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Retrieval practice is the strategy used which brings information to mind. For example, when a student deliberately recalls information for an exam. Retrieval practice is an important concept within cognitive psychology, as it can be applied to how students can successfully learn in terms of the context (such as exam and coursework) and the subject studied. Some students may need different retrieval practice techniques for a psychology exam in comparison to a chemistry exam, as the subject is completely different. When students use retrieval practice, this encourages the use of long-term memory as often, students are trying to recall information that has been taught many weeks ago.
It has been suggested that retrieval practice is an important part of learning and when students have the opportunity to practice the retrieval of information then this can greatly enhance learning.
When students arrive at university, this is a big change from studying towards GCSE examinations or A-Level assessments. At younger ages, children are often given a lot of direction about when to learn and when to complete revision activities. As students’ progress to university, in particular into their first year, it’s often a challenge for students during exam revision times as there is no one there to inform the students of the exact times that they should be revising.
Recent research has suggested that university students still need some instructions of when and how to complete retrieval practice as they progress through education. In the study, students were placed in conditions where they received instruction and conditions where they did not, and results demonstrated that performance was enhanced even when some small amount of instruction was given.
There are many ways in which students can develop retrieval practice.
- Develop mnemonics. Instead of trying to learn every single thing about a concept, try and develop mnemonics in relation to the content. When I was in school, to learn the order of the planets, I was told to use ‘Many Vicious Elephants Make Jam Sandwiches Under Nettle Plants’, and this (even now) helps me to remember the order of the planets. In this case, it’s not about remembering every detail but supporting memory recall with different techniques such as the first letters of each word.
- Make a timetable. Try not to practise recall too much and all in one go. When I am preparing my students for exam revision, this is one of the techniques I suggest. By developing a timetable of 30-minute intervals, this ensures that the brain can concentrate without distractions but that the brain is not being asked to concentrate for long beyond capacity – ever wondered why students tend to wander off during long two-hour lectures!.
- Make revision cards. By making revision cards, students can recall the information while making the cards and then the cards can be used on subsequent occasions to improve recall. Revision cards can include keywords or different theories which can simply enhance the memory of different concepts while studying.
- Application of knowledge (not just recall). When studying towards a degree, it’s not just about remembering the information. Students need to show the ability to apply their knowledge to different situations. For example, when I teach cognition and memory, I will often provide students with application questions where they can consider a memory theory (say for instance, Baddeley’s model) in terms of a real-life example. When retrieving information, it’s beneficial for students to consider different concepts within practical and real-life situations as this can then give some meaning to the concepts studied.
- Sample exam questions. This is one of the things that I ask students to do themselves: create sample exam questions from lectures and workshop materials. This will begin to allow the students to think about how the information taught may be used in an exam situation, but it can also be a good way for students to go through the content again without realising it.
- Feedback. This is one of the most important aspects of being a psychology lecturer. Yes, students can generate questions and take part in activities, but it’s also important for students to be able to track their own learning, and to do this, feedback can be given. When I give a lecture, I will often use interactive software such as Vevox where students can provide anonymous answers to questions. Answers are then displayed on a PowerPoint screen, so students can see if they got the answer correct or incorrect. Feedback can direct retrieval practice as it can show students what they already know (and need less practice with), and what they need to do in terms of practising more with retrieving content.
While retrieval practice is very important in terms of learning, it can be affected by many things: a student’s social environment where they are learning; the type of teaching (offline vs online), and also more biological aspects such as diet and brain health. While teachers can suggest ways of improving retrieval practice, it’s up to each student to challenge themselves and consider a way of revision and retrieval that is most suitable for them.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.