How to Learn Faster Using Retrieval
Learning new information or a new skill is never an easy task. It takes time and effort.
Anyone trying to learn new knowledge or acquiring a new skill wants to do so in an efficient manner.
Unfortunately there’s not really a shortcut to gain understanding of new material. However, we still want to do so in a timely and efficient a manner as possible.
So how can you learn faster?
Yes, you can cram the night before a test. Or memorize a bag full of facts before you present at your next business meeting. I wouldn’t call that learning, though.
There is an undervalued technique that can help you learn effectively, though. It’s a bit old school, but the science literature backs it up. It can work for quick memorization or for remembering material longer.
This technique is called “practice testing”. Although it’s also called “retrieval” or “active recall”. It’s the basic principle of recalling information from memory.
Let’s check out how to learn faster using retrieval.
It’s Not What You Think
Retrieval really is one of the oldest study methods in the book. But it also beats out other commonly used techniques.
Practice testing is not your traditional view of what “testing” might be. In school, tests are used to asses how much is learned, and performance is critical to earning a good grade.
Practice tests, on the other hand, are not one time assessments.
Retrieval is practiced with frequency, is way more casual, with no high stakes. It is a low pressure way to improve learning.
How Students Actually Study
Meet Jeffrey Karpicke.
Jeffrey is a cognitive psychologist from Purdue University. His area of research looks at strategies for long term learning and comprehension. He also recently won the Janet Taylor Spence Award – which recognizes scientists for contributions to psychological science.
So he’s a bit of an expert when it comes to learning strategies. He’s also spent a good deal of time researching retrieval-based learning.
In 2012 he published a study in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. In the article, Jeffrey mentions how he questioned regular, college going students how they would study for an exam.
After they had read their notes or textbook one time, they had 3 options to choose how they were likely to prepare.
- Go back and study all or parts of the material
- Try to recall the material without restudying after
- Do something else
He found that given these options, only 18 percent of students would choose to recall information after reading it. 57 percent said they would reread their notes or textbook.
Illusion of Learning
Answering a few questions is great, but Jeffrey wanted to put students to the test. Literally.
He ran an experiment in which students used different study techniques. He wanted to see which methods would produce superior results.
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.
Jeffrey then threw in a little twist. He asked the students how well they thought they would be able to remember the information in a future test. So the students rated how well they thought they’d be able to remember the material.
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.
Jeffrey isn’t the only one who studies the effects of retrieval.
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 10 techniques, only two got a top rating of “high” for effectiveness. Those two being distributed practice and, of course, practice testing.
Best Way to Practice Test
People have actually been practicing retrieval for years. As we get older though, many people practice it less and less. Maybe it’s because they don’t realize how effective a tool it really is. I don’t know.
You might laugh. It’s low tech, simple, and extremely old school. What is it?
Yup. The same thing you used to do in Jr. High and high school. Here’s what the takeaway from all the scientific literature says about this technique though.
You should never stop doing it.
Today, technology can make this easier. And extremely convenient. There are several websites that can help you create flashcards and practice wherever and whenever you need. The basic concept, however, remains the same.
More Than Just a “Test”
It seems there’s a disconnect between what the effective study techniques are and what methods are actually used.
As Jeffrey’s research reveals, there can also be a huge gap between the perception of learning and what actually takes place. Almost the opposite, in fact.
Students shouldn’t see retrieval as purely a means of testing their knowledge. The reality is that it’s one of the most effective uses of your study time.
If you know of anyone heading back to school, or looking to learn in general, please share! Everyone can benefit from effective learning.