Retrieval Practice

Share Cognitive Science Implications for Teaching Mathematics

One of the most startling revelations of recent cognitive science research is the effectiveness of retrieval practice as a learning activity.  This phenomenon is also known as the testing effect.

Every prominent cognitive scientist agrees that retrieval practice is the most powerful learning strategy available to a learner.  The list of scientists who currently make this claim include: Roediger, McDaniel, Willingham, Mayer, Willis, Bjork, Karpicke, Pashler, and the list goes on.

Thinkers throughout history have been aware of the beneficial effect of retrieval practice.

Aristotle wrote: “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”

Several studies scattered though the 20th century confirmed that retrieval practice (low stakes testing) significantly improves learning.  Research during the last 15-20 years has refined our understanding of this phenomenon and has remove all doubt of its positive effect on learning.

Retrieval practice strengthens retrieval paths from long-term memory to short-term memory.

  • The act of retrieving a memory changes the memory, making it easier to retrieve again later.
  • Repeated retrieval not only makes memories more durable but produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily, in more varied settings, and applied to a wider variety of problems.
  • Practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than re-exposure to the original material does.

Remember to learn a fact means to store that fact in long-term memory and to have it available for retrieval to short-term memory.  The biggest obstacle to learning is not getting information into long-term memory but rather is the inability to retrieve information from long-term memory.  Retrieval practice mediates that obstacle.

My personal view of this phenomenon:

A piece of information is stored in a fixed location in long-term memory and there are thousands (or millions) of paths from that location to short-term memory.  Retrieval practice serves to:

  1. Make one of these retrieval paths the preferred retrieval path.
  2. Strengthens the preferred retrieval path.
  3. Retrieval Practice interrupts the forgetting curve.

Forgetting from long-term memory has only one cause – a weak retrieval path. Therefore, interrupting the forgetting curve is tantamount to selecting and strengthening a preferred retrieval path.

Information is transferred from one neuron to another via an electrical-chemical process (electrical in axons and dendrites but chemical though synapses) from a nucleus to an axon through a synapse to a dendrite to a nucleus.  The nuclei, axons, synapses, and dendrites involved in the transfer of one piece of information from long-term memory to short-term memory is its retrieval path.  An astonishing fact is that such a retrieval path contains about 1,000 trillion synapses.

In order for retrieval practice to be effective it should be difficult, but not so difficult that the learner is unable to recall anything.  It is also critical that the learner receive immediate feedback.  That feedback should provide reward and confirmation when the learner succeeds in the recall effort.  When the learner is unable to successfully recall the desired information, the feedback should provide the correct information in a non-judgmental manner.

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