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Simple recall exercises may be best study method for science

Jan. 21, 2011
Courtesy of Science
and World Science staff

Stu­dents may learn more sci­ence through sim­ple re­call ex­er­cises than by pon­der­ing the ideas they have learn­ed and their in­ter­rela­t­ion­ships, a study has found.

The find­ings sug­gest that the hu­man mind works in ways that don’t always fit with com­mon sense, said the re­search­ers, re­port­ing their find­ings in the Jan. 21 is­sue of the jour­nal Sci­ence. Of­ten, they wrote, teach­ers rely heavily on learn­ing ac­ti­vi­ties like “e­lab­o­ra­tive con­cept map­ping” to help stu­dents re­tain the most from the texts they read. Elab­o­ra­tive con­cept map­ping is a tech­nique in which stu­dents make di­a­grams of rela­t­ion­ships be­tween the ideas they draw out of a text. 

Mean­while, the sci­en­tists ar­gued, teach­ers of­ten over­look ac­ti­vi­ties that re­quire stu­dents to prac­tice re­triev­ing and re­con­struct­ing knowl­edge.

In the new stu­dy, Jef­frey Karpicke and col­leagues at Pur­due Uni­vers­ity in In­di­ana com­pared the ef­fects of “e­lab­o­ra­tive con­cept map­ping” with those of sim­ple re­call. In two ex­pe­ri­ments, they asked col­lege stu­dents to re­call in writ­ing, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, as much as they could from what they had just read from sci­ence ma­te­ri­al. 

Al­though most stu­dents ex­pected to learn more from the map­ping ap­proach, the re­triev­al ex­er­cise ac­tu­ally worked much bet­ter to strength­en both short-term and long-term mem­o­ry, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. 

The re­sults, they ar­gue, sug­gest re­triev­al is not merely scour­ing for and spill­ing out stored knowl­edge. Rath­er, they ar­gue, the act of re­con­struct­ing knowl­edge it­self is a pow­er­ful tool that en­hances con­ceptual learn­ing about sci­ence.

“Re­search on re­triev­al prac­tice sug­gests a view of how the hu­man mind works that dif­fers from eve­ry­day in­tu­itions. Re­triev­al is not merely a read out of the knowl­edge stored in one’s mind – the act of re­con­struct­ing knowl­edge it­self en­hances learn­ing,” Karpicke and col­leagues wrote. “This dy­nam­ic per­spec­tive on the hu­man mind can pave the way for the de­sign of new educa­t­ional ac­ti­vi­ties based on con­sid­era­t­ion of re­triev­al pro­cess­es.”


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Students may learn more science through simple recall exercises than by pondering the ideas they have learned and their interrelationships, a study has found. The findings suggest that the human mind works in ways that doesn’t necessarily fit with common sense, said the researchers, reporting their findings in the Jan. 21 issue of the journal Science. Often, they wrote, teachers rely heavily on learning activities like “elaborative concept mapping” to help students retain the most from the texts they read. Elaborative concept mapping is a technique in which students make diagrams of relationships between the ideas they draw out of a text. Meanwhile, the scientists argued, teachers often overlook activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge. In the new study, Jeffrey Karpicke and colleagues at Purdue University in Indiana compared the effects of “elaborative concept mapping” with those of simple recall. In two experiments, they asked college students to recall in writing, in no particular order, as much as they could from what they had just read from science material. Although most students expected to learn more from the mapping approach, the retrieval exercise actually worked much better to strengthen both short-term and long-term memory, the investigators found. The results, they argue, suggest retrieval is not merely scouring for and spilling out stored knowledge. Rather, they argue, the act of reconstructing knowledge itself is a powerful tool that enhances conceptual learning about science. “Research on retrieval practice suggests a view of how the human mind works that differs from everyday intuitions. Retrieval is not merely a read out of the knowledge stored in one’s mind – the act of reconstructing knowledge itself enhances learning,” Karpicke and colleagues wrote. “This dynamic perspective on the human mind can pave the way for the design of new educational activities based on consideration of retrieval processes.”