Don’t Google it. Don’t reread source material. Don’t ask someone.
Just try to remember. If you must, struggle with it for a while. Why?
Because actively attempting to dig something out of your memory is what learning is all about. If your brain can’t retrieve what you learned, it’s as if you didn’t learn it at all.
When it comes to active retrieval, researchers have found:
1. Actively attempting to remember is one of the most effective ways of learning something. In one experiment, a group of students studied material in four periods. Another group studied material in the first three periods and devoted the last period to recalling as much as they could. A third group studied in the first period and then used the last three periods for active recall.
On a final exam, the first group recalled about 40% of what they learned, the second about 55%, and the third group about 60%. In short: More recall attempts equalled better results.
Implications for trainers: Devote more of your training time to active retrieval. The true measure of training isn’t how much you stuff into learners’ brains; it’s how much they can pull out.
Active recall doesn’t just have to be Q&A sessions or fill-in-the-blank quizzes. For example, you might try this technique: Have students create a cheat sheet, then attempt to copy it from memory. Allow them to use the cheat sheet they copied from memory on a subsequent quiz. That creates two levels of recall (the cheat sheet and the quiz).
2. After active retrieval, people tend to underestimate how much they’ll remember later. In the experiment, the last group predicted that they’d do worse than the other groups, even though the opposite occurred.
That may be because active retrieval is hard work. When people don’t come up with the answer, they may feel they’ve failed.
Implications: Set expectations up front. Explain to learners that they may find themselves struggling a bit and why it’s a good thing. The effort will help them retain what they’re learning. In fact, if they’re getting all the answers right, they’re probably not being challenged enough.
3. Active retrieval is a long-term strategy. Over time, it’s repeated attempts at recall that keep material accessible – even if some of those attempts end up being unsuccessful. It’s as if these efforts are telling the brain: “This stuff keeps coming up, so you need to keep it accessible.”
Implications: This study reinforces what trainers already know: Follow up is key to retention. But it also raises the question of priorities. If you assume everything has to be retrievable all the time, you’re inviting cognitive overload.
So pick your shots. Decide what needs to stick most, and design your longterm follow-up accordingly.
4. Retrieval works for more than simple learning. Researchers have found the same effect when they’ve asked students to apply knowledge, make inferences, and solve new problems.
Implications: Don’t limit active retrieval to algorithmic, how-to learning. It’s effective for higher-level training too.
Source: Karpicke, J.D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3), 157-163.
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