Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Is Expanding Retrieval a Superior Method for Learning Text Materials?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Is Expanding Retrieval a Superior Method for Learning Text Materials?

Article excerpt

Expanding retrieval practice refers to the idea that gradually increasing the spacing interval between repeated tests ought to promote optimal long-term retention. Belief in the superiority of this technique is widespread, but empirical support is scarce. In addition, virtually all research on expanding retrieval has examined the learning of word pairs in paired-associate tasks. We report two experiments in which we examined the learning of text materials with expanding and equally spaced retrieval practice schedules. Subjects studied brief texts and recalled them in an initial learning phase. We manipulated the spacing of the repeated recall tests and examined final recall 1 week later. Overall we found that (1) repeated testing enhanced retention more than did taking a single test, (2) testing with feedback (restudying the passages) produced better retention than testing without feedback, but most importantly (3) there were no differences between expanding and equally spaced schedules of retrieval practice. Repeated retrieval enhanced long-term retention, but how the repeated tests were spaced did not matter.

We know that practicing retrieval enhances long-term retention (e.g., Karpicke & Roediger, 2008; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006a), and we also know that spacing repetitions enhances retention (e.g., Glenberg, 1976; Greene, 1989, 2008; Rohrer & Pashler, 2007). Combining the benefits of spacing and retrieval practice ought to produce especially powerful effects on learning. This article is concerned with identifying the best way to space retrieval practice to promote learning of educationally relevant text materials.

A straightforward idea is simply to maximize the spacing interval between a study episode and subsequent repeated tests. It is true that increasing the spacing intervals between study periods tends to produce increasing gains in learning, especially when retention is assessed at long intervals (Glenberg, 1976; Greene, 2008). But a problem occurs when retrieval attempts are spaced over time: Increasing the spacing of tests also increases the likelihood of forgetting on the tests. If subjects have forgotten material by the time they attempt retrieval, the attempt would likely not produce a positive effect on later retention unless the subjects were given feedback and another retrieval opportunity.

Landauer and Bjork (1978) offered expanding retrieval practice as a remedy to this problem (see too Spitzer, 1939). The idea behind expanding retrieval is that people should retrieve information immediately after studying it and then gradually increase the interval between repeated retrieval attempts. Landauer and Bjork examined the learning of face-name pairs in a continuous pairedassociate task and manipulated the number of trials that occurred between each study and test trial. In an expanding condition the subjects studied a face-name pair and then recalled it immediately (with 0 intervening trials), recalled it again after 1 more trial, then again after 3 more trials and again after 8 more trials. This expanding retrieval condition was denoted 0-1-3-8 to indicate the number of trials that occurred between each study and test trial. Landauer and Bjork compared the expanding condition to an equally spaced condition (3-3-3-3) wherein the repeated tests were evenly spaced and the total spacing was equivalent to that of the expanding condition (a total spacing of 12 trials). Both spaced retrieval conditions produced better performance on a final recall test 30 min after the learning phase relative to when the subjects studied the pair only once and did not practice retrieval. But the important result was that the expanding condition produced about a 10% advantage over the equally spaced condition on the final test.

The explanation for the superiority of expanding retrieval is that the technique combines the benefits of retrieval success and retrieval difficulty. Recalling information on an immediate first test ensures retrieval success on the test, and gradually expanding the interval between repeated recall attempts is intended to increase the difficulty of those attempts. …

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