Research finds practicing retrieval is best tool for learning

January 20, 2011
Jeffrey D. Karpicke

Research findings by Jeffrey D. Karpicke, a Purdue assistant professor of psychological sciences who studies learning and memory, show that the time students invest in rereading or reviewing their notes would be better spent practicing retrieval, such as self-testing, to ensure better learning. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The time students invest in rereading or reviewing their notes would be better spent practicing retrieval to ensure better learning, according to new research from Purdue University.

"We continue to show that practicing retrieval, or testing yourself, is a powerful, robust tool for learning," said Jeffrey D. Karpicke (pronounced CAR-picky), an assistant professor of psychological sciences who studies learning and memory. "Our new research shows that practicing retrieval is an even more effective strategy than engaging in elaborative studying.

"Educators, researchers and students are often focused on getting things 'in memory,' so techniques that encourage students to elaborate on the material are often popular. But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practicing retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy."

He also found that most students are not good at judging the success of their study habits.

"When students have the material right in front of them, they think they know it better than they actually do," he said. "Many students do not realize that putting the material away and practicing retrieval is such a potent study strategy."

Karpicke's findings appear in this issue of the journal Science, and the National Science Foundation supports his work.

In two studies, a total of 200 students studied texts on topics from different science disciplines. One group engaged in elaborative studying by creating concept maps - diagrams that illustrate the complicated connections and relationships in the material. The second group read the texts and then practiced retrieval; these students put the material away and practiced recalling the concepts from the text. The students returned to the lab a week later for the actual assessment of long-term learning. The group that studied by practicing retrieval showed a 50 percent improvement in long-term retention scores above and beyond the group that studied by creating concept maps.

"The final retention test was one of the most important features of our study because we asked questions that tapped into meaningful learning," he said. "The students answered questions about the specific concepts they learned as well as inference questions asking them to draw connections between things that weren't explicitly stated in the material. On both measures of meaningful learning, practicing retrieval continued to produce better learning than elaborative studying."

The students also were asked to predict which technique - practicing retrieval or elaborative studying - would be best for their long-term learning. While the majority thought that elaborative studying with concept mapping would be best, the students actually learned more by practicing retrieval.

"Students do not always know what methods will produce the best learning," he said. "It may be surprising to realize that there is such a disconnect between what students think will afford good learning and what is actually best. We as educators need to keep this in mind as we create learning tools and evaluate educational practices.

"There is nothing wrong with elaborative studying - it is certainly good for learning. But our research shows that practicing retrieval is even more effective. In addition, we used concept mapping as an elaborative study method, but we are currently exploring ways to use it as a retrieval practice technique."

Janell R. Blunt is the co-author on this article. She was a student in the Research-Focused Honors Program in the Department of Psychological Sciences, and the study was part of her undergraduate honors thesis project in 2010. Blunt is now working on her doctorate in cognitive psychology in the Department of Psychological Sciences.

Karpicke's future studies include evaluating how concept mapping can be used as part of the retrieval process, as well as other effective self-testing practices for students.  

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, 

Source:  Jeffrey D. Karpicke, 765-494-0273, 

Note to Journalists: A copy of the journal article is available to journalists by contacting Amy Patterson Neubert, Purdue News Service, 765-494-9723,  

Related websites:

Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences

Purdue Memory and Cognition Lab


Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than
Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping

Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt

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.