Microlearning is based on three key concepts – spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and confidence-based assessments – that make it extremely powerful.
In this article, let’s focus on ‘retrieval practice’ – what it means and how it is used to get superlative results in microlearning.
Willan James (in 1890s) initially floated the idea that the process of actively retrieving information improves memory. He also opined that repeated testing of learners helps improve the learning process (metacognition) and long-term memory retention.
What is ‘Retrieval Practice’?
Retrieval practice helps boost learning by pulling information out of a learner’s brain. Unlike the practice of forcing a learner to cram information, retrieval practice helps the learner recall facts, concepts, or events from their memory deposits.
After new information is learned, repeating the same content does not help much. Forced revision of information is a real waste of time! Instead, it is far more beneficial when a learner is asked to pull that information out of his/her own brain. So, skip revising and flip to retrieving!
When questions about the newly learned information are asked, the brain struggles to dig deep inside its memory to get the answers. That strengthens learning by forcing the brain to save this information in its long-term memory. When information is parked well inside one’s memory by practice testing, pulling it out later gets that much easier.
Retrieval practice (or testing) is not the same as an assessment. Though it may look like testing, it is a different learning strategy.
Types of Questions Used in Retrieval Practice
Based on the context, the questions used in retrieval practice may be:
- Free-recall questions: They measure attention and memory (recall). For instance, asking the learner to recall items in a list that was previously shown to him.
- Multiple-choice questions: They provide the learner with multiple (3-5) answer options for each question, from which he should pick the best option.
- Hybrid free recall/multiple-choice questions: After learners go through a given content, they practice retrieval by first providing short answers to the questions and then trying to answer multiple-choice questions on the same content.
- Cued-recall questions: They help the learner retrieve previously experienced learning from his long-term memory with the help of memory aids, words, sentences, or cues.
How to Enhance Retrieval Strength Through Questions
Desirable difficulty of questions: A certain level of difficulty in the questions is very good in boosting long-term memory. Difficult questions increase memory retention.
Questions should not be too easy! Otherwise, they will not challenge a learner’s brain. Learning is better when the brain is challenged. Consequently, the performance and application get even better. When that happens, the learner gains mastery over that topic.
Increasing level of difficulty of questions: Asking questions with increasing levels of difficulty works wonders! When increasingly difficult questions are asked about the same concept, it allows the brain to actively reflect on what’s learned.
Retrieval Practice and Microlearning
The practice of retrieval makes microlearning adaptive. You can use the retrieval practice as a learning tool in microlearning lessons by:
- Incorporating frequent quizzes/questions
- Asking learners to summarize the learning, instead of providing a summary
- Providing pre-tests prior to a lesson to assess learners’ knowledge
- Having no-stakes testing without scoring
To conclude, while using retrieval practice, we ask our learner questions to retrieve the information rather than giving away the answers. Asking ‘what we learned’ as a question stimulates the brain. An activated brain responds, learns, and retains information in the long-term memory. Learning sticks when the brain strives to recall what’s learned!
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