Hack Your Studying with Retrieval Practice

At the beginning of my previous quarter, my Database Management professor announced to the class that we would be assigned a short quiz based on the lecture every week during the quarter. While most of the class groaned, I beamed.

What did I know that they didn’t? Our professor was building in opportunities for retrieval practice, a study strategy that some cognitive psychologists consider one of the most effective ways to learn and retain material. This was great news to me, since I was already feeling overwhelmed by the class on day one (what do you mean I’m going to have to do relational algebra in library school?). Fast forward to the final exam, and I barely studied the weekend before and still finished out with an A+. Granted, some of that was due to a combination of other pedagogical tricks courtesy of my professor and plenty of hard work from me, but I still attribute much of my knowledge retention to our regular retrieval practice.

What is retrieval practice? Essentially, it’s the process of building bridges in your brain between what you need to know now and information you’ve learned previously. You’re strengthening your ability to think back and retrieve a specific concept. The more times you practice this, the easier it becomes to remember the concept later.

What does retrieval practice look like? It can be seen in any study method where you learn something, pause, and then try to remember what you learned. Regular practice quizzes like those my professor utilized is one way to do it. I also took advantage of the practice questions at the end of each of my textbook’s chapters. This helped me to learn vocabulary as well as broader concepts from the reading. In classes where I have to memorize a lot of information, flash cards are an excellent way to do retrieval practice. Look at one side of the flash card, fully pause to retrieve the needed information, then flip the card to check your answer. Flipping the card too early is no more beneficial than just rereading the original material, which might work for cramming but is no use for longer-term retention. Another way I sometimes use retrieval practice is to take a moment and write down everything I know about a topic. Later, when checking my work, I can make sure everything was accurate and identify where my knowledge gaps are. I’ve heard of some people drawing out what they know, but as Ican barely draw a stick figure, that option is out for me.

One key element to retrieval practice is that you have to wait a bit after initially learning the material to use it effectively. Give the information time to fall out of your working memory, or you’re not actually “retrieving” it from anywhere. This need to temporarily forget what I learn is why, if I’m working on memorizing content for a new presentation at work, my colleagues will often see me take a quick walk around the stacks or take a 5 minute break to work on a puzzle.  I need to let my knowledge slide away temporarily in order to practice bringing it back. If one of your professors also decides to give quizzes in an online class, try waiting a day after you do the reading or watch the lecture to take the quiz. Do your best to answer all the questions from memory rather than consulting any additional sources. It’s trickier in the moment, but if you peek, you’re not actually practicing retrieval.

I know from experience that this can be frustrating. Retrieval practice comes with a lot of initial failure. You won’t remember as much when you first start practicing with a concept as you would if you were just regurgitating it from a cram session. However, if you just do a bit at a time, it pays off in the end. After all, we’re paying a lot for our degrees. Shouldn’t we find ways to remember the content beyond the end of the class?

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Kerri Milliken is a MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University. She spends a lot of time thinking about the way we learn in her job as a learning and development specialist for a public library district in Pennsylvania. She also spends a lot of time listening to podcasts, including the one that made her excited to take practice quizzes every week: The Learning Scientists Podcast.

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