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Research for Practitioners: How to Improve Knowledge Retention

by Julie Dirksen

December 26, 2012


by Julie Dirksen

December 26, 2012

“There’s frequently discussion of adding interactivity to eLearning, and in many cases that is likely to have a positive impact on learning and memory, but some interactive formats are likely to produce better results.”

In academic approaches to teaching and learning that focus on knowledge rather than skill, the activities often involve what is known as “elaborative studying”: traditional studying that involves repetition of the content. There are other methods that may also support learning, but it is difficult to find information about the relative effectiveness between the methods.

The question

If you are going to study for a test, what do you think the best way to study would be?

The options are:

  1. Traditional studying, with repetition
  2. Creating a visual concept map of the material
  3. Retrieval practice

I’ve asked this question in class a number of times and usually the favorite answer is b) creating a visual concept map. Well, learners aren’t always the best judges of how they learn best!

A study by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt suggests that retrieval practice may actually be a significantly better method for learning. Typically, learning inventions focus on encoding memory, but practicing retrieval of memories in addition to encoding may be a critical component of learning. (Editor’s Note: Please see the sidebar for brief explanations of some terms that may be unfamiliar to you.)

Sidebar 1 Terms in this article

Retrieval practice: Retrieval practice in this study involved students studying a science text and then practicing recalling as much as they could from it. Afterward, they studied again and practiced recalling a second time. This strategy requires students to retrieve concepts from long-term memory, thus the name retrieval practice.

Concept mapping: Concept mapping involves drawing a diagram in which nodes are used to represent concepts and links connecting the nodes represent relationships among the concepts. Concept mapping is considered an active learning task, and a concept map has the purpose of supporting learning. It is similar to, but not the same thing as, mind mapping or topic mapping (ISO/IEC 13250:2003). Mind maps are a visual outline for information, using either a radial layout or a tree-like structure originating in a single word, text, or idea. Topic maps emphasize facilitating finding information and are a semantic approach to knowledge.

Recall versus recognition: Recognition tasks involve choosing the right option from a list of choices, while recall tasks involve recalling or constructing a right answer from memory. 

The study

“Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt

Published Online January 20 2011. Science 11 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6018 pp. 772-775

Available at (free, but requires registration).


Karpicke and Blunt had groups of students use four different methods of studying. The first group spent time reviewing a science text in a single study session. The second group also reviewed the same text in multiple consecutive study sessions. The third group was taught a concept mapping technique and studied by creating concept maps of the science material.

The fourth group studied the text in an initial study period and then practiced retrieval by recalling as much of the information as they could on a free recall test. After recalling once, the fourth group restudied the text and recalled again. The groups spent the same amount of learning time overall in the third and fourth conditions.


While most students in the study predicted that performance would be better in the mapping condition versus the retrieval condition, the retrieval practice group (the fourth group) actually did significantly better (up to 50 percent better in some instances) on retention tests given a week later.

While there’s no way to say exactly why retrieval practice produced superior results, some possible explanations include:

  • Retrieval practice allowed the students to identify and correct gaps in their knowledge
  • The retrieval practice was replicating the test condition, in that students were practicing the same activity (test taking) that they were going to use for performance

Implications for eLearning

While this study didn’t involve eLearning, there are several interesting implications for the design of eLearning.

  • Creating opportunities for retrieval practice—most eLearning tends towards presentation of information, which focuses on encoding information into memory, but eLearning designers may need to look for opportunities to build in retrieval practice, so learners can see where they have or have not retained information.
  • Recognition versus recall—one of the biggest limitations of eLearning environments is that the activities are almost always recognition-based (e.g., multiple choice), but there may be value to figuring out recall-based, to increase the rigor of retrieval practice.
  • Not all interactivity is created equally—there’s frequently discussion of adding interactivity to eLearning, and in many cases that is likely to have a positive impact on learning and memory, but some interactive formats are likely to produce better results. Hopefully, future research can start to look at the question of most effective types of eLearning interactivity.

Topics Covered

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This article is so timely for me. We are adding a good bit of interactivity to our presentations, but my hunch was this would be more interesting but if we wanted to really ensure retention/recall we should be looking at something like spaced repetition intervals. I have found a few smart phone apps and cloud versions but they all are out of price range. Do you know of any reasonably priced applications?
@here2learn - I saw a company at the last ASTD ICE conference that was doing spaced reinforcement ( - I don't know enough about them to actually endorse the product, but you could add it to the list to check out.
@here2learn: Do a search in this magazine (using the Search box at the top of this article) on "spaced repetition". Also look into Axonify (see the article on Pep Boys and interval training earlier this year -- that's the product they used). Not endorsing Axonify, just suggesting it as something to look at.
Thanks Bill1,
I looked at Pep Boys and Axonify. I think that is exactly what I have been thinking about. The idea of gamification and spaced evaluation motivate, cut development costs in terms of performance support and reinforce learning. Axonify embodies everything I would like to have, but they don't list their cost. Thanks very much.
It seems to me there is a place for all three study approaches. One can develop familiarity with material through review. A concept map will help build conceptual understanding that will later help with retrieval practice.
This is a great article. It confirms in its own way many of the things I personally have believed for a long time on some of the learning process that isn't normally discussed. When I look at some of the best courses I have taken that have assisted in my own LTM and recall, they invariably include a good amount of Retrieval Practice. Even something as simple as my time in the military proves that this method is actually more documentable than we think since, in the military, much of what is taught includes some variation of a retrieval practice system. I will explore this idea further in my study of using eLearning tools and its effective implementation now that some of my suspicions are coming to light through articles such as this. I don't think this is a new concept, by the way, just one that really hasn't been explored from this angle well enough to have its own definition, as expressed here. Do you think we could even look back at successful training programs, historically, and apply retrieval practice to them to see if perhaps that was what was going on the whole time but no one really noticed?
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