Research for Practitioners: How to Improve Knowledge Retention

In academic approaches to learning that focus on knowledge rather than skill, the activities often involve what is known as “elaborative studying”: traditional studying that involves repetition of the content. There are other methods that may also support learning, but it is difficult to find information about the relative effectiveness between the methods.

The question: If you are going to study for a test, what do you think the best way to study would be?

The options are:

1. Traditional studying, with repetition
2. Creating a visual concept map of the material
3. Retrieval practice

I’ve asked this question in class a number of times and usually the favorite answer is b) creating a visual concept map. Well, learners aren’t always the best judges of how they learn best!

A study by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt suggests that retrieval practice may actually be a significantly better method for learning. Typically, learning inventions focus on encoding memory, but practicing retrieval of memories in addition to encoding may be a critical component of learning. (Editor’s Note: Please see the sidebar at the end of the article for brief explanations of some terms that may be unfamiliar to you.)

The study,  “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt  is available at (free, but requires registration).


Karpicke and Blunt had groups of students use four different methods of studying. The first group spent time reviewing a science text in a single study session. The second group also reviewed the same text in multiple consecutive study sessions. The third group was taught a concept mapping technique and studied by creating concept maps of the science material.

The fourth group studied the text in an initial study period and then practiced retrieval by recalling as much of the information as they could on a free recall test. After recalling once, the fourth group restudied the text and recalled again. The groups spent the same amount of learning time overall in the third and fourth conditions.


While most students in the study predicted that performance would be better in the mapping condition versus the retrieval condition, the retrieval practice group (the fourth group) actually did significantly better (up to 50 percent better in some instances) on retention tests given a week later.

While there’s no way to say exactly why retrieval practice produced superior results, some possible explanations include:

•Retrieval practice allowed the students to identify and correct gaps in their knowledge.

•The retrieval practice was replicating the test condition, in that students were practicing the same activity (test taking) that they were going to use for performance

Implications for eLearning

While this study didn’t involve eLearning, there are several interesting implications for the design of eLearning.

•Creating opportunities for retrieval practice—most eLearning tends towards presentation of information, which focuses on encoding information into memory. But eLearning designers may need to look for opportunities to build in retrieval practice, so learners can see where they have or have not retained information.

•Recognition versus recall—one of the biggest limitations of eLearning environments is that the activities are almost always recognition-based (e.g., multiple choice), but there may be value to figuring out recall-based, to increase the rigor of retrieval practice.

•Not all interactivity is created equally—there’s frequently discussion of adding interactivity to eLearning, and in many cases that is likely to have a positive impact on learning and memory, but some interactive formats are likely to produce better results. Hopefully, future research can start to look at the question of most effective types of eLearning interactivity.

Sidebar 1:  Defining Terms in this article

Retrieval practice: Retrieval practice in this study involved students studying a science text and then practicing recalling as much as they could from it. Afterward, they studied again and practiced recalling a second time. This strategy requires students to retrieve concepts from long-term memory, thus the name retrieval practice.

Concept mapping: Concept mapping involves drawing a diagram in which nodes are used to represent concepts and links connecting the nodes represent relationships among the concepts. Concept mapping is considered an active learning task, and a concept map has the purpose of supporting learning. It is similar to, but not the same thing as, mind mapping or topic mapping (ISO/IEC 13250:2003).

Mind maps are a visual outline for information, using either a radial layout or a tree-like structure originating in a single word, text, or idea. Topic maps emphasize facilitating finding information and are a semantic approach to knowledge.

Recall versus recognition: Recognition tasks involve choosing the right option from a list of choices, while recall tasks involve recalling or constructing a right answer from memory.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

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