Memory Exercises with Surprising Benefits

memory exercisesMemory exercises promise to help you get smarter by strengthening your memory. Students, teachers, and scientists are always on the lookout for memory exercises that really work. Many memory exercises focus on building up short-term memory, or working memory. These short-term memory exercises don’t appear to help you learn better.

Other memory exercises focus on long-term memory. Two of these are called retrieval practice and elaboration. The research shows both of them to have benefits for learning.  They are both excellent study skills to have on hand.

A recent study published in Science magazine suggests that one of these two memory exercises, retrieval practice, doesn’t just work. It works surprisingly well.

This study made two unexpected discoveries about the value of retrieval practice as compared with elaborative study:

  1. Retrieval practice helps you remember more information than elaboration.
  2. Retrieval practice helps you understand the information better than elaboration.

Elaboration and Retrieval Practice

Elaborative study, or elaboration, is a powerful memory exercise. Education research is ripe with demonstrations that elaboration is an effective way to not only remember, but also increase your understanding of a subject you’re studying.

One way to elaborate is to generate an explanation for why a fact or concept is true (or false). Another way is to self-explain. Simply explain to yourself how the new ideas you’re learning relate to each other, or explain how the new ideas relate to information you already know. Still another is to make a concept map.

Elaborative study increases your understanding of a subject because it makes the ideas in your memory better linked with each other. The more links you have the more ‘trails’ you have leading to the information, increasing your chances of finding it again later.

Retrieval practice is the activity of recalling information you have already committed to memory.

You can practice retrieving information by simply trying to recall everything you’ve read or learned about a subject. Or, you can use the self-test approach. Self-testing means that you create questions about the subject and answer them yourself.

Retrieval practice may seem a bit unappealing. It just doesn’t seem as cool as making a concept map. Plus, the long-term value of memory exercises that only involve retrieval just seems counterintuitive. Surely the mere activity of recalling can’t produce meaningful learning?

Putting Memory Exercises to the Test

Cognitive scientists Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt from Purdue University put these memory exercises to the test. They published their surprising finding that Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping in Science.

Karpicke and Blunt conducted a study in which participants studied two different science texts. They studied one text using elaboration and the other using retrieval practice.

When the students used the elaboration technique they read the text and drew concept maps of the concepts in the text. Concept maps are diagrams that use nodes to represent concepts and links between the nodes to represent relationships between them.

When the students used the retrieval practice technique they read the text, put it away, then wrote down everything they remembered, then they looked at the text one more time, and then recalled one last time.

The students were asked which technique they thought would be more effective. They predicted remembering more of the information they had studied using elaboration.

A week later Karpicke and Blunt assessed the effectiveness of the two memory exercises. They gave the students two kinds of tests: a short answer test and a test that involved creating concept maps. The short answer test included both verbatim questions and inference questions that required deeper understanding.

They found that the students did better on all elements of both types of tests when they had used retrieval practice during original learning than when they had used elaboration.

Don’t Discount Counterintuitive Memory Exercises

Why would retrieval practice help you do better on a test that asks you to draw a concept map than studying by drawing concept maps?

Karpicke and Blunt think that retrieval practice helps you learn by allowing you to hone the cues you use to find information once it’s been stored in memory. Recall that elaboration is an effective memory exercise because it gives you more pathways to find information. Retrieval practice works by making sure you have pathways that can lead you straight to the information you’re looking for.

This research shows that our assumptions about best ways to learn aren’t always true.

The researchers suggest that retrieval practice isn’t just an effective memory exercise, it’s fairly easy to incorporate into study activities you may already be doing. If you like to draw concept maps, for example. Simply put your study materials away and create your concept maps from memory. This way you’re engaging in both elaboration and retrieval practice.


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Image Credit: philip.bitnar

Jeffrey D. Karpicke, & Janell R. Blunt (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping Science, 331, 772-775 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199327

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  1. Chris Inthavong says

    This article talks about how memory can make you smarter and remember information temporary or permanently. There are two kinds of memory practice, elaborate and retrieval practice. Elaborate increases your understanding of the subject while retrieval recalls the information you already understand. These practices were put into test by two cognitive scientists, Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt. These scientists demonstrated the practices on students to see which practice benefited them more. They gave the students two test, one with short answer and another test involved creating concept maps. The results was concluded that retrieval was the best due to original learning.
    It is amazing how memory can interact our studies and knowledge experiences. At first, I thought remembering information was tied to our emotions and intelligence. After reading this article, I have no idea that an experiment was conducted based on memory perspective. For me, I simply just to remember information by colliding them all together by using visual learning and some luck. With elaborate and retrieval and other methods of practice, perhaps drawing concept map will help expand the memory span.
    In chapter one of Discovering Psychology (Hockenbury and Hockenbury), it also talks about cognitive perspective; focuses on the important role of mental process in how people process and remember information, develop language, solve problems, and think. This reflects on the article how cognitive is still use in today’s society and how behavior and memory can be understood in an information-process model. In Chapter 11, a section talks about perception and mental shortcuts. The chapter talks about how a person physical and mental environment influences the individual perspective. Besides elaborate and retrieval method, they can also use chapter 11 method known as social cognition. Elaborate and retrieval can also be a factor of perception.

  2. liz says

    This article proves everything we have been learning in my intro. to psychology class. We learned about how you have to think about something longer than three seconds to obtain the information from your sensory memory to your short term memory. As well as, think about information more than an additional twenty seconds to lock it into your long term memory. Retrieval is a strong way of learning as well. As talked about in this article retrieval practice is the activity of recalling information you have already committed to memory. You can use this tool for studying by making flash cards and testing yourself on things you just have read.

    • Winston Sieck says

      Nice, Liz. Like the idea of locking information into long term memory. Beyond the time you spend thinking about the information is how you work with it. For example, connecting it to something you already know tends to work better than repeating it back over and over to yourself.

  3. Collin says

    This article is very interesting. The two encoding practices disused in this article appear to be very effective. I have used retrieval practice in the past such as flash cards. This process defiantly was effective while studying. At first when I would use them cards the answers would only be in my shorty-term memory, but as I studied longer the answer began to move to my long-term memory. This process is called elaborative rehearsal. The retrieval practice was very effective in the retrieval process during tests which led to higher scores.

    • Winston Sieck says

      Thank you, Collin. To really do elaborative rehearsal, you want to think of ways that the information you are learning ties in with what you already know.

  4. Marc Cerniglia says

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and overall think that it helps show connections between elaboration and long-term memory that often go unnoticed. showing that your more likely to recall and retain memories that we have greater understanding of and there for have more “trails” for which to associate with other memories has helped me understand more about how our long-term and short- term memory processes function. this article has also given me some ideas of how to apply elaborative rehearsal more often in my study habits and other mental processes.

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