A ‘crucial benefit’ of retrieval practice
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A ‘crucial benefit’ of retrieval practice

The primary benefit of retrieval practice is clear: When learners test their knowledge after a learning event, they revisit important information, strengthening it in their memories.

But researchers recently highlighted a less-celebrated outcome of retrieval practice – one that can have a significant effect on learners’ performance.

Thinking about thinking

In a paper sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, researchers from Washington University pointed out a “crucial benefit” of retrieval practice: metacognition.

Metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking, is all about self-awareness. Self-awareness can be critical when mastering a new skill. And that’s where retrieval practice comes in.

Numerous studies have shown that learners are terrible at identifying their knowledge gaps when left to their own devices. But when learners engage in retrieval practice, they find out exactly what they know and what they don’t.

Learners generally review or study what they know instead of focusing on their areas of weakness. Why? Because reviewing what you already know makes you feel better. You get to pat yourself on the back and think, “I’ve really got this stuff down cold.” But in reality, you’re tricking yourself into ignoring serious blind spots.

Retrieval practice – tests and other activities created by a learning professional – doesn’t allow learners to labor under the delusion that he or she knows everything.

The power of metacognition

A study conducted by a team of psychologists in the Netherlands shows the power of metacognition. They found that the difference in performance between learners with and without metacognitive skills can be as high as 17 percent. The researchers stated that it has a larger influence on performance than learners’ intellectual ability. Specifically, learners who are able to evaluate and target weak areas can improve their learning experience and accelerate mastery.

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Here are some research-based recommendations for promoting metacognition among your learners.

Test knowledge. Provide learners with plenty of opportunities for retrieval practice. These can be formal assessments like tests or quizzes, or can be informal exercises like role-plays or simply asking questions during a review session. Any opportunity for learners to recall previously learned information will reinforce what they know and expose what they don’t.

Assess the thought process, not just the result. When learners get it wrong, find out why by asking them how they settled on their answer. Follow their thought process until you find where they went wrong. If you can identify the specific knowledge gap or flaw in their thinking, you can provide much more targeted feedback.

Provide timely feedback. The researchers noted that timely feedback plays an important role in metacognition. For example, if a learner finds out that he or she bombed a test a few weeks after taking it, that knowledge isn’t especially useful – they’ve already started to move on. But if they see their mistakes immediately, or a day or two later, the content will still be fresh in their mind, and they’ll have an easier time correcting errors and improving their understanding.

Encourage self-assessment. Learners, of course, also need to take responsibility for their own skill development. So encourage trainees to review and practice effectively with the purpose of rooting out weak points and filling in their knowledge gaps. If accurate self-assessment becomes routine, trainees will build their metacognitive skills and become better learners.

Agarwal, P. K., et al. (2013). How to use retrieval practice to improve learning. Retrieved from https://psych.wustl.edu/memory/Roddy%20article%20PDF’s/RetrievalPracticeGuide.pdf.
Veenman, M. V. J., et al. (2006). Metacognition and learning: Conceptual and methodological considerations. Metacognition Learning, 1(1), 3-14.

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