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Those of you attending SAP TechEd will have much learning to retain!

 

Which of these will help you retain knowledge you’ve learned?
(A) Refresh yourself by re-reading the material
(B) Answer questions about the material to stimulate recall
(C) Go and have a beer and let it percolate through your brain

 

For most of us, drinking beer (unfortunately!) does not help us retain knowledge.

The best way to retain knowledge is usually to use and apply it in your work setting. But what may surprise you is that answering questions on a subject is a much better way to retain learning than to refresh your memory by re-reading it.  This is because answering a question gives your brain retrieval practice, and reinforces the mental pathways to retrieve the information.

Because we have all learned things since birth, we tend to think that we all are experts on how to learn, but the science of learning (educational psychology) is discovering interesting things about how the brain works. Some of these workings are not as intuitive as we might think, the learning process being one of them. Answering questions on a subject gives us retrieval practice and makes it less likely we will forget what we have learned.

An accessible research article that shows results of an experiment in this area is Test-Enhanced Learning by Henry L. Roediger, III, and Jeffrey D. Karpicke, published in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2006.  In this experiment, the researchers got different groups of students to study prose passages, and then some groups did more studying and other groups were tested on them.  They found that the groups who were tested retained more of the information than those who only studied.

A diagram from the paper is below. One group of students studied the passage four times (SSSS); one group of students studied the passage three times and did one recall test on this (SSST) and one group of students studied the passage once and did three tests (STTT).
 
Chart described in text

As you can see from the diagram, repeated studying gave slightly stronger retention in the short term, but after a week, the students who had only studied had lost a lot of the information, but the ones who had been tested recalled more.  To quote the authors, “testing has a powerful effect on long-term retention.”

There are many other academic papers that cover similar ground. In general, free recall tests will give better results than multiple choice tests, but multiple choice tests also help. And giving feedback will help but even tests without feedback help significantly. For an overview of some of these results, see some papers by Dr. Will Thalheimer commissioned by Questionmark : The Learning Benefits of Questions and Providing Learners with Feedback.

So if you want to remember the things you learned at SAP TechEd, don’t just re-read the material, ask yourself some questions on it, or get a colleague to, or try to write it down without your notes! You are much more likely to remember something, if you have successfully recalled it after a question.

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3 Comments

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  1. Gretchen Lindquist
    John,

    Perhaps my school memories are overly American, but I would bet that many of your readers can remember pop quizzes from our school days. I would agree with your recommendation; those teachers were on to something and knew that the quizzing was an effective tool for solidifying our learning of the subjects.

    Thanks for that reminder!
    Cheers,
    Gretchen

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  2. John Moy
    Thanks John,

    Actually this is precisely what drove me to write the (free) iPhone app NetWeaver Uber Geek.  I needed a way to refresh my NetWeaver skills with an app that would randomly ask me technical questions.  The app was written for me, but I published it for free as I thought others would benefit also.  So yes I completely agree with your blog.

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