Study Advice for Students: Getting the Specifics Just Right

If you follow research-based teaching advice, you’ve heard a lot about retrieval practice in recent months.

The headline: if students want to remember information, they shouldn’t review it. That is: they shouldn’t just look it over. (“Ah, yes, the book says here that the Ideal Gas law is PV=nRT.”)

Instead, they should try to remember it first. That is: they should try a mini mental quiz. (“Hmm. What is the Ideal Gas law again? PV = something…let me think for a moment.”)

One great benefit of this research finding: students can do it themselves. All those online testing programs (most famously, Quizlet) can help students self-test rather than simply review.

Timing is Everything

Two days ago, I presented this research to (quite splendid) teachers in Fukuoka, Japan. As they pondered this guidance, one teacher asked a question I’d never heard before. Here’s a paraphrase:

I understand that retrieval practice might promote learning. But, it also might be really discouraging.

If students keep testing themselves, and keep getting the answers wrong, they’ll feel helpless and frustrated.

So: this strategy might increase learning for some students, but paradoxically for other students it might decrease motivation to study.

At the time, my response was: that’s an entirely plausible hypothesis, but I haven’t seen any research into that question. If you the teacher see that retrieval practice is demotivating, you’ll know best when (and how) to switch to something else.

Entirely by coincidence, I found research that addresses that question the very next day.

Kalif Vaughn and Nate Kornell wondered: how does retrieval practice influence motivation? Specifically, does a student’s fear of getting the answer wrong discourage her from relying on retrieval practice?

If yes, can we redirect those motivational processes? And, crucially, can we redirect motivation without sacrificing the benefits of retrieval practice?

The Power of Hints

Vaughn and Kornell started researching the effect of hints. Here’s their thought process:

If I’m nervous about getting a retrieval-practice answer wrong, I might choose simply to review the material instead. (Rather that struggling to remember that PV=something something something, I’ll just look in the book.)

But if I know I’ll get a hint, then I might be willing to try retrieval practice. That is: the hint makes retrieval practice less scary, and so increases my motivation to try it out.

Sure enough, people who had to choose between straight-up retrieval practice and simple review strongly preferred the review. Something like 80% of the time, they reviewed the correct answer. Only 20% of the time did they dare retrieval practice.

However, when they could get a hint, they reviewed only 30% of the time. The other 70%, they tried some form of hint-informed retrieval practice.

That is: by including the hint option, teachers can more than triple the likelihood that students will try retrieval practice. Hints reduce the likelihood of failure, and thereby increase motivation.

The Danger of Hints?

But wait just a minute here.

Past research shows that pure retrieval practice helps students learn and remember. We should admit that hints just might undermine that effect.

In other words, hints could entice students to try self-quizzing, but could reduce the effectiveness of the technique. Ugh.

Happily, Vaughn and Kornell spotted that potential problem, and investigated it.

Their findings: hints didn’t hurt.

In other words: students who did pure retrieval practice, and those who got small hints, and those who got big hints all remembered new information better that students who simply reviewed information.

Based on these findings, the researchers write:

We recommend giving students the option to get hints when they are testing themselves. It will make them choose [retrieval practice] more often, which should increase their learning, and it will also make learning more fun, which might increase their motivation to study. We envision instructors making more use of hints in worksheets, questions at the end of textbook chapters, flashcards, and a variety of digital study aides that resemble Quizlet. The students themselves might also benefit by finding ways to give themselves hints as they test themselves.

Vaugh and Kornell also suggest that the hint option will be more beneficial early in the review process. After a while, students shouldn’t need them anymore to feel confident enough to try retrieval practice.

A final note: the word “hint” here should be interpreted quite broadly. Vaughn & Kornell let students see a few letters of the correct answer; that was their version of “hint.” As teachers, we’ll adapt that general concept to the specifics of our classroom work.

As I say so often: teachers needn’t do what researchers do. Instead, we should think the way they think. That thought process will bring us to our own version of the right answer in our classrooms.

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