Forgetting is inevitable, but combining 2 strategies can help you ‘learn how to learn’

AMES, Iowa — Learning a new language or picking up a new hobby can sound great in theory, but plenty of people end up abandoning their new endeavor before too long. Indeed, learning isn’t easy, but researchers from Iowa State University say combining two strategies, spacing and retrieval practice, is perhaps our best way to learn how to learn.

Study authors define spacing as a strategy to learn in small doses over time. In other words, it’s the opposite of pulling an all-nighter the night before a big test. Meanwhile, retrieval practice entails habitually recalling what one has just learned. Examples include using flash cards, practice tests, and open-ended writing prompts. The research team analyzed over 100 years of research on learning to reach these conclusions.

“The benefits of spacing and retrieval practice have been confirmed over and over in studies in labs, classrooms, workplaces, but the reason why we’re showcasing this research is because these two techniques haven’t fully caught on. If they were utilized all the time, we’d see drastic increases in learning,” says Iowa State Psychology Professor Shana Carpenter in a university release.

‘Forgetting is a very natural thing’

During one study, medical students who received repeated surgery training over a span of three weeks performed far better and faster on tests both two weeks and one year afterwards in comparison to medical students who had the same training all on one day. This showcases the benefits of “spacing.”

Prof. Carpenter explains there isn’t a universal rule regarding how much time someone should take between study and practice sessions, but research indicates that returning to the material after partially forgetting some of it is actually quite effective for long-term learning. Retrieval practice, on the other hand, is especially helpful for learning new things when people check their responses for errors or get feedback right away.

Over 200 studies reveal that people tend to learn and retain more information for longer time periods using retrieval practice in comparison to other strategies not involving retrieval (like re-reading a textbook).

All in all, study authors conclude people who combine both spacing and retrieval practice have the best chance of remembering new information.

Forgetting is a very natural thing; you can’t stop forgetting even if you try, but you can slow down forgetting by using retrieval practice and spacing,” Prof. Carpenter adds.

Study authors explain false beliefs regarding how best to learn new information or skills are largely behind why retrieval practice and spacing aren’t used more widely.

“Probably the number one misconception is that learning has to feel easy in order to be working, and that’s just not true at all. You’ll learn more durably and more effectively if you persist and get through those challenges than if it had felt easy the whole time,” Prof. Carpenter comments.

Just highlighting or re-reading a textbook may feel easier than writing down responses to practice questions, but without the cognitive “knowledge check” that comes with trying to retrieve learned information, there’s a greater risk of falling into a mental trap the authors call an “illusion of learning.”

Personal pride may be at play in many cases as well. No one likes admitting they don’t understand a topic as well as they thought. Spacing and retrieval may push many learners out of their comfort zone, bringing up insecurities, a fear of failing, or another emotion they want to avoid.

How does this apply to the classroom?

Prof. Carpenter has incorporated retrieval practice and spacing into her university courses via a variety of online tools (online practice quizzes, clicker questions). Still, she says there are many other ways to bring these strategies into the classroom. More specifically, she cites the example of an elementary school math teacher highlighted at a recent conference. A few days after teaching a lesson on fractions, the teacher asked her students to share everything they could remember about fractions in an open-ended and communal manner.

“The more they talked, the more they started to remember, and those kids were excited to talk about fractions,” Prof. Carpenter notes.

Another real-life example: a middle school teacher who routinely projects practice questions from previous lessons on their classroom screen. Students write down their responses on note cards, and then individually check to see if they were correct or discuss as a group.

Prof. Carpenter stresses that in both of those examples the teachers are not actively grading the activities. These exercises are deliberately low-stakes (or no-stakes at all). That way, students can learn and recognize learning mistakes without the usual pressure that comes with typical exams.

“Learning how to learn is going to ensure that anywhere you go after the formal education years, you’re going to know how to learn something and be successful,” she concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology.

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