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Retrieval Practice in Problem-Based Courses

The DePauw student handbook says "Students should expect to spend between forty and fifty hours a week (or more) on their academics, the equivalent of a full-time job," and that classes are designed "based on the assumption that students are preparing carefully for class so that more material can be covered in class." 

Suppose a student is dissatisfied with their academic progress - both grades and learning outcomes. Part of the solution may be to spend more time studying, but that is usually not the complete solution. To improve their outcomes, students must spend their time on the most effective practices. These practices come not from anecdotes and opinions, but through controlled cognitive experiments about how we all learn.

One important practice is awareness of "taking information in" versus "pulling information out" of one's mind. To take information in includes activities like passively listening to a lecture, watching a video, reading, and looking over notes. To pull information out includes activities like trying an exercise without looking at the answer, writing ideas in one's own words, explaining a concept to a classmate, creating analogies, testing oneself with flashcards, being quizzed by a friend, and devising new diagrams to illustrate ideas. In some literature, "pulling information out" is called "retrieval practice".

Often, students dissatisfied with their learning outcomes face two problems: not enough time spent studying, and an excessive focus on "taking information in" with minimal retrieval practice. In contrast, research shows that the optimal balance of study time should be 40% taking information in and 60% retrieval practice. In most cases, a successful student must pursue retrieval practice not just in graded assignments, but as a daily (yes, daily!) habit.

Why is retrieval practice so important? Because we are all bad at knowing what we don't know. When we see a math problem solved in front of us, or a logical argument laid out, or a literary analysis presented to us, we work hard to understand it and then we are tempted to say "OK, I got it now! I can do the same thing!" We continue with this notion and eventually we do try it ourselves. That's when we learn the truth: to understand a completed task is not the same as to complete it ourselves. In some cases, we may not actually be able to complete the task. The question is, will we realize this while we're studying, or during a test when we're about to lose a lot of points? To fail at a task is common in learning; to embrace this idea is essential to the growth mindset. Retrieval practice makes us fail earlier, in the safety of our study time, rather than during an exam. To fail at a task in studying is an occasion to celebrate! It's not a sign that something is wrong in the studying and that the practice should be avoided. It means you discovered something you don't know, and now you can fix it! You can pursue more studying, office hours visits, etc., *before* the exam, *before* the big assignment is due.

This is hard work, but in the end can save you time. When your daily studying includes retrieval practice, each subsequent class session will make more sense to you. By getting more out of each class session, less studying will be necessary out of class than would be needed for confusing class sessions. You'll also be more prepared for assignments, meaning they will take less time as well. When busy students jump right into an assignment without studying first, they often end up spending more time and achieving lesser learning outcomes in the long run.

It's hard to change our study practices. If you try to do retrieval practice and find it difficult, talk with your professor about how to move beyond just taking information in, and towards retrieval practice.