I want to start with the conclusion of this paper by Karpicke and Blunt (Science, January 2011).
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. This dynamic perspective on the human
mind can pave the way for the design of new educational
activities based on consideration of retrieval processes.
I think the researchers have made a meaningful discovery about engagement: we should be engaged in the totality of the learning process, not just parts of if. There study illustrates that we still have much to unlearn when it comes to education—and unlearning is not something routinely taught.
Key points here include the concepts of encoding vs. retrieval. Much of our time as educators is spent trying to cram more knowledge into the gray matter of our students without the appreciation for mental patterns formed as they try to retrieve knowledge. The brain is not a simple IO machine. The process of retrieval is also a process that reinforces learning.
The research cautions educators to consider context (" subjects use retrieval cues to reconstruct what happened in a particular place at a particular time.") Retrieving knowledge helps create mechanisms that establish pathways for learning. So rather than constantly elaborating, real learning involves finding what is adequate for the context at hand. Real learning means being able to apply what is learned, not just hold a model of it.
I may be misreading the research, but I think it is clear that we have much to learn about how we learn. I think it is a shame that what we learn about learning is necessarily compressed and compacted into the stilted language of research that requires decoding before it can be applied. I think every Science paper should come with an accessible version that allows practitioners to quickly grasp the concepts so they can do something with them. They should also avail themselves of hypertext so that all references are live. I think this is great research, but phrases like:
Rather than multiplying or increasing the number of encoded
features, which occurs during elaboration, retrieval practice
may improve cue diagnosticity by restricting the set of
candidates specified by a cue to be included in the search set.
Leave me with little wonder as to why this type of research doesn’t penetrate the typical K-12 classroom. I’m sure that is a product of the journals editorial guidelines or researcher’s general training for language. I find it ironic that I had to practice elaboration to tease out the findings from this report.
Finally, a note on my own bias. I love concept maps. I actually use them for both elaboration and retrieval. And the researchers acknowledge this:
When students create concept maps in the presence of
materials they are learning, the activity involves elaborative
studying. Students could also create concept maps in the
absence of materials they are learning, and then the activity
would involve practicing retrieval of knowledge.
I don’t see in the study where long-duration learning was tested. Given the nature of such experiments, I don’t think long-duration issues entered into the design. I would like to see research that evaluates what methods work best for learners who have a gap of engagement with a topic. This is critical to workplace learning, as we often find that our engagements with a concept features starts and stops. Working professionals don’t always have the luxury of being specialists (I imply with "specialists" that they are steeped in a particular topic for extensive periods of time), so they must learn something, just to abandon it later – and then perhaps find they need it again at some point in the future (think about re-engaging with a PC application after not having used it for a significant period of time). I personally use concept maps as a way back in. This research clearly shows that for more immediate recall, retrieval learning as augmentation to elaboration and study is effective. I’m sure some of that sticks over longer periods of time, but I’m not sure for how long. I’d like to see some research on the best pathways back to something that was once known, something no longer as mentally elaborate as it once was, nor so easily retrieved.
My original post on this topic can be found here.