Retrieval practice is a form of memorization that goes something like this:
You read a passage. You recall information from that passage immediately after reading by taking a test. You retain more information over time compared to people who don't use retrieval practice.
One study published in Science, a journal by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, found this third point to be true. The researchers who conducted the study divided 200 college students into four groups of 50 and had each group study a short science-related passage.
The first group simply read the passage for five minutes; the second group used rote learning by reading the passage for five minutes four consecutive times (20 minutes altogether); the third group used concept mapping by drawing diagrams and using them to link the passage's concepts together; and the fourth group used retrieval practice by reading the passage, taking a recall quiz, and repeating the process once more.
A week after the four groups interacted with the passage in different ways, each student in the study was given a short test regarding the passage's contents. What the researchers found was that students in the fourth group who used retrieval practice retained 50% more of the information from the passage than students in the other groups.
This is why one New York Times headline read, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.
Mentioned in the article for this headline was Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. When asked why he thought the students who used retrieval practice performed better in the study, he said, "When we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access [to the information]. What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”
While this study suggests that retrieval practice is better than other study tactics, it also explains why taking SAT prep courses that involve practice tests is so effective. In other words, reading a book about mastering the critical reading portion of the SAT won't help you as much as taking reading tests similar to those on the real SAT.
When looking through past studies, it's easy to become confused about which study tactic is the best. This is because new studies often disprove the findings of previous studies – much like the retrieval practice study disproved the findings in studies that supported concept mapping's effectiveness. Like concept mapping was found to be one of the most effective kinds of learning in the past, new studies show that retrieval practice is now the most effective.
Regarding research and studies, it's best to adopt the latest and most popular findings as technology and awareness are always improving. And because the latest and greatest amount of studies suggest that retrieval practice is the most effective form of learning, it's wise to use retrieval practice to increase your chance of success, whether you're studying for the SAT, ACT, GED, or other exam.