A Better Retrieval Practice?

“The testing effect (retrieval practice) is one of the most robust effects in memory research. More than 100 years of research has established that taking a test is more effective than restudy for improving subsequent memory” (1).

You would be hard-pressed to find a more impactful and widely applicable learning strategy than retrieval practice. It is quite malleable and can be as simple as a brain dump or much more deliberate and intricate like brain – book – buddy. There is also evidence that regular retrieval practice decreases test anxiety and stress. I feel confident there’s nothing I do in my classroom more important for my students’ education than introducing them to retrieval practice and other learning strategies to promote effective studying and learning.

If you’re new to retrieval practice, fear not, it is an easy idea to pick up. Truth be told, you’re probably already using this strategy in your classroom, you just didn’t know it was called the testing effect or retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is basically just providing opportunities for students to retrieve information from memory. This can look like a multiple-choice quiz, self-study with flashcards, a class discussion, an essay, a diorama…really anything that requires students use the information.

But…all retrieval practice is not created equal…and some forms may yield better results than others.

Take diminishing cues retrieval practice, for example. First researched in 2011, (2) this more intricate manner of implementing retrieval practice “can widen the range of conditions under which testing can benefit memory, and so can serve as a model for the broader application of testing-based techniques for enhancing learning” (3).

What exactly is diminishing cues retrieval practice and how is it different than other retrieval practice? Well, with standard retrieval practice, usually a subject is asked a question and they attempt to retrieve that information from their brain and answer correctly. Very simple; ask question, give answer. Often times, there are no cues provided to assist subjects with retrieval. With diminishing cues retrieval practice, though, subjects are provided varying amounts of cues to assist with retrieval practice before final assessment of learning.

Finley et al. (2) tested the effects of diminishing cues retrieval practice vs. accumulating cues retrieval practice and a restudy group. Participants were tasked with associating English words with their Inupiaq counterpart (for example, dust = apyuq). With standard retrieval practice, participants would be given the word ‘dust’ and be required to retrieve the word ‘apyuq’ with no additional cues to assist. With diminishing cues retrieval practice, subjects would first practice with ‘dust = apyuq’ and then later with ‘dust = apyu_’ and then ‘dust = apy_ _’. This pattern was followed during practice trials until there were no cues (dust = _ _ _ _ _).*

The results? Both diminishing cues and accumulating cues retrieval practice showed better recall than study-only recall…which is not too surprising and is supported by most studies comparing any type of retrieval practice with restudy groups on recall. What was interesting was diminishing cues recall was better than accumulating cues recall when no feedback was given (experiment 1). In addition, during experiment 2 (when correct-response feedback was provided) diminishing cues retrieval practice again outperformed accumulating cues recall and study-only recall.

So, in this study, diminishing cues available during retrieval practice appears to support greater long term retention of material than accumulating cues retrieval practice and restudy of material.

But does diminishing cues retrieval practice outperform standard retrieval practice? Finley et al. did not test for this…but Fiechter and Benjamin (3) did. 🙂

Their study created three different learning scenarios, with each study corresponding to a greater likelihood of experiencing a testing effect. In scenario 1, researchers did not expect to see the testing effect since initial retrievability** was less than 50% and feedback was not provided.*** In scenario 2, researchers believed the testing effect was more likely to be observed because initial retrievability was greater than 50%, but feedback was still not provided. Finally, in scenario 3, Feichter and Benjamin believed a testing effect was quite probably. Initial retrievability was less than 50%, but participants were provided item-by-item feedback. Similar to Finley et al., the present study tested the recall of differing word pair. The three different practice methods were restudy – standard retrieval practice – diminishing cues retrieval practice.****

Feichter and Benjamin’s findings?

