Don't Reread, Recall!

Date Published: 
May 15, 2009

In a May 1, 2009, article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Close the Book. Recall. Write It Down" [sorry--no link--article is closed behind their paywall], an older instructional technology is brought back into the light: 

The scene: A rigorous intro-level survey course in biology, history, or economics. You're the instructor, and students are crowding the lectern, pleading for study advice for the midterm.  If you're like many professors, you'll tell them something like this: Read carefully. Write down unfamiliar terms and look up their meanings. Make an outline. Reread each chapter.  That's not terrible advice. But some scientists would say that you've left out the most important step: Put the book aside and hide your notes. Then recall everything you can. Write it down, or, if you're uninhibited, say it out loud.  Two psychology journals have recently published papers showing that this strategy works, the latest findings from a decades-old body of research. When students study on their own, "active recall" — recitation, for instance, or flashcards and other self-quizzing — is the most effective way to inscribe something in long-term memory.When students study on their own, "active recall" — recitation, for instance, or flashcards and other self-quizzing — is the most effective way to inscribe something in long-term memory.

Mark McDaniel from Washington University has recently published his work in the April (2009) issue of Psychological Science.  The abstract:

Two experiments with college students investigated the effectiveness of the 3R (read-recite-review) strategy for learning from educational texts. The 3R strategy was compared with rereading and note-taking study strategies using free-recall, multiple-choice, and short-answer inference tests immediately after study and after a 1-week delay. In Experiments 1 and 2, 3R improved immediate and delayed free recall of fact-based passages, relative to the rereading and note-taking strategies. In Experiment 2, which used longer, more complex passages on engineering topics, performance on multiple-choice and problem-solving items was better in the 3R than in the rereading condition, and was equivalent in the 3R and note-taking conditions, though 3R took less study time than note taking. An inherent advantage of 3R relative to other testing methods for improving learning is that 3R is under the learner's control. These results indicate that it is also an efficacious study technique that capitalizes on the mnemonic potency of retrieval and feedback.

The Chronicle allowed McDaniel to answer his critics, who claimed that this is an "old model of learning" and that it requires too much "rote memorization."  Said McDaniel, "If you ask people to free-recall, you can generate a better mental model of a subject area, and in turn that can lead to better problem-solving."

Yes!  Isn't that the point?  If students learn the foundational content to begin with, then we can ask them to do the higher order and critical thinking tasks we desire.  Continues McDaniel, "No matter how engaging you make the course, the students need to have the knowledge base to do the inquiry-based problem-solving activities that you've designed."

The idea, therefore, is to equip students with skills that will enable them to succeed.  And this method is under the learner's control.  Seems like a good fit for large classes.


J. Garvey Pyke, Ed.D. | Center for Teaching and Learning | UNC Charlotte