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How can we use ‘knowledge retrieval’ and memory, to become more effective learners?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

17th November 2023

Psychological research suggests that self-testing is a superior learning strategy when compared to rereading notes.

Retrieval failure due to the absence of cues is a theory of forgetting you may be familiar with from your study of Psychology. This theory is based on the encoding specificity principle (Tulving) and states that if the same cues are present in learning and recall, this will aid in the retrieval of a memory. Conversely, if the cues at learning and recall are different, forgetting may occur. Whilst this theory of forgetting is useful to some extent in helping us to be the best learners we can be (study in silence as the exam hall will be silent, being one top tip!), the field of research into retrieval as a concept is vast and contains many useful pointers for being an effective learner.

When we attempt to retrieve information from our long-term memory, the memory trace (the biological structure in the brain that represents a memory) is strengthened. On the other hand, when we reread information, the fact that the information looks familiar means you could be misled into thinking that you already know it and will be able to remember it later on.

Roediger and Karpicke (2006) showed the power of ‘self-testing’ in an experiment involving student participants. The students had to study two different texts (one was about the sun, and one was about sea otters). After a break, one group was asked to reread the texts (the reread condition), whilst the other group was asked to write down everything they could remember about the texts (the retrieval condition). The participants were tested for their recall after 5 minutes, 2 days, and 1 week.

The findings showed that the reread group outperformed the retrieval group on the immediate recall after 5 minutes (although results were very close with 81% vs 75% accurate recall respectively). However, after a delay, the retrieval group performed significantly better than the reread group. At 2 days the retrieval group remembered 68% of the material in comparison to the reread group who remembered 54% and at 7 days the retrieval group remembered 55% of the material in comparison to the reread group who remembered 42% of the material. This study therefore provides us with evidence that if we wish to improve our performance on assessments involving recall, retrieving the information from memory (by testing ourselves) is a much more effective strategy than rereading, which may cause us to feel more confident in our knowledge than we should.

There are many ways of incorporating retrieval into your study habits, a couple of ideas are below:

  • Flashcards – have a word or question on one side and a definition or an answer on the back. There are many online platforms to complete these flashcards on now as well as the classic paper versions! Tutor2U also provides high quality revision flashcards to support your learning
  • Brain-dumps – put the name of a topic / sub-topic area in the middle of a blank piece of paper and write down everything you know about that area. Once you have recalled everything you can, grab a different coloured pen and your class notes and add anything you missed in the new colour.

Questions you might like to consider following this blog:

  • What are the different types of cue according to the theory of retrieval failure?
  • What type of experimental design was utilised by Roediger and Karpicke?
  • Could this design have caused any issues with the internal validity of this study?
  • What retrieval strategies have you found to be helpful in your learning?

Roediger, H. L. III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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