Retrieval Practice: Most Powerful eLearning Strategy Overlooked by Organizations


The purpose of this article is to share with employees the most powerful eLearning strategy – retrieval practice in order to help them take charge of their own corporate training endeavor. 

In an extremely competitive world, online learning plays a crucial role in an organization’s ability to acquire the required skills and knowhow. However, only integrating eLearning software is not enough. The organizations should be able to ensure that their LMS program is able to yield the desired results.  A powerful strategy that can make this happen is the retrieval practice that most of the organizations usually overlook. Before we delve into how this powerful technique can help employees retain, recall and implement their acquired knowledge through eLearning, let’s first understand what retrieval practice is.

What is retrieval practice?

Whenever we think of learning, we usually define it as getting any kind of learning content/information into the learner’s head. The traditional method of memorizing the information is by taking notes during the lectures, re-reading the books or learning materials and highlighting the important parts. We have all gone through this phase and tried and tested these methods. That being said, most of us can confess not remembering whatever we had learned in our school and college days. This is because this kind of learning is short-term based. Let alone professionals, even if you randomly ask any final year graduate student to recall materials covered in his first semester, he won’t be able to recall everything. This is where retrieval practice comes to the rescue.

Retrieval practice is a robust eLearning strategy in which feeding information to a learner’s mind boosts his/her ability to grasp learning. By deliberately assessing learners to recall their acquired knowledge helps them know by heart for the rest of their lives. Most of the times, professionals are in a notion they remember everything that they have learned from their online learning programs. However, they struggle to recall any specific technical information at the time of need. It is precisely this struggle that improves their memory. Retrieval practice helps them identify these kinds of learning gaps and exercise over and over again to sharpen their memory.

Retrieval practice: The best eLearning strategy for long-term retention

How can we implement retrieval practice into eLearning solutions? We can derive some key points from a theory postulated by the learning scientists, Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein and put them into practice. As per these scientists,

“You’ve hopefully been documenting your learning throughout this course by making notes or even sketch notes. It will be useful for you to make notes as you read this article ahead of discussion about this week’s research evidence in the next step.”

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As per another learning expert, Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, retrieval practice is a powerful way to improve memory and ultimately meet the objectives of the eLearning courses. Let’s take the example of the 2015 movie, Inside Out, which takes us inside the mind of an 11-year old protagonist, Riley. Her memory is depicted in a way that resonates with many people. Her memories showcase globe-type colored objects depicting different emotions. Whenever Riley experiences an event and creates a new memory, a new colored globe is created in her mind space, rolling down into a bowling alley. On any occasion this young protagonist re-experiences a past event, a globe is placed in a projector and events are replayed.

Cognitive scientists refer to this kind of mental process that creates new memories and retrieves the past memories in an encoding and retrieval procedure.

Reason why organizations have overlooked retrieval practice

retrieval practice graph

Unfortunately, not many organizations consider retrieval practice as a must-have feature in their eLearning strategy. The results shown in the above graph indicate that learners usually prefer the repetitive reading of notes or textbooks, often referred to as ‘rote learning’. It is simple memorization based on repetition, which is short-lived and is often misunderstood for retrieval practice. Rote learning is poorly organized and doesn’t have the ability to transfer knowledge, make inferences or resolve any new issues.

In contrast, retrieval practice is a meaningful eLearning strategy. It is long-lasting, coherent, durable, well organized and supports knowledge transfer and solves problems rationally.

Creating retrieval-based eLearning activities

Perhaps the best-proven aspect of retrieval-based learning is that it is free. While there is a myriad of bleeding-edge tools available to implement eLearning activities just as classroom clicker systems. (These are classroom response systems consisting of hardware and software that assist learning activities. They typically include a small, battery-powered handheld device just like a TV remote with that connects to a receiver) and other computer-based learning systems; retrieval practice does not require any kind of special technology.

The essence of retrieval practice in your existing LMS is enabling your employees to gather materials they’re trying to learn. They should then keep these materials aside and instead spend more time actively in retrieving the information they’ve already acquired from their online learning courses.

The traditional eLearning strategies should be replaced with retrieval-based learning activities. Let’s take an example -questionnaire and quiz sessions in the LMS course are effective ways to practice retrieval. There may be situations where employees might try to answer questions by looking up to the information in their notes or learning materials instead of attempting to retrieve the answers. This type of practice can be referred to as open-book questioning. On the other hand, there are employees who would prefer to retrieve the answers without referring to their materials – this kind of practice is closed-book questioning. 

Open-book conditions usually lead to short-term memories. Closed-book practice encourages retrieval practice and is more effective than open-book quizzes, which do not require learners to engage in retrieval.

Here are the key takeaways from this post –
  • Practicing recoup during the eLearning program can effectively boost long-term and meaning learning
  • Retrieval practice is still overlooked by most of the organizations while integrating LMS solutions
  • When practicing recoup, learner should retrieve more than once instead of massing them all together. Self-testing as a knowledge check is a good idea. Employees should not stop at just one successful retrieval. Moreover, two or three additional spaced retrievals will bolster long-term learning
  • The existing learning activities may be converted into retrieval-based learning activities. The key ingredient is to spend time actively retrieving when trying to learn something new
To conclude…

Our final piece of advice is to start small. You’ll still get benefits of retrieval practice without spending too much time in a classroom discussion. What has your experience been as a learner or designer with retrieval-based learning? Please comment below.

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