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  • Dr Paul Penn

Studying: what people do vs. what works

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.” Burt Rutan

Indulge me: take a few moments to think about how you go about studying. What approaches do you use? Which of those approaches do you use most often? I know, as thinking exercises go, this one isn’t up there with imagining what you would do if you won the lottery. However, it’s worth reflecting on how you approach learning, especially if you identified repeatedly rereading material as your go-to studying strategy. I’ve got news for you: simply repeatedly rereading material is not an effective way to study, but don’t throw away your books (or that lottery ticket) just yet! I’m not about to advocate that you don’t read. Instead, I’m going to outline something you should incorporate into your reading to make it much more effective.

When you were reflecting on how you usually approach studying, did repeated self-testing (retrieval practice) make your list of tried and trusted methods? If it did, was it one of your less frequently used strategies? Karpicke, Butler and Roediger (2009) found that 11% of students reported using retrieval practice in their repertoire of study practices and only 1% identified it as their top ranked study strategy. Even when given a forced choice response with retrieval practice as an option alongside rereading and 'other study practice', only 18% indicated a willingness to adopt it. So, if retrieval practice wasn’t one of your ‘go to’ study strategies then you’re in good company. Unfortunately, this means that you are not using the approach to studying that psychological research has identified as being the most effective, by some margin! You can find a recent review of the literature on retrieval practice in Karpicke (2017).

If retrieval practice is so good, why isn’t it everyone’s default ‘go to’ study strategy? Well, the short answer appears to be that we don’t intuitively think of testing as an aid to learning. Indeed, Karpicke et al. (2009) examined the explanations that students gave for using particular study methods. Only 8% of them identified retrieval practice as an effective learning aid. Karpicke & Roediger (2008) demonstrated that students' predictions of their subsequent performance on a delayed test were similar between learning conditions involving retrieval practice and re-studying even though their performance was superior for the former. As we covered in a previous blog on the Dunning Kruger effect, our ability to accurately make judgements of our learning and knowledge (metacognitive ability) can be remarkably flawed.

A principal reason for the effectiveness of retrieval practice is its role in correcting our metacognition. The problem with simply rereading material is that repeated exposure to text gives you an illusory impression of how much of it you’re familiar with and understand. Information always seem so much easier to commit to memory when the sources are in front of us. Of course, it becomes rather more difficult to recall when those source materials are absent. It turns out that we’re not very good at taking this, seemingly obvious point, into account in our judgements of our learning (e.g. Koriat and Bjork, 2005). Retrieval practice pays dividends because it helps you correct this metacognitive error; it gives you evidence about what you know and what you don’t know. This is invaluable information in guiding your efforts to study. Failure to recall information, far from being a set-back, is a learning aid! Knowing what you don’t know is every bit as helpful to your learning as knowing what you do know, providing you find out in a timely fashion i.e. not during a formal exam!

You shouldn’t think of testing as synonymous with formal assessments of your learning. Use informal, self-administered retrieval practice as an integral part of your approach to learning. You can learn more about harnessing the power of retrieval practice to make your studying much more productive and enjoyable in chapters one and three of my book: ‘The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree’. Find out more about the book and order a copy today using the following link.

Tutors/librarians can an order inspection copy directly from the publisher here


Karpicke, J. D. (2017). Retrieval-based learning: A decade of progress. In J. T. Wixted (Ed.), Cognitive psychology of memory, Vol. 2 of Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference (J. H. Byrne, Series Ed.) (pp. 487–514). Academic Press.

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C. & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471–479.

Karpicke, J. D. & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966–968.

Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. (2005). Illusions of competence in monitoring one's knowledge during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(2), 187.

Here is an excellent short video on retrieval practice from one of the most prominent researchers in the field, Professor Robert Bjork.

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