When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. Teachers might lecture, show videos, encourage note taking, and/or provide review sheets. Students often study by re-reading their textbooks, highlighting information, and/or reviewing their notes. In both of these situations, the focus is on getting information “in,” with the hope that it sticks.

We’ve all had the experience of feeling like these methods work – if I cram, and re-read, and study my notes, I feel fairly confident that I know the information. And indeed, cramming pays off – we tend to do well on a test. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that these methods only lead to short-term learning. Have you ever thought about material covered earlier in the semester, only to find that you've forgotten most everything? This common situation arises because of an assumption we make about memory: when information comes to mind easily and feels “fluent,” we’ve learned successfully.

Much to our surprise, however, memory researchers have demonstrated that the opposite is true: when information comes to mind easily and feels fluent, it’s easy to forget. In other words, just because we learn something quickly and easily does not guarantee we’ll remember it.

 

Challenging learning leads to long-term learning.

Retrieval practice makes learning effortful and challenging. Because retrieving information requires mental effort, we often think we are doing poorly if we can’t remember something. We may feel like progress is slow, but that’s when our best learning takes place.  The more difficult the retrieval practice, the better it is for long-term learning.

For instance, recalling an answer to a science question improves learning to a greater extent than looking up the answer in a textbook. And having to actually recall and write down an answer to a flashcard improves learning more than thinking that you know the answer and flipping the card over prematurely.

Struggling to learn – through the act of “practicing” what you know and recalling information – is much more effective than re-reading, taking notes, or listening to lectures. Slower, effortful retrieval leads to long-term learning. In contrast, fast, easy strategies only lead to short-term learning.

Note that cognitive scientists used to refer to retrieval practice as "the testing effect." Prior research examined the fascinating finding that tests (or short quizzes) dramatically improve learning. More recently, researchers have demonstrated that more than simply tests and quizzes improve learning: flashcards, practice problems, writing prompts, etc. are also powerful tools for improving learning. 

Whether this powerful strategy is called retrieval practice or the testing effect, it is important to keep in mind that the act of pulling information "out" from our minds dramatically improves learning, not the tests themselves. In other words retrieval is the active process we engage in to boost learning; tests and quizzes are merely methods to promote retrieval.