Forgetting is natural, but learning how to learn can slow it down. • Intelligence Service • Iowa State University – Iowa State University Intelligence Service | Team Cansler

Students at Iowa State University. bigger picture. Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University

AMES, IA — Whether you’re trying to pass a test or picking up a new hobby, Iowa psychology professor Shana Carpenter says combining two strategies — distance and retrieval exercises — is the key to success.

Carpenter is the lead author of an article in Nature Reviews Psychology that examines more than 100 years of learning research.

“The benefits of distance and retrieval practices have been validated time and time again in studies in laboratories, classrooms and the workplace, but the reason we are presenting this research is that these two techniques have not fully caught on. If they were used all the time, we would see dramatic increases in learning,” Carpenter said.

In the article, Carpenter and her co-authors describe distance as a strategy to learn in small doses over time. It’s the opposite of cramming the night before an exam. In one study, medical students who received repeated surgical training over three weeks performed better and faster on tests 2 weeks and 1 year later than medical students who received the same training in one day.

Carpenter says there’s no one-size-fits-all rule for how much time to put in between workouts. However, research shows that returning to material after forgetting some – but not all – content is effective.

Retrieval practice is a strategy that involves recalling previously learned knowledge. It can take many forms, including flashcards, practice tests, and open-ended writing prompts, and helps learners identify what they know and don’t know. The authors of the paper emphasize that people who check their answers for mistakes or receive immediate feedback learn even better.

More than 200 studies show that people with retrieval exercises generally retain more information for longer periods than with strategies that do not involve retrieval (eg, rereading a textbook).

The authors argue that people who combine distance and retrieval exercises have the best chance of remembering information.

“Forgetting is a natural thing; You can’t stop forgetting even if you try, but you can slow forgetting by using recall practice and spacing,” Carpenter said.

Highlighters and illusions of learning

Carpenter says misconceptions about learning are part of the reason retrieval exercises and spacing aren’t used more often.

“Probably the biggest misconception is that learning has to feel easy in order to work, and that’s not true at all. You will learn more consistently and effectively when you persevere and overcome these challenges than if it felt easy all along,” said Carpenter.

It feels easier to just highlight or re-read a textbook than writing answers to practice questions. But without the knowledge check that comes with trying to recall learned information, there’s a greater risk of lulling yourself into what the authors call an “illusion of learning.”

Carpenter acknowledges that many people don’t like making mistakes or realizing they don’t understand the material as well as they thought they did. It may evoke insecurities, fear of failure, or other emotions they wish to avoid. But there’s a good chance they’ll eventually have to face what they don’t know when the stakes are higher, like during an exam or a presentation at work.

bring to class

Carpenter says she uses digital tools (eg, online practice quizzes, clicker questions) to incorporate retrieval practice and social distancing into her university courses, but there are other ways to bring these strategies into the classroom.

She gives the example of an elementary school math teacher whose techniques were highlighted at a recent conference. A few days after a lesson on fractions, the teacher asked her students to share whatever they could remember about fractions. It was an open and collaborative activity.

“The more they talked, the more they started to remember, and these kids were excited to talk about fractures,” Carpenter said.

She tells a different story of a middle school teacher who routinely projects practice questions from previous lessons onto a screen. The students write down the answers on slips of paper and then check them individually or discuss them in the group.

Carpenter points out that in both examples, the teachers did not grade the activities. Rather, they provided no-stakes and low-stakes practice opportunities to help students learn and recognize mistakes as an important part of the process, which benefits students beyond the classroom.

“Learning how to learn will ensure that wherever you go after the formal years of education, you know how to learn and thrive,” she said.

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