Science of Learning: Repeated Retrieval Yields Retention

Occurring last in the learning process, retrieval of information proves the most crucial step. Without this key part, much of what we previously learn is quickly forgotten. Repeated retrieval of learned information not only strengthens information in our minds but builds the foundation for adapting to the world around us.

Cue the Retrieval

First, we should define such an important process to how our brains function. Retrieval is the process of recalling a stored memory into your working memory. Here’s an example: what’s your phone number? For most of us, those 10 digits come to mind quickly, emboldened by their many uses over the years. To this day, a trick I use to remember my number comes from the amount of 7s it contains, two back to back. This is an example of a memory cue, something often overlooked, but key to tying our memories together.

In Make it Stick, these memory cues sum up the importance of information context: “How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth.” Retrieval has been a “well-replicated phenomenon in laboratory studies” and shows immense strength in continued learning efforts.

During focused, effortful recall… the most salient aspects of learning become clearer, and the consequent reconsolidation helps to reinforce meaning, strengthen connections to prior knowledge, bolster the cues and retrieval routes, and weaken competing routes. – Make it Stick

It’s About How You Learn

Make it Stick goes on to further explain that engaging in “calibration” can prime the pump for memory cues. In a nutshell, calibration entails self-reflection before learning something. This keeps us honest to what we know and don’t, “to avoid being carried off the illusions of mastery that catch many learners by surprise at test time.” A great way to do this before any lesson is to stop and ask yourself the question, “What do I know about financial services” or “painting,” or “driving a motorcycle”? Taking a moment to write out any previous assumptions of knowledge can calibrate our minds to more efficiently learn. Even if the assumption was correct, the act of being right will strengthen that memory.

As we discussed earlier, difficult learning increases the strength of memories created. While our early years of school focuses on success, studies show that if children are told that failure is a part of the learning process, performance can improve greatly. The ideal learning process is challenging, but supportive throughout. Again, Make it Stick puts it succinctly, “The more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or a skill, the more practice of retrieval will entrench it.”

Repeated Retrieval

Physically Made for Recall

Retrieval isn’t just a theory of how our brain works, we’re hardwired to recall information. A Queensland Brain Institute study into the physical changes of our brain can be summed up as “use it or lose it.” Mental traces formed during encoding and storage become more permanent when we retread those paths during retrieval. If those connections within our mind go unused, they are destroyed over time.

We use the tools of retrieval and recall to create concrete learning, but they have specific uses. Grabbing a screwdriver to chop down a tree probably isn’t the best use of your time or the screwdriver. The old sports quote “You play the game how you practice,” rings true here. Focused learning at your work desk increases the speed and efficiency of mental recall going forward. State-dependent learning refers more to a mental state, but the physical location, sensory stimuli, and the atmosphere in which you learn affect recollection as well. Aimless reading of information won’t do much to improve retrieval, but a focused study of relevant content can produce real results.

All four steps in the process of learning happen so seamlessly it’s nearly impossible to define beginnings and endings, and retrieval is the main culprit. Recalling information functions as the fuel and foundation for our memory.

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