It’s right on the tip of your tongue. You can feel it, but you just can’t pull the answer out of your brain.

That struggle – unsuccessfully trying to retrieve a memory – can enhance future learning, memory researchers say.

Here’s why: Strategies that actively involve learners produce better results. And when learners are working hard to find an answer, they’re engaged.

The bottom line: Learners retain more just by trying – even if they answer incorrectly or fail to come up with any answer at all.

The research
In an experiment, one group of students was given a series of questions, but no answers. Then the students were given time to try to come up with the answers. After that, researchers distracted the students. Finally, they retested the students.

For a second group, researchers gave the students the questions and answers together to study, then distracted and retested them.

Results: The first group answered more questions correctly when retested – even though they’d never received the correct answers at all.

Implications for trainers:
Here are some suggestions for applying this research:

1. Consider starting a training session by asking learners to answer some questions. Even if they don’t know the right answers, the effort will focus their minds for what they should learn during the training session.

Another benefit: If learners struggle and then find the answer, they’ll feel successful, which gives them a psychological reward.

2. Don’t be afraid to give people difficult tests. Tough questions require workers to exercise their memory-retrieval efforts. So give them questions that force them to think. For example: “How does this relate to your job?”

3. Let everyone know what you’re doing and why. Learners – especially adult learners – don’t like feeling incompetent. So be sure to explain why the questions are difficult and reassure them that they shouldn’t expect to get all of them right.

Make it clear that these tough questions are part of the learning, not part of the assessment. You may need to find other ways to assess the learning – for example, by observing for behavior change.

4. Give feedback, not the answers, when you follow up. This research does include a warning: If workers discover that you’ll eventually give them the correct answer, their learning will actually get worse.

You do need to help them get the right answer in the end. That doesn’t mean, however, simply handing out all the answers after the quiz.

Instead, use post-test feedback to show them what they got wrong and offer hints or guidance to help figure out how to get the right answer on their own.

The same principle holds when it’s time to put the learning into practice. Let learners struggle a bit to figure out the application, instead of just telling them what they need to do.

Source: Kornell, Nate, et al., “Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2009, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 989-998.

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