Diminishing cues retrieval practice outperformed both standard retrieval practice and restudy conditions in experiments 1 and 2. It was also more effective than restudy and just as effective as standard retrieval practice in experiment 3. Fiechter and Benjamin hypothesized that the success of diminishing cues retrieval practice over standard retrieval practice may be due to the belief that diminishing cues retrieval practice mitigates the possibility of low initial retrievability since, upon first practice, participants are given many cues to increase retrieval success. In experiment 1, initial retrievability was 25% across participants, yet subjects remembered 44% more information when they studied using diminishing cues retrieval practice instead of standard retrieval practice. With diminishing cues retrieval practice, learners experience a scaffolding of cues which appear to support long-term retention of material more effectively than standard retrieval practice. Learners are provided many cues that support initial retrievability, but over the course or practice, retrieval demands increase as cues decrease.

More generally, these studies provide evidence that diminishing cues retrieval practice provides “a more generally effective means of implementing retrieval practice — one that works across a wider range of the task difficulty spectrum” (3)

“When a task is sufficiently difficult such that retrieval of items during practice is unlikely, learners benefit from the accumulation of retrieval demands (diminishing cues) that grow over the course of practice.” (3)

How will this information impact my classroom?

As a teacher, it behooves me to look at research, however promising it may be, with a bit of caution and skepticism. All studies have boundary conditions and there’s no chance that I would want to (or be able to) replicate experimental conditions exactly. Knowing that, I have to consider my students, my class material, and how I might tailor diminishing cues retrieval practice in my classroom. How can I tell my students about this strategy? How and when will we practice in class? How can students use this to possibly improve their self-study habits? As you can see, there are still a lot of questions to be asked of diminishing cues retrieval practice, but I do see this as a worthwhile venture.

I am intrigued by the specific evidence in Feichter and Benjamin that providing diminishing cues during retrieval practice supports those students who do not benefit from initial retrievability during standard retrieval practice. I see diminishing cues retrieval practice as a way to possibly differentiate retrieval practice for those who may, at first, be anxious at the idea of or lack the domain-specific knowledge to benefit from standard retrieval practice.

I very much look forward to further research into diminishing cues retrieval practice. I am cautiously optimistic this strategy may accentuate the already positive effects of retrieval practice.

What are you thoughts on this research?

How might you use diminishing cues retrieval practice in your classroom?

*Accumulating cues worked in an inverse manner from diminishing cues. Participants first practiced retrieval of the Inupiaq words with no cues and slowly added cues throughout the practice trials.

**Initial retrievability – retrieval practice performance in the first practice round.

***“In studies where performance during retrieval practice was below 50% and in which learners did not receive item-by-item feedback on their practice performance, the testing effect is absent” (4).

  1. Rawson, Katherine & Vaughn, Kalif & Carpenter, Shana. (2014). Does the benefit of testing depend on lag, and if so, why? Evaluating the elaborative retrieval hypothesis. Memory & cognition. 43. 10.3758/s13421-014-0477-z.
  2. Finley, Jason & Benjamin, Aaron & Hays, Matthew & Bjork, Robert & Kornell, Nate. (2011). Benefits of Accumulating Versus Diminishing Cues in Recall. Journal of memory and language. 64. 289-298. 10.1016/j.jml.2011.01.006.
  3. Fiechter, Joshua & Benjamin, Aaron. (2017). Diminishing-cues retrieval practice: A memory-enhancing technique that works when regular testing doesn’t. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 25. 10.3758/s13423-017-1366-9.
  4. Rowland, Christopher. (2014). The Effect of Testing Versus Restudy on Retention: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Testing Effect. Psychological bulletin. 140. 10.1037/a0037559.

3 thoughts on “A Better Retrieval Practice?

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  1. Can the diminishing cues method be applied adaptively? That is, first a round with no cues and then kismet to diminishing cues for questions that were initially answered incorrectly? It seems these are the cases where it is most useful.

    My concern with these memory based studies is always the same: How do they apply to higher order skills? Not a criticism of the literature at all since memory is a great place to start. But I do believe the value of pure memory is reduced (not zero at all though!!) in a world where we have the internet in our pocket.

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