kitchen table math, the sequel: the myth of regurgitation

Friday, January 21, 2011

the myth of regurgitation

Educators rely heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying, while activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are used less frequently. Here, we show that practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across texts identical to those commonly found in science education. The advantage of retrieval practice was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences. The advantage of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.

Most thought on human learning is guided by a few tacit assumptions. One assumption is that learning happens primarily when people encode knowledge and experiences. A
related assumption is that retrieval—the active, cue-driven process of reconstructing knowledge—only measures the products of a prior learning experience but does not itself produce learning. Just as we assume that the act of measuring a physical object would not change the size, shape, or weight of the object, so too people often assume that the act of measuring memory does not change memory (1, 2). Thus most educational research and practice has focused on enhancing the processing that occurs when students encode knowledge – that is, getting knowledge "in memory". Far less attention has been paid to the potential importance of retrieval to the process of learning. Indeed, recent National Research Council books about how students learn in educational settings (3–5) contain no mention of retrieval processes.

It is beyond question that activities that promote effective encoding, known as elaborative study tasks, are important for learning (6). However, research in cognitive science has challenged the assumption that retrieval is neutral and
uninfluential in the learning process (7–11). Not only does retrieval produce learning, but a retrieval event may actually represent a more powerful learning activity than an encoding event. This research suggests a conceptualization of mind and learning that is different from one in which encoding places knowledge in memory and retrieval simply accesses that stored knowledge. Because each act of retrieval changes memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning. Most prior research on retrieval practice has been conducted in the verbal learning tradition of memory research (12). The materials used have often not reflected the complex information students learn in actual educational settings (13).

Most prior research has not used assessments thought to measure meaningful learning, which refers to students' abilities to make inferences and exhibit deep understanding of concepts (14, 15).


[B]oth elaborative concept mapping and retrieval practice are active learning tasks, and our results make it clear that whether a task is considered "active" is not diagnostic of how much learning the task will produce.

The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning
Jeffrey D. Karpicke* and Janell R. Blunt
Sciencexpress Report / 20 January 2011 / Page 1 / 10.1126/science.1199327

Although I read the research that came out a couple of years ago on learning-via-testing, I hadn't absorbed the idea that testing is a form of studying.

Years ago, I learned the distinction between recall (remembering an actor's name, say) and recognition (recognizing an actor's name when you hear it). Recall is harder.

I thought the learning-testing effect was a simple matter of working on recall as opposed to recognition.

Looks like it's not. Remembering always means reconstructing.

news flash: There's no such thing as regurgitating facts.


Niels Henrik Abel said...

Stands to reason - an underutilized tool for study is some sort of self-quiz, whether it be flashcards, covering your notes and writing down / reciting what you know, reproducing a definition/theorem from memory, etc.

ChemProf said...

Yeah, I talk to my students about blank paper, as in redoing a problem from your homework without having your notes or book open. Students who really do that usually find the tests are a lot easier than they expected.

rocky said...

The teacher is the mother bird who predigests all the facts and regurgitates them into the mouths of her little nestlings.

Katharine Beals said...

Also supports the idea that it's more effective to learn grammar through the active reconstruction of sentences (a la GrammarTrainer) as opposed to the passive clicking on pictures (a la Rosetta Stone, etc.), if I may say so myself.

Ben Calvin said...

My 10-year old just got a B+ in math (his only non-A). We will be enrolling him in Kumon soon simply because he does not get enough exercices in his school.

Allison said...

Katharine, have I complained to you in a comment about Rosetta Stone before?

I tried to use their program to learn Polish many years ago. It taught me nothing, except that the word for "samolot" is either a word for boy, airplane, fork, or dog. :) (I actually do know the word must be Polish for airplane.)

Fascinating to me is that I can still recall the pictures, but only as 4-squares, all four at a time. So basically I never learned any semantic information at all.

Jen said...

I know it's nit-picky, but I really read the study as "retrieval practice" is valuable rather than

"testing" is a good way to learn. The latter is how it's usually getting spun in the press -- as though taking a test on something actually makes you learn it. I'm going to read it more closely again, but that's not the conclusion they came up with.

What I found really interesting was that the "retrieval practice" group thought they knew LESS and the concept mapping group was more sure of themselves.

Copying things that are right in front of you makes it seem like you know them, trying to remember things you don't have in front of you tells you how much you don't know. People who know what they don't know are much more likely to seek out and find those details when they reread or rehear the information.

Katharine Beals said...


I've heard exactly this about Rosetta Stone: what people remember most is the pictures--in sets of four, just as you say! At best, RS teaches vocabulary: since the correct pictures are almost always identifiable by key words, one has little occasion to develop morphosyntax skills--especially the more subtle stuff like the noun declensions of case-based languages like Polish.

And yet, some people say they love Rosetta Stone--perhaps only because it makes language learning *look* so easy (and because circumstances haven't confronted them with how little they've actually learned in terms of productive grammar)?