How should you schedule your practice sessions to make learning more efficient and durable?
That’s the question that was looked at in the paper Optimizing Schedules of Retrieval Practice for Durable and Efficient Learning: How Much Is Enough?, by Katherine Rawson and John Dunlosky.
They start with a quote by Harry Bahrick, made in 1979, about the big problem when it comes to learning: retention!
“It is disappointing that nearly 100 yr. of research have not yielded much progress toward specification of the conditions under which information, once acquired, can be maintained indefinitely. This lack of progress is particularly disappointing because few questions about memory could have more significance from either a theoretical or an applied point of view. Our educational system is designed to impart knowledge, and the significance of this great effort depends on the degree of permanence of the effects that are achieved. Much of the information acquired in classrooms is lost soon after final examinations are taken, but beyond the general advice to practice and rehearse frequently, we have little to offer those who wish to minimize or prevent such losses.” — Harry Bahrick
The literature on testing effects is vast but supports surprisingly few prescriptive conclusions for how to schedule practice to achieve both durable and efficient learning. Key limitations are that few studies have examined the effects of initial learning criterion or the effects of relearning, and no prior research has examined the combined effects of these 2 factors. Across 3 experiments, 533 students learned conceptual material via retrieval practice with restudy. Items were practiced until they were correctly recalled from 1 to 4 times during an initial learning session and were then practiced again to 1 correct recall in 1–5 subsequent relearning sessions (across experiments, more than 100,000 short-answer recall responses were collected and hand-scored). Durability was measured by cued recall and rate of relearning 1–4 months after practice, and efficiency was measured by total practice trials across sessions. A consistent qualitative pattern emerged: The effects of initial learning criterion and relearning were subadditive, such that the effects of initial learning criterion were strong prior to relearning but then diminished as relearning increased. Relearning had pronounced effects on long-term retention with a relatively minimal cost in terms of additional practice trials. On the basis of the overall patterns of durability and efficiency, our prescriptive conclusion for students is to practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of 3 correct recalls and then to relearn them 3 times at widely spaced intervals.
A Look at Retrieval Practice
There’s been a TON of research on retrieval practice:
… more than 300 experiments in more than 150 articles dating back more than 100 years … have shown that practice tests that require recall of target information from memory (i.e., retrieval practice) improve memory.
In other words, by testing yourself to see if you can recall the information you are supposed to be remembering, you improve your ability to remember it! That’s the power of recursion for you.
The problem is that there haven’t been any prescriptions to tell you exactly what to DO. It’s great to know that retrieval practice works… but how do you use it?
We can be sure that:
“More practice is better, and it should be spread out over time.”
“… how much is enough? How much do I need to practice in each study session? And how many different study sessions do I need?”
While I generally hate the question “how much is enough?” because it is a precursor to whining, it is still valid to wonder if you aren’t doing enough yet (notice the subtle difference).
The obvious answer that will work is to just study constantly and don’t stop.
… rehearse the target information indefinitely.
Or as I say, “More is not always better, but it usually is.” That’s the immersion method which works wonders.
The problem is that we aren’t able to be immersed as a rule, so we need to ensure we’re hitting AT LEAST the bare minimum to get a positive response in retention.
Further, the concern should not be that of the idiot college student who only cares about passing a test. WE should care about LONG TERM retention. What are the differences between optimizing for a short-term goal and a goal of life-long (or at least long-term) retention of the information?
That’s the optimization question — how do you find the balance between what works best vs what is realistic.
We want to know the absolute LOWEST amount of work that will still produce results we’re happy with. In their words:
How much retrieval practice is enough to achieve durable and efficient learning?
Do THIS to Retain More of What You Learn
- In your first learning bout, practice recalling the information from memory until you successfully recall it AT LEAST 3 times.
- Come back and practice recalling the information AT LEAST another 3 times — and space these sessions out over time.
If you are trying to remember a word in Spanish (for instance), test yourself over and over until you get it right 3 times (at least!).
Think of the first and last practice sessions as the END POINTS of all of your practice sessions. Space these out far from one another. Then fill in the middle with as many practice sessions as possible, in even intervals. There should be at least one in the middle! But, for the love of your education, do more.
Now go lift something heavy,