The Limitations Of Retrieval Practice


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How much effort should a teacher invest in using retrieval practice in the classroom?

In a new paper, Student’s Use of Retrieval in Self-Regulated Learning asks if complex problem-solving procedures are easily resolved with restudy and worked examples.

The research paper highlights the implications of students’ perceptions of the purpose of retrieval for monitoring and self-regulating learning, including effort during learning, and in particular with problem-solving learning.

When is the best time to study?

Every year when the examinations start, students and teachers across the world commence revision activities. How many consider where, how and best to learn, or that repeated testing with no feedback, not restudying the material can improve test scores? These are interesting findings for teachers, and I suspect these recommendations will take years to filter through to the wider student and parent population.

“There is no question that retrieval practice is one of the most widely studied cognitive science principles for enhancing memory.  The early studies on retrieval to 1909” (Abbott).

Research on retrieval highlights “the importance of an initial opportunity to encode some information followed by an opportunity to retrieve that information from memory”.

But, what are the limitations of retrieval? We’ve not heard much about that, have we?

The limitations of retrieval practice

Quizzing, definitions, memory cards, mnemonics and countless others, all highlighted as effective strategies to improve long-term retention. However, recent studies have begun to explore the effects of retrieval on complex concepts and principles.

One study, Tran et al. (2015), explores these effects of retrieval and that learning is not always straightforward.

Follow-up studies have revealed that retrieval can benefit deductive reasoning.

“Wissman et al. (2018) observed the same outcomes as Tran et al. (2015) when using the same materials and same basic procedure.” However, when students were “given extra practice through cued recall with feedback, initial retrieval success was increased”, and final tests were higher following retrieval compared to rereading.

There’s so much retrieval practice research for teachers; so many-conflicting findings…

Eglington and Kang (2018) also found the same results when information was presented one at a time. However, “when information was presented simultaneously (to facilitate the processing of the relationships between them), retrieval facilitated later performance.”

Using retrieval practice for problem-solving

When problem-solving scenarios are presented in terms of the effects of retrieval, various conclusions are drawn.

  1.  When given a new or similar problem to solve with differing features, students were not generally better at solving the problem even if they have previously retrieved.
  2. Students who performed well on the initial retrieval task, those who retrieved rather than reread the initial problem were significantly more likely to solve the second problem.
  3. Another research paper, Hosetter et al, 2019, found that retrieval of a problem scenario did not enhance later ability to apply the same solution to a new problem.

Although retrieval practice may benefit overall memory for any original problem scenario, it may not enhance memory for the specific details common to an original and new problem.

Various problem-solving tasks and worked examples are discussed in the paper.

These findings suggest that retrieval may enhance performance on complex tasks so that performance depends, at least in part, on memory of previously acquired information. The learning of concepts and principles which students build through identifying common properties will rely on the extraction of commonalities across multiple instances, rather than on memory for specific pieces of information.

This also highlights the importance of a well-mapped curriculum, that is not just knowledge-rich, but carefully sequenced and transparent throughout the entire school.

Conclusions

Retrieval practice may benefit memory retention, but it may not be the best way to support the processing required for the learning of complex concepts.

When students use retrieval practice for their own studies, research at large (at present) is not well understood. “Current data on students’ studying decisions cannot clearly distinguish” between retrieval versus restudy. “Students tend to avoid using retrieval where it would be beneficial, and they tend to overuse it in contexts where it would be better to start with extended study rather than retrieval.”

Thus, it is difficult for any educator to know the decisions students make outside the classroom and which lead to better outcomes. The research also suggests that students overestimated their own future test performance to a greater degree after worked examples compared to problem-solving.

This research paper suggests that using retrieval for problem-solving are generally not more effective than opportunities for extended study!

You can download the full paper in PDF format.

Footnote: This is my summary of the 26-page research paper. It is important to go beyond my analysis if you truly want to understand research. I have merely highlighted key findings and other aspects of interest.


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