Several bloggers have been posting about the recently released paper “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept
Mapping” by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt (in Science). Actually most are responding to the New York Times summary of the study, since (as usual) Science wants an arm and a leg to read the article itself. (Unless you are lucky like me and work for a University that pays a million arms and legs to get a library subscription—actually, anyone who lives close enough to a University of California campus can go to the library and read the Science article on-line there.) Luckily, the NY Times author, Pam Belluck, has done a decent job of summarizing the Science article.
The main result (that writing down what one can recall produces more learning in a fixed amount of time than concept mapping does) doesn’t surprise me, as I’ve never seen the point of concept mapping—I did all my learning through problem solving in homework exercises, not from reading notes or cramming.Of course, metacognition (awareness of one’s own thinking) is notoriously poor, so I may have been fooling myself. Indeed the authors observed in their experiment that metacognition is poor even in the context of their experiment:
Students’ judgments of learning were solicited after students had experienced each text in the initial learning phase. In general, students erroneously predicted that elaborative concept mapping would produce better long-term learning than retrieval practice.
Making “concept maps” has always seemed pointless to me, because it bears no relationship to how I recall information. I believed that it served some people, since I know my memory functions differently from many other people (I have no recall memory for faces and poor recall memory for names, for example). So I was interested to see in the article that maybe concept mapping is not the gold standard that education professors make it out to be:
Retrieval practice produced the best learning, better than elaborative studying with concept mapping, which itself was not significantly better than spending additional time reading.
Overall, 101 out of 120 students (84%) performed better on the final test after practicing retrieval than after elaborative studying with concept mapping. … Ninety out of 120 students (75%) believed that elaborative concept mapping would be just as effective or even more effective than practicing retrieval.
The study carefully controlled the type of test being done. Indeed one version of the experiment had the students making a concept map from memory as the test. Even in this setup, designed to give maximum advantage to those who studied by concept mapping, the retrieval practice worked much better (with about 60% more recall, if I’m reading their result graphs right).
One of the best reflections on this article I’ve seen is in the Quantum Progress blog: The NYT on learning: studying notes can be deceiving, where comparisons are made to the hard struggle students make to learn physics and weightlifting is used as a metaphor.