How Do You Learn Best? Compare These 2 Strategies

Do students spend too much time trying to remember materials by using fancy study systems? Do students spend too much time rereading and reviewing materials? Are students more concerned about how to get information into memory than how to retrieve that information? Research may indicate that the answer to all these questions is yes, and it may not be helping students when it comes time to take a test—and students don’t even realize what’s happening.


Traditional Study vs. Retrieval

A study completed in January 2011 by Purdue University professor of psychological studies Jeffrey Karpicke and Purdue University student Janell Blunt, as part of Blunt’s research thesis, indicates that practicing retrieval “produces greater gains in meaningful learning then elaborative studying,” according to the study’s research abstract. (The abstract is titled “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.”)

The research, conducted in two studies involving 200 students, centered on studying science topics from across the science disciplines, had one group focus on using elaborate study systems like concept mapping (using diagrams to gather, share and organize information), while the other group read the text and practiced retrieval. The students then returned to the lab one week after the study session, to take a formal assessment to determine long-term retention.



According to those assessments, the reading and retrieval group showed a 50 percent improvement in long-range retention scores, more than did the group using concept maps. Also interesting is what the formal assessment measured: The test asked questions to determine meaningful learning, inference questions and drawing connections on concepts not specifically stated in the material.

“Practicing retrieval continued to produce better learning than elaborate studying,” according to Karpicke.

Does this mean elaborate study systems need to be replaced? No. These systems are effective for learning material, according to Karpicke; however, another issue may be that while the information is in memory, it isn’t getting on paper on test day—therefore making it a retrieval problem. It may indicate students may believe they know the information better than they actually do while the information is in front of them as they study.

The same students who volunteered for this research also believed they would be better served and score higher on the formal assessment using the elaborate study systems, indicating students may not know their most effective study system. The study shows retrieval, including practice quizzes, verbal questions and answers, and pre-tests, may assist students more.


how do you learn best - motivators

Retrieval in the Classroom: Motivators

So what does this study mean to adult learners? This research suggests students may be best served by combining study systems and making sure retrieval of information is an important part of their studying. There are a number of ways these systems can be combined by students.

How can instructors incorporate retrieval into the classroom? Learning is often built upon prior knowledge, giving a foundation upon which to add, improve and expand on existing learning. Instructors can do several things to activate prior learning. At the start of each class, teachers may provide a “motivator,” a way through questions and answers to activate previous knowledge and encourage and excite students about new information to be provided in the lesson.

Let’s make an example for the study of skeletal muscles—specifically for our purpose, we will establish the learning objective as the understanding of the OIA of the biceps brachii. In order to reach that goal, certain things must have already been taught, including the skeletal system, what muscle is, how muscles function and how muscles will move the skeletal system at a specific joint when muscles contract. These can all provide a great starting point for motivation at the start of the lesson.

Some sample “Motivators”:

  • “What do muscles move?” (Answer: Muscles move the skeletal system.)
  • “How do skeletal muscles work?” (Answer: Muscles move the skeletal system at a joint when the muscle contracts.)
  • “How many joints do muscles move?” (Answer: Most muscles move one joint.)
  • “What does the prefix ‘bi’ mean?” (Answer: Two; a motivator to realize there are two heads to the muscle)

All of these questions, and a myriad of others, can stimulate prior knowledge and provide a motivating point to launch into new material, eventually leading into the OIA of biceps brachii.

Throughout the lesson, instructors may ask questions to activate the retrieval system to attempt to cement learning. Instructors will traditionally show pictures, videos or even use a skeleton for real-life applications, but should not forget to ask retrieval questions that could include:

  • “What do we call the fixed point of the muscle that does not move when the muscle is contracted?” (Answer: Origin.)
  • “Why does this muscle use the prefix ‘bi’?” (Answer: The muscle has two heads.)
  • “What is the fixed point of the biceps brachii?” (Answer: There are two: coracoid process (short head) and supraglenoid tubercle (long head).
  • “What do we call the attachment site of the muscle that will move on contraction of the muscle?” (Answer: Insertion.)
  • “What is the insertion of the biceps brachii?” (Answer: Radial tuberosity.)
  • “What is the action of the biceps brachii?” (Answer: Elbow flexion.)


Retrieval in the Classroom: The Exit Card

At the close of each lesson, instructors can also use the retrieval system by asking verbal questions, or by having a photocopied “exit card” of questions designed to assess whether students have mastered the information of the lesson. This will require the instructor to be prepared to ensure the proper exit card questions are ready for each lesson. This simple exercise will enhance student learning, as retrieval will begin immediately, improving student retention of information and student retention in the school overall.


study circle of students

Retrieval in the Classroom: Review Systems

There are several review systems that can tap into the retrieval mode for students, and be quick and effective at the same time. I will provide the basic premise for two retrieval systems of review, one that is free form and another that requires teachers to prepare in advance for a review.

The first is a free-form, question-and-answer review called “inside-outside,” where students are set in a circle of five (or four or six, however it works in a classroom) facing outside of the circle. Five students then face a fellow student from the inside part of the circle. While the students stand face to face in a circle, the instructor can have students from the inside answer a question first. “You have 30 seconds. Tell your fellow student what the origin is of the biceps brachii.” At this point, the inside group would tell the outside group the answer in the time allotted. The second question would be for the outside group. “You have 30 seconds. What is the insertion of biceps brachii?”

This can continue as a class, ending review with the outside of the circle moving clockwise after answering their question, allowing different pairs to discuss the answers. “Inside-outside” is a ready-to-go study system that can be used in any topic, and requires little setup from instructors. It will allow the students to interact with one another and provide students with another voice to hear the information explained to them in a different way—from a peer—that might assist their understanding of the material.

A different review requires more preparation by the instructor and is called “Who has…/ …I have….” This question-and-answer game requires students to listen and pay attention, as the questions and answers have an order to them. Students will have a sheet of paper in front of them, and at the top the heading is “Who has ….” It will be followed by a question. The bottom half of the paper will have the heading “I have…” and be followed by an answer.

For the game to work, the instructor must match the questions and answers, and ensure the answers are on different sheets than the questions (otherwise students will be answering their own questions). The instructor will choose a student to start with a question, and the student who has the answer will call out his or her answer. If the student is correct, he or she will read the question from the top of their page, and that page will be complete.

Here’s a quick visual for a small-group version as to how the review works:

Who has … the muscle that is the prime flexor of the elbow?

I have … the long head of the biceps brachii.

This is a fun, spontaneous review; it is rapid-fire, all retrieval and requires students to follow along so they are ready to answer when their turn arrives. It can be used in small group study, or as an in-class review for entire sections of material with multiple pages for each student, depending upon the preparation of the instructor.


How Do You Learn Best?

Students, as referenced in the Purdue University study, oftentimes do not know their most effective study system. While instructors may not be able to control the study by their students outside of the classroom, in the class the teacher can make sure to include retrieval as an integral part of classroom learning—to motivate, assess during lessons and review.

Based on the research, retrieval should be included in every classroom lesson in every school—and if not, students can easily incorporate these exercises within their study groups.


About the Author

William Fee is a lifelong professional educator with bachelor's degrees from Monmouth University in elementary education and history, and holds teaching certificates for kindergarten through eighth grade and social studies in the state of New Jersey. A 1995 graduate of the Somerset School of Massage Therapy, Fee also worked in the massage field and in massage education with the Somerset School of Massage Therapy from 1999 to 2006, where he was the director of admission at the school. He is currently the founder of an education and training company, All Star Education and Training, which has created an online professional learning community for the learning of anatomy and physiology at