modify your existing study paradigm, by utilizing the simple method of retrieval practice, you can significantly improve long-term understanding and performance.
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice, or test-enhanced learning, is an effect in which long-term memory is enhanced through actively retrieving and applying previously absorbed information with proper feedback. Bolstered by contemporary psychological research, this study method encourages students to learn by actively engaging with course material, as opposed to passively receiving the information from reading a textbook or staring at lecture slides. In this case, a student is actively recreating course material from their own memory. By actively engaging with said material, students are better able to exercise their brains like a muscle. More specifically, retrieval practice aids in encoding, the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. By repeatedly utilizing the same neural pathways in your brain as you continue to retrieve and apply the same information, your brain will progressively grow more efficient over time .
Instead of forcing as much information as possible into your brain, try getting some information out of your brain and use it. Your brain is like a suitcase. If you cram clothing (information) into it without pause or forethought, then you are going to end up with a disorganized and cluttered mess. Some things you’ll be able to pull out with ease, but other things will take a bit more effort. It’s going to be harder to pick out that favorite shirt you wanted to wear, and even if you somehow managed to find it, the shirt may be wrinkled and not quite what it used to be. You may even lose a shirt amidst the chaos. Retrieval practice is a way of taking out each article of clothing, ironing out the wrinkles, and folding them up neatly into the suitcase, freeing up more space for additional information and making retrieving any specific article a lot easier.
Use it or lose it! How retrieval practice can improve long-term learning and academic performance
Retrieval practice is a superior method to studying and learning that goes beyond simply taking notes, attending lectures, and reading textbooks. While these methods can sometimes be enough to make the grade, they are inconsistent and often come up short in more demanding subjects. Simply rereading may a lot you a passing grade on a multiple-choice exam. However, it will not provide you with an adequate score on more demanding examinations that include short answer questions or short essays. This is because reading or cramming before an exam only enhances recognition, not recall. There is a big difference between familiarity and knowing, and retrieval practice via practice testing can make all the difference.
Another reason retrieval practice is so important in college is that your education is geared toward long-term success. Cramming or rereading the chapter may be enough to net you the A+ that you crave. However, such study methods cannot sustain sufficient long-term learning. You likely won’t remember the information you crammed into your brain for biology class by the next semester—or even by the next week! Therefore, it is important to actively use the information that you learn as a means of studying to retain it throughout your four-year college experience and beyond.
When it comes to learning new things in college, the phrase “Use it or lose it,” is deeply profound.
Using retrieval practice to your advantage!
What are some specific ways of using retrieval practice to your advantage? First, you can use self-testing by taking advantage of chapter quizzes and unit tests found in your textbook or on the Internet. However, this is more effective if correct answers and feedback are readily available to you.
One of the easiest and most commonly implemented methods of practice testing is the use of flashcards. It is a quick way to self-test and receive immediate feedback for your answers. Using textbook quizzes and unit tests allow you to test your own information retrieval, but flash cards also allow you to study more effectively in group settings. Finally, your ability to randomize the order of the flashcards helps ensure that you aren’t simply memorizing unrelated fragments of information and enhancing recognition. Instead, you are stressing your “retrieval muscles” by constantly improving retrieval and recall.
Another group study method that utilizes retrieval practice would be for each person within a group to develop their own comprehensive practice test and disseminate theirs to other members of the group. This would provide everyone with a myriad of practice tests, each formatted, worded, and ordered differently.
In the end, practice makes perfect.
Several psychological studies from the past decade have demonstrated the effectiveness of retrieval practice in improving long-term memory retrieval.
“Why should I believe you?” – Studies demonstrating the power of retrieval practice.
Roediger and Karpicke from Washington University in St. Louis had participants study a short prose passage either about the sun or sea otters, followed by one of two tasks. Participants either reread the passage (re-studying) or took immediate free-recall tests (testing). Finally, participants took a final retention test 5 minutes, 2 days, or 1 week later to test their memory. In these final retention tests, participants simply regurgitated as much information about the passage as they could remember, without concern for exact wording or order. Not surprising, after a 5-minute delay, there was little difference between the two conditions in terms of overall retention. However, those who had undergone testing possessed greater long-term retention of the passage after 2 days and 1 week had passed. This demonstrates the long-term benefits of retrieval practice. This enhanced performance obtained through retrieval practice is known as the testing effect.
Roedinger and Karpicke then conducted a nearly identical experiment, except this time, they divided subjects into one of three conditions: repeated studying (SSSS), single test (SSST), or repeated test (STTT). S and T represent the order of study and test periods respectively. As you can see below, after a 1-week retention delay, those tested more often recalled more information and forgot less information than those who were tested only once or solely reread the passage.
This experiment seems to imply that immediate feedback is not necessary for improved retention. However, a follow-up study by Karpicke, Roediger, McDermott, Kang, and Agarwal suggests otherwise. Conducting a similar experiment as before, they demonstrated that taking open- or closed-book tests with proper feedback resulted in superior long-term retention than taking the same tests without feedback. Therefore, it is still recommended that students utilize immediate feedback when engaging in retrieval practice to maximize learning.
Karpicke and Roediger’s findings have been further replicated by many other experiments, including Butler (2010) ; Karpicke and Blunt (2011) ; and Kang, McDermott, and Roediger (2007) . In the end, Roedinger, Karpicke, and many other researchers have reached a strong consensus: Immediate testing after reading a prose passage promotes better long-term retention than repeatedly studying the passage, with or without testing feedback.
Also, in addition to the clear academic benefits of retrieval practice, it can also provide a critical psychological benefit by mitigating stress effects on memory retrieval. Decades of research suggest that stress negatively impacts memory retrieval. However, utilizing retrieval practice can counteract these negative influences. As a result of using practice tests, retention of information is protected from negative stress effects . As a college student, stress can be severely detrimental to studying and test performance, which further demonstrates the importance of utilizing retrieval practice in higher education.
So let’s review!
Retrieval practice is the process of active retrieval and application of previously absorbed information with proper feedback.
Testing yourself on material is an effective way to improve encoding, the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory.
The more you use the information you have learned, the longer you will remember it.
Use flashcards! This is a tried and true (and often underestimated) method of self-testing and immediate feedback. Make sure to mix up the order of the flashcards to prevent rote memorization from occurring. Additionally, take advantage of chapter quizzes and unit tests from your textbooks, or even create your own.
Long-term retention is shown to be significantly greater for those who studied with practice tests than those who used basic reading and memorization, and practice tests also have the added benefit of mitigating the negative effects that stress can have on memory during tests.
As a new college student, you should always take advantage of every opportunity for self-improvement. Your grades and future are dependent on good study habits, so try to kick the old habits that will likely hinder your ability to truly learn during your college experience.
 Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (4th). 186-187. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
 Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.
 Agarwal, P.K., Karpicke, J.D., Kang, S.H., Roediger III, H.L., McDermott, K.B. (2008). Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7): 861-876.
 Butler, A.C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5) 1118-1133.
 Kang, S.H., McDermott, K.B., & Roediger III, H.L. (2007). Test format and corrective feedback modify the effect of testing on long-term retention. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 528-558.
 Smith, A.M., Floerke, V.A., Thomas, A.K. (2016). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354(6315), pp.1046-1048.