By Sydney Abdnour
We’ve all heard the saying “you get out what you put in.” This statement applies perfectly to schooling, specifically studying and test taking. In high school, it is easy to cram the night before a test and get a good grade. Unfortunately, that is not the case in college. Even if you consider yourself a “good test taker,” it is important to put more time into your studies than you did in high school. There are many techniques out there to enhance the learning and studying experience for students of all ages. One of the effective ways to help students (especially college students) study and retain information better is the Testing Effect, known more commonly as the Retrieval Practice Effect.
Retrieval is defined as the process of transferring information from Long Term Memory to working memory (1). Retrieval is important in all aspects of life, and as a student, you need to be able to retrieve information from your memory during class. For example, if you are taking a test, it is imperative that the information you studied be in your working memory so that you can get the information to the front of your mind. But how do we do this? There are multiple different techniques that have helped students in the past; some of them you may even be doing but have not realized they are a part of retrieval practice! Professor Robert A. Bjork from UCLA greatly supports the process of retrieval practice and the testing effect. He claims that the when you retrieve information from memory, it strengthens the memory and may make the information easier to remember and access in the future (2).
There are many different study habits you can pick up in order to practice retrieval. A lot of these are typical study habits that you may already do, but are not seeing results. Many times, students use popular study techniques but they do not practice and study in an efficient way. Maybe you are seeing this when it comes to your study habits, too. Well, have no fear! Below, we will discuss a couple study tips and tricks that will help enhance your studying and help you test better, all while practicing retrieval.
1. Flash Cards
Flash cards may seem like the oldest trick in the book, but they are, and for a good reason! Flash cards allow us to test our memory and are an easy way to study information. They challenge students to try and pull the material out from their brain instead of just reading it off of a PowerPoint slide.The testing effect, which we said earlier was another name for the retrieval practice effect, has found that retrieval of information from memory produces better retention than restudying the same information over and over again (3).
So: use flashcards instead of PowerPoint slides, but also be sure to mix up your deck of flashcards so you do not just memorize the order the questions are in. You also do not want to flip the card too early. Even if you think you know the answer, take an extra second to let your brain come up with the answer and bring it to your mind. That one extra second you let your mind think about the answer is letting your brain retrieve the answer! Your brain needs time to process the question after you read it and then bring the answer to the forefront of your mind. You will retain the information more if you do this.
2. Practice Tests
I know, I know, who wants to make their own tests? It may seem time consuming, but practice tests are one of the most effective methods of retrieval practice. It is obvious that most of us do not necessarily enjoy testing. However, it has been proven that while tests do indeed measure the things we learn, they also enhance learning (4). For example, the information you are tested on throughout a semester will stay in your brain more so than if you were not tested on it. The information is much easier to recall if you have previously been tested on it (AKA: be thankful for tests if you have a comprehensive final!). When you take a test, you are forced to think about the question and then give an answer. Your brain will have to find the information stored somewhere in your working memory and bring it out in order for you to answer, therefore, you are using retrieval once again. When making your own tests, try making them multiple choice. Research from Jang, Pashler, and Huber suggests that multiple choice tests are very effective in retrieval practice. They found that when you take a multiple-choice test, you usually use the question stated to find the answer, which helps retain and find the information later (5). There are many ways to create your own practice tests, including websites to generate a practice test or quiz (like the test mode feature on Quizlet – then just print it out) or have a friend make one for you. You could even gather a study group and each make a practice test and then exchange them so you don’t know what questions you will get!
** FlexiQuiz is a FREE website to create your own tests and quizzes to practice with, and you get almost all of the same features as you do when you pay! **
Pro-Tip: Be sure to handwrite your flashcards and practice tests! It has been scientifically proven that students who handwrite their notes learn more than those who use a laptop (6).
3. Write Down Correct Answers to Questions You Missed
Whether it is a practice test that you made, or the real test you took in class, be sure to get the correct answers to the questions you answered incorrectly. When you have the correct answers, it increases learning, especially if there is feedback attached. The correct answer allows you to correct your mistakes and retain the correct responses (3). If your professor provides the correct answers right on the exam, that’s great! If you go over the exam in class, be sure to copy down the answers to the questions you missed. If neither of these options are available, ask your professor if you could see the answer key to get the correct answers. Be sure to also write down why the correct answer was right. By doing this, you can study from your past exams to help you in the future.
Many professors have expressed their dislike for a learning process called ‘Rote Learning.’ Rote Learning occurs when students simply memorize the material and do not actually learn or retain it (7). Sound familiar? We have all probably engaged in rote learning more often than we think we do. Most professors prefer their students to use retrieval practice strategies to study and learn, because it requires the student to recall the information they previously learned. As you can see, the retrieval practice effect has been proven to help students learn, and methods to practice retrieval are not hard at all; in fact, many tend to be normal study habits.
P.S.: Here’s some good news; studies have shown that lags between studying and/or testing is required for retrieval practice to be beneficial (3). Take those social media breaks, folks!
1. Goldstein, E. B. (2015). Long term memory: Encoding, retrieval, and consolidation. In M. C. Tropp (Ed.), Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (pp. 180-186). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
2. Kang, S.H. (2010). Enhancing visuospatial learning: The benefit of retrieval practice. Memory & Cognition, 38(8), 1009-1017. doi: 10.3758/MC.38.8.1009
3. Roediger III, H. L. & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003
4. Storm, B. C., Bjork, R. A., & Storm, J.C. (2010). Optimizing retrieval as a learning event: When and why expanding retrieval practice enhances long-term retention. Memory & Cognition, 38(2), 244-253. doi: 10.3758/MC.38.2.244
5. Jang, Y., Pashler, H., & Huber, D. E. (2014). Manipulations of choice familiarity in multiple-choice testing support a retrieval practice account of the testing effect. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 435-447. doi: 10.1037/a0035715
6. May, C. (2014). A learning secret: Don’t take notes with a laptop. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
7. Bjork, R. A. (1988). Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge. Aspects of Memory, 433-438.