Enhance learning and revision with mixed retrieval practice

Image: Eli the Bearded

When given the task of learning or revising material for examination purposes, the majority of our students adopt methods that are sub-optimal. Casual observation suggests they typically use a cramming strategy based on reading and re-reading textbooks or class notes. This strategy does not cause much learning, but repeated exposure to the material does create a sense of familiarity. Consequently, whilst it does little to actually prepare the student, it creates an illusion of learning whereby they think they know the material much better they actually do. Needless to say, this results in wasted effort, poor performance and disillusionment.

However, while it’s easy enough to tell our students to revise differently, much harder to actually get them to do it. There’s a lot to fight against, as our students may be drawing on study habits they have built up over many years and they are often inattentive to advice about studying until they hit some sort of crisis point. In addition, they may have been given relatively little specific guidance in the past on what to do when you want to learn something and the advice they have received may be inconsistent and not evidence-informed.

Cognitive psychology gives us some evidence-informed guidance we can pass on to our students. One principle is that revision must involve retrieval practice, that is, recreating from memory, without prompts, information that was previously learned (see this blog post from The Learning Scientists for more). A second principle is that practice should be mixed. In other words, the questions used for retrieval practice should be drawn from a variety of contrasting areas rather than all coming from the same area (which would be ‘blocked practice’).

It is probably a good idea for us to inform out students of the benefits of mixed retrieval practice and supply them with resources that support it. Here are some resources intended to do this. Each is a PowerPoint slideshow consisting of 250+ slides each containing a single question about Psychology. The order of the questions has been randomised, so the student never knows what’s coming next. The idea is that the student picks a starting point and then works through the questions in series, producing either an oral or written answer before moving on. Where they can’t answer, the student should make a note of the problem area for further study. The question sets cover Paper 1 and Paper 2 of the Edexcel Psychology specification. They would need some adapting for other courses. There is also an instruction sheet for students.

If you want to make your own mixed practice sets, this PowerPoint template contains a macro to randomise the order of the slides. Add as many questions as you want and then:

  • Press ALT+F8 to bring up the macro dialogue box.
  • Select sort_rand.
  • Press RUN.

PowerPoint will then reorganise your slides randomly. I generally do this a few times as I’m not convinced that the first pass produces a very random redistribution. With large question sets it will take a minute or so to work, so don’t panic if PowerPoint stops responding for a bit.

Two notes of caution. First, the majority of studies demonstrating the superiority of mixed practice have used relatively basic tasks involving recall of discrete, concrete concepts in well structured domains (e.g. arithmetic, vocabulary learning etc.) so there is relatively little direct evidence of its efficacy with more complex and abstract material. The contextual interference effect that limits learning from blocked practice is reduced as material becomes more complex (Magill & Hall, 1990). It is therefore probably wisest to use mixed retrieval practice primarily as a way of boosting students’ factual recall of fairly discrete ideas. That said, Blasiman (2017) provides experimental support for mixed retrieval practice with introductory Psychology concepts in university students.

Second, mixed practice is more difficult than blocked practice and results in more errors. Consequently, students using it may feel that they are learning less with this approach and this may cause them to shift back to blocked practice and cramming. They need warning about this, and you’ll need to keep encouraging them. It might be an idea to organise a classroom demo experiment so they can see the benefits for themselves.

Brown, Roediger & McDaniel (2014) give a comprehensive but very accessible account of what cognitive psychology can tell us about learning in education (including mixed practice) in ‘Make It Stick’, which I recommend if you haven’t read it.

Blasiman, R. (2017). Distributed concept reviews improve
exam performance. Teaching of Psychology, 44(1), 46-50.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Magill, R. A., & Hall, K. G. (1990). A review of the contextual interference effect in motor skill acquisition. Human Movement Science, 9, 241-289.

Resources: biopsychology revision summaries

Kim J, Matthews NL, Park S. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are some brief revision summaries for Edexcel bio-psychology topics (but probably useful to others). They cover: drugs and the brain, evolution and aggression, genes and aggressionbrain structure and aggression and hormones and aggression.

Resources: evaluating the working memory model

Here’s a jigsaw activity for developing students’ evaluations of the working memory model. It’s designed for four ‘expert’ groups and three or four ‘jigsaw’ groups and covers (1) experimental support; (2) support from studies of the brain; (3) practical applications; (4) limitations of the model. There’s a set of working memory jigsaw stimuli and a slideshow with a couple of recall/application exercises tagged on at the end.

Resources: research methods and statistics

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here are a couple of bits for teaching elements of research methods and statistics. There’s an exercise on test choice and justification and two sets of stimulus-based methods questions: RMS question 1; RMS question 2.

Resources: working memory

Here are a couple of bits for teaching Baddeley & Hitch’s (1974) working memory model. There’s a slideshow, a set of application tasks to help students understand the distinction between the different components and the idea of processing conflicts in WM, and a summary of some relevant research studies with space for students to comment/interpret.