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Latest Study Validates Testing, Forced Retrieval and SQRRR

Good old-fashioned testing and a comprehensive reading theory developed in 1946 remain great learning tools.

It is a practice born of yesteryear and quite frankly appears to be giving way to concept-mapping and other forms of study habits. But yet another new study has confirmed that the practice known as forced retrieval today continues to be one of the best methods for learning new material.
In the latest report, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” researchers Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt actually cast a negative light on one of the most popular current practices. They contend that educators rely “more heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying” and do so at the expense of the traditional and extremely successful practice of “retrieving and reconstructing knowledge.”

And when these researchers say learning, they include three extremely important elements. First, forced retrieval continues to be one of the best methods for helping students retain new material.

But even more importantly than this retention, forced retrieval was deemed to be the best method for helping teach students to draw inferences as well as apply concepts to new settings.

Forced Retrieval

The term forced retrieval is used to describe the practice of formal testing or quizzing. In the case of the most recent study, forced retrieval is used to describe the process by which a student studies a specific passage for a fixed length of time, then sets that material aside to write down everything he or she can remember about the passage.

Of course, educators essentially use that same concept when they cover material for a period of time then give a written assessment. The assessment takes the place of self-quizzing and thus forces students to retrieve the information they have been studying.

Those who worry today that in testing students we are harming their learning will be extremely disappointed with the results of this study. In fact, these researchers reveal that tests, when used appropriately, are much more than a passive learning activity and thus are great tools for helping students learn new material.

In essence, the very method educators use to assess the current level of student understanding requires students to employ the forced-retrieval technique. So this research expresses strong support for testing students at appropriate points in time.

In fact, if you dig deeply into the results, the researchers support the idea that frequent, low-stakes classroom quizzes with multiple options to make up marginal work could well be one of the most viable learning tools educators can use.

The Recent Study

In coming up with their support for forced retrieval, the researchers compared this form of learning with two other learning formats. One involved repeatedly reading the material over and over again while the other involved one of the latest educational techniques, concept mapping (whereby students create detailed diagrams that theoretically help them understand and make connections among the various facts they have read).

For one of the experiments, the researchers divided students into four groups. To get at the heart of the basic idea of studying material, one group spent five minutes reading a text while a second group was provided four consecutive five-minute sessions to read and reread the passage.

The third group utilized the “concept mapping” technique and arranged the information in a diagram while the text was in front of them. The fourth and final group, after being given time to read the passage, was asked to take a simple “retrieval practice” test where they were tasked with writing down what they remembered. However, that fourth and final group was then allowed to reread the passage yet a second time, then asked to repeat the retrieval practice test.

To determine the best learning approach, one week later the researchers gave each group a short-answer test that focused on both the students ability to recall facts as well as draw logical inferences and conclusions. The fourth and final group of students, those who first read the passage and wrote down the material they had read retained about 50 percent more of the information one week later than those students who used the other two methods.

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it, creating our own cues and making critical connections within our own brains. It might just also be that the struggle to recall information is critical to further reinforcement within our brains. Lastly, perhaps by practicing the recall of information, the information then becomes easier for us to recall it at a later time.

For students, the latest study supports that critical ingredient so many professors espouse: to determine what you know, put your book and notes aside and try to recall everything you can. During the recall attempt, it does not seem to matter whether or not students write it down or say it out loud – it is only the idea of self-quizzing or forcing recall that matters.

Past Practice

This latest study also reinforces a practice that many teachers employed before the turn of this century. Veteran teachers reading the study will no doubt recall a recitation-based learning practice dubbed “SQRRR” or “SQ3R.” The concept is indeed one from the past having been popularized in the book, “Effective Study,” written in 1946 by Francis P. Robinson.

SQ3R or SQRRR was generally used as a method to teach reading comprehension to children. The letters represented the five step process: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

Of course, most sophisticated college reading material requires strong reading comprehension skills. As SQ3R reveals, internalizing and retaining what one has read demands much more than simply rereading passages multiple times or reading and providing an accompanying concept map.

As for questioning, it can of course be done by the teacher but the prior learning practice encouraged students themselves to lead the way by self quizzing. In doing so, students themselves can determine the extent to which they need to reread and review.

The latest study in fact reinforces this longstanding practice fully.

Tried and True and Still Valid

There are no doubt still many educators who believe that the forced retrieval method focuses too much on testing and an excessive emphasis on memorization. But it is clear that the demands of college require students with the necessary knowledge base to do higher order thinking and inquiry-based problem-solving.

First, testing can help teachers and students identify gaps in existing knowledge. Such recognition can then lead students to revisit those elements that may not have been clear and subsequently help them gain further insight.

In addition, when information is internalized, it can be more easily recalled when necessary, especially when it comes time to make connections with new ideas. That is where the reciting comes in SQ3R. In writing out or reciting aloud, students can actually discern what elements they can retrieve from memory when asked and which elements remain elusive.

The bottom line of course is that if we could create totally reflective students, teacher assessments could give way to self-quizzing. But given the nature of young people, having a teacher pushing the assessment process may well be necessary to ensure that youngsters take this critical step.

And that is precisely what these researchers determined: the external pressure that leads students to exercise the forced retrieval technique continues to be a viable approach for educators to employ.


1 Joshuas Law { 01.27.11 at 1:25 am }

When i was school my one of the teacher used to quizzing the class people at end of the class for 5mins every day about what they learned on that day & past day topic, we some time used to feel crazy about this but it increased our ability of understanding the topic in other classes also. really this was on good idea.

2 Mike Kolitsky { 03.09.11 at 12:30 pm }

Thanks for your help in clarifying for an old biologist what Karpicke has published with reference to retrieval practice. I read their original article in Science a few weeks before I presented at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech on the use of an online formative assessment strategy in several Biology courses which was found to increase student learning in summative assessments. The presentation can be viewed at Quite frankly, I had been at a loss to “defend” this method since there has been such a focus of late on concept mapping and inquiry-based approaches leading to the criticism of rote memorization methods which led to the conclusion that it was not helpful to the development of critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills needed to be a scientist or even a non-scientist but responsible 21rst Century citizen. I am now more confident that I am seeing interesting results in learning by retrieval practice and that my future studies should focus on how this method affects critical thinking skills. Thank you especially for your historical perspective on this issue.

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