Have you ever had the following experience? You just learned something the other day–or maybe it was even earlier today–and someone asks you a question about the topic. You know you know the answer, but as you open your mouth to answer the question, you stop. Nothing comes out. You squeeze your eyes shut and put your hands over your ears, hoping to shut out everything except your thinking as you struggle to find the answer. You might even say out loud something like, “Wait… wait… I know this!” It’s right there, right on the tip of your tongue, but somehow you can’t spit it out.
Sound familiar? Sure! We’ve all experienced this “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. This LMS common occurrence points out a simple fact about learning and using that learning in your life. And that fact is, there’s a difference between encoding (getting the learning in there in the first place) and retrieval (being able to get it out in usable form when you need it). Clearly, being able to retrieve the learning is just as important as the encoding. After all, what use is the learning if you can’t retrieve it when you need it?
But retrieval is actually much more important in the learning process than this simple explanation makes it sound like. In fact, retrieval plays a major role in consolidating and strengthening the representations of learned material in the brain, and as such, it must be taken into account by teachers if they want to maximize their students’ learning.
How Retrieval Increases Learning
Memory is not as straight forward of a process as most people think. (In fact, memory is not really even a single process. There are actually a number of different processes the brain uses to learn and retain information that we lump together under the umbrella term of “memory,” but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.) One of the aspects of memory about which most people, even most teachers, are unaware is the powerful role played by retrieval.
We store (encode and consolidate) a great deal of information in our brains over our lifetimes. Our long-term memory capacity (unlike our working memory capacity) is virtually limitless, so we don’t have to worry that we will run out of room to store new learning. However, since we can only actually “bring to mind” (that is, bring into conscious working memory) a vanishingly small fraction of that total at a time, the rest must remain unaccessed (unconscious).
The longer it has been since you attempted to access any particular part of your long-term memory, the more difficult it may be to retrieve that information when you need it. On the flip side, the more frequently you recall a particular slice of long-term memory, the stronger those retrieval routes will become, and the easier it will be to retrieve that information the next time you need it. Thus, the periodic retrieval of learning strengthens the pathways to that information and simultaneously weakens the pathways to competing memories. Bottom line? The more often you retrieve something from memory, the more solid the learning.