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Education Reporter

Memorization Promotes Learning, Researchers Find
Memorization has long been out of vogue in the education establishment, and therefore many students aren't regularly tested for simple recall of new material. Teachers often emphasize learning methodologies like class discussion or concept mapping over factual recall, with the expectation that the former activities promote deeper learning that is superior to rote memorization.

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But a new study finds that teachers who don't provide students frequent opportunities to practice retrieving information from their memories are denying them a valuable learning tool. It turns out that tests or other forced recall exercises aren't just passive evaluation tools. They actually help people learn, and are more effective than a number of other common study techniques.

The research, published in the February issue of the journal Science, found that students who took a simple recall test after reading a passage retained 50% more of the material a week later than students who used other study techniques. Moreover, students who used recall quizzes as a study tool were also better at drawing inferences which required connecting multiple concepts from the text than the other groups.

The researchers conducted two experiments with 200 college students. The first experiment divided students into four groups, with each group studying the same brief science text. The first group simply read the passage for five minutes. The second group studied the passage over four consecutive five-minute sessions (similar to the way many students cram for exams by reading the material repeatedly).

The third group constructed concept maps, in which they organized the information into a diagram representing the concepts and showed the relationships between concepts by linking them. This group drew their diagrams with the text open before them.

The final group read the passage and then took a "retrieval practice" test where they wrote down what they remembered without looking at the passage. Then they reread the passage and took another recall quiz.

When all four groups were tested one week later with short-answer and inference questions, the retrieval practice group performed significantly better than the other three groups on both types of questions.

A second experiment focused solely on comparing the learning effectiveness of concept mapping and retrieval practice. Concept maps are an especially trendy learning methodology thought to enrich learning by helping students organize information and develop higher-order thinking skills. For this experiment, each student studied two science topics, using retrieval practice for one topic and concept mapping for the other.

When they were tested one week later, students who studied a topic by taking recall quizzes again outperformed those who drew concept maps on both retention and inference questions. Surprisingly, those who practiced recall did better at drawing concept maps than students who drew concept maps during their initial study session for the same topic.

"I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing knowledge," said lead study author Jeffrey D. Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. "I think that we're tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval."

The study is notable because its results challenge long-standing assumptions about human learning, especially the idea that the act of recall may measure prior learning, but does not itself produce learning. "When you're retrieving something out of a computer's memory, you don't change anything - it's simple playback," said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But, "when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access," to that information, explained Dr. Bjork. "What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later."

Prominent Harvard education professor Howard Gardner said the study results "throw down the gauntlet" to "progressive educators" like himself who advocate for constructivism. (Constructivists emphasize reasoning over memorization, believe children should discover their own ways of learning, and that they should make their own meaning.)

"Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept-mapping . . . are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches," said Gardner.

Study authors Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt noted that although concept mapping with an open book was not as productive as recall quizzes, concept maps could also be used as a retrieval practice exercise if students did not have source material in front of them.

The bottom line? Activities that require students to retrieve and reconstruct knowledge are not time-wasting busywork; rather they are one of the most effective means of enhancing learning. (www.sciencemag.org, 1-20-11; The New York Times, 1-21-11)

